Friday, June 17, 2022

Plague of sexual misconduct in Canadian military cannot be solved internally -- Parliament must act

For the past two and one half decades, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF)  has received a cascade of warnings about the deep-seated crisis of rampant sexual misconduct in its ranks. There are no less than 13 senior Canadian military officers - current and former- who have been sidelined, investigated, or forced into early retirement. This includes two former Chiefs of the Defence Staff; four lieutenant-generals, two major generals,

So far, very little has changed.  The existing crisis is having a certain impact on recruiting and retention as well as the hard earned reputation of the Canadian Armed Forces. 

Shown below is a summary of the events that fuel the current crisis in leadership of the Canadian military.



A few months after the 1997 publication of “Dishonored Legacy” a report by a Commission of Inquiry which addressed the lessons of the Somalia Affair under the themes of leadership and discipline failures, cover-up by the chain of command and a lack of accountability, the Canadian media alerted the public to this toxic matter. MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE published four cover stories in 1998 under such titles such as: “Rape in the Military“; “Of Rape and Justice“; and, “Speaking Out”. 

Astonishingly, in response to this crisis affecting both the safety and integrity of soldiers as well as the reputation of the institution, in 1998 Cabinet suddenly transferred the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults to the military under the pretext to “enable the military to deal with the incidents swiftly for the sake of unit cohesion.”  In plain language this meant that ‘unit cohesion’ – an euphemism for military control – was to take precedence over the safety, integrity and dignity of soldiers. Other warnings followed. 

·Fo    For instance, the 2010 high-profile sexual assaults of Colonel Russell Williams brought vivid attention to this issue. At the time of his arrest, Colonel Williams was acting as the Commander, Canadian Forces Base Trenton. Colonel Williams was sentenced to two life sentences for first-degree murder, two 10-year sentences for other sexual assaults, two 10-year sentences for forcible confinement, and 82 one-year sentences for breaking and entering, all to be served concurrently

 In April 2014, MACLEAN’s published another major cover story titled “Our Military’s Disgrace“.  In 2015, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on the existence of a sexualized culture at the Royal Military College (RMC). In February 2016, CBC television broadcasted a French-speaking documentary "Femmes au combat” [Women in Combat] in which five female soldiers denounced the lack of action taken by the military in response to their sexual assaults by fellow soldiers. This was quickly followed in 2015 by a strings of media reports about sexual misconduct at the RMC.  However, except for the occasional comment in the House of Commons, parliamentarians appear satisfied to let the military “deal” with the problem!

 A manifest example of this “leave it to the military” attitude was created in April 2015 when  Parliament enacted the Canadian Victims Bills of Rights which at sub-section 18(3) excluded victims whose offenders were investigated and prosecuted by the military. Stupendously, until June 2022 victims of sexual assault whose offenders were prosecuted before a military tribunal were denied the protection of this Act. They were alone in Canada having to fend for themselves.  


Also, in 2015 an External Review on Sexual Misconduct was conducted by the Honorable Marie Deschamps,  a retired Supreme Court Justice. Not surprisingly, Deschamps found that a large percentage of incidents of sexual misconduct were not reported. There was a deep mistrust by the victims that the military did not take their complaints seriously and that such conduct was generally ignored, or even condoned, by the chain of command. Victims feared negative repercussions, lack of career progression, expressing concern about not being believed, being stigmatized as weak, labeled as a trouble-maker, being subjected to retaliation by peers and supervisors, and/or diagnosed as unfit for work. Deschamps also found that the Military Police lacked the appropriate skills and training to deal with sexual-assault victims.

 In the wake of this report, the then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, launched Operation Honour and opened an in-house reporting center. This is, in essence, the military’s plan of action. It turned out to be a failure.


Then in November 2016, Statistics Canada – a national statistical office - published the results of a survey on sexual misconduct in the military. The responses received from over 43,000 members did not bring anything new to the table. However, it brought forward ‘certainty‘ about the scope and severity of the matter. Consider: a)  among Regular Force members, 27.3% of women and 3.8% of men had been victims of sexual assault at least once since enrolling; b) about 960 members had been victims of sexual assault in the previous 12 months; and, c)  49% of women who were victims of sexual assault identified their supervisor or someone of a higher rank as the perpetrator.


In 2017, the Office of the Auditor General – an officer or the Parliament of Canada - conducted an audit of the Royal Military College (RMC) which focused on, inter alia, whether National Defence ensured the proper conduct of officers and staff. Proper conduct includes the responsibility to obey the law, enforce military discipline, and uphold professional and ethical standards of duty, loyalty, integrity, and courage. The audit concluded that the RMC’s governance was ineffective. It also found that RMC did not provide effective military leadership training, guidance, and mentoring to Officer Cadets. It opined that this may have contributed to the large percentage of incidents of sexual misconduct among senior Officer Cadets

In 2018,  the Office of the Auditor General weighed in with a new report aimed at determining whether the military actually have taken adequate measures to cope with the issue of sexual misconduct including the provision of support to victims of sexual misconduct. According to the AG, the CAF provided some support services to victims, but these services were sometimes difficult to obtain and not all stakeholders were adequately trained to assist victims.  Also, it found there were significant gaps persisted and that it was not always easy for victims to access the services they needed in a timely manner. The AG concluded that the military has not always dealt with the reported incidents in a timely, consistent and respectful manner. The AG report is a clear signal that the military simply cannot solve this twenty years’ crisis on their own.

                               PART II - THE WAY AHEAD


In 2021, retired Madam Justice Louise Arbour of the Supreme Court of Canada conducted an independent review for the purpose of shedding light on the causes for the continued presence of harassment and sexual misconduct and identify barriers to reporting inappropriate behaviour and to assess the adequacy of the response when reports are made.  

Arbour was also recommending the "rethinking' of the training of  cadets at the military colleges. “The continued prevalence of sexual misconduct at the military colleges is well documented, and I think it’s harder to address these issues there than in a civilian environment,” continues Arbour. However, and not surprisingly, there is already a movement afoot inside the military to prevent such a change of venue.

Also in response, the current Minister of National Defence, Anita Anand, said that her ministry will be moving to implement 17 of her  48 recommendations made by Justice Arbour in her report.  Not included in those 17 is the recommendation is Justice Arbour’s key recommendation that the military should give up controlof sexual assault cases.  

This proposed change is foundational and essential to bring about the required changes of accountability and transparency to the management of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military.  Yet, remarkably, already there are early signs suggesting that this dominant recommendation is likely again to fall by the wayside.


Parliament must now assume leadership to both provide military members with a safe workplace allowing them to maintain their physical and mental integrity and to preserve the character and reputation of the armed forces as a disciplined, professional force.  As a matter of priority, the National Defence Act must be immediately amended to return jurisdiction for sexual assaults to civil courts. 


As importantly, the time has come to appoint a civilian personality as the first Inspector General of the Armed Forces who would act as an advisor to the Minister of National Defence and Parliament to specifically deal with this issue leaving the CDS to concentrate on the performance of his military missions and tasks. Such an appointment  was strongly recommended in 1997 by the Honourable Mr. Justice Gilles Létourneau, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment to Somalia:

“Control by Parliament is essential to democracy in Canada and to the well-being of the relationship between the CAF and society, […] There are no routine reports to Parliament by the CDS and DND beyond those provided during the annual departmental estimates process. This handicaps Parliament in its role of supervising military affairs because it does not have easy access to critical analyses of defence matters. […] The Inspector General of the Armed Forces should be appointed by the Governor in Council and make accountable to Parliament. He should be a civilian and have broad authority to inspect, investigate, and report on all aspects of national defence and the armed forces.”

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