Top brass from the Canadian Armed Forces were on the defensive Thursday following the release of an external investigation that found a prevalence of under-reported sexual harassment and assault and a culture of “misogyny” in the military.
“There is an undeniable problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the CAF, which requires direct and sustained action,” said the report by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Marie Deschamps.
Another major problem was that military leaders didn’t know how bad the problem was in their ranks, the report suggests. One of the main reasons for that disconnect is the very structure of military and its methods of dealing with problems.
“During the course of this Review, it became clear that one of the functions of the chain of command is to address problems before they reach the attention of senior leaders,” the report concluded.
“While there may be logic to this structure in many areas of military life, in the case of sexual harassment and assault the unfortunate effect is to stifle complaints and leave problems unresolved. It also means that some senior leaders are genuinely unaware of the extent of the inappropriate sexual conduct that is occurring on the ground, the harm to individual members, and the damage to the CAF as a whole.”
The problem is so entrenched in the military that the report’s first of 10 recommendations was to state simply that the military needs to acknowledge “inappropriate sexual conduct is a serious problem that exists in the CAF and undertake to address it.”
“The first step is for the Canadian Forces leadership to demonstrate to members that they acknowledge this problem is real and that they will take the necessary actions to tackle the issue,” Deschamps told the news conference.
She also strongly recommended the creation of a centre for victims “that is truly independent of the armed forces” to give them a place to report incidents and receive counsel – a model used by the U.S., Australia and France.
The military received the report a month ago and announced it would immediately adopt the first two of the recommendations and study the others.
* Acknowledge that inappropriate sexual conduct is a serious problem that exists in the CAF and undertake to address it.
* Establish a strategy to effect cultural change to eliminate the sexualized environment and to better integrate women, including a gender-based analysis of CAF policies.
* Create an independent centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment outside of the military
* Allow members to report incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault to the centre or simply request support services without the obligation to trigger a formal complaint process.
* Develop simplified policies and a broad definition of sexual harassment
* Simplify the complaint process
* Allow victims of sexual assault to request the transfer of the complaint to civilian authorities
Top general, Defence Minister respond
“We are going to take the time now to look very carefully bring them into force,” said Gen. Tom Lawson, chief of defence staff. “There is no question, let me be very clear, that all 10 of the recommendations that Madame Deschamps has put forward, we understand the intent and we will achieve that intent.”
But when asked to explain why the military’s “action plan” needs to continue studying recommendations, Lawson said he is confident many of the tools to improve the situation for female members of the forces are already in place.
“We believe we have in place right now a very committed set of social workers, military police and a chain of command that very much considers it their business to look after their members.”
Gen. Lawson testified before a Parliamentary committee a year ago that there was no need for sweeping changes to address the problems. He admitted during Thursday’s news conference that there were indicators a year ago suggesting harassment was “at historic lows.”
“These things may not have been working at the level we had confidence in,” Lawson said. “So these 10 recommendations and the action items …will help to accelerate that improvement.”
Defence Minister Jason Kenney, on the eve of the announcement, said the military’s response to the report is “comprehensive and aggressive in underscoring that there is zero tolerance for sexual abuse, sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces,“ Kenney told CBC’s Power & Politics.
The report said the Forces need to engage in broad-based cultural reform to change the “underlying norms of conduct” that give rise to harassment, a hostile environment for women and LGTBQ members, and, in some cases, “serious and traumatic incidents of sexual assault.”
“Dismissive responses such as “this is just the way of the military” are no longer appropriate,” the report concluded.
The military can no longer afford to accept lower standards for sexual conduct than those that apply to Canadians at large, said the report.
“Not only must leaders serve as role models, but they must also intervene personally where inappropriate conduct occurs. Senior leaders, in particular, must drive the process of cultural reform by engaging in initiatives to prevent inappropriate sexual conduct, and to rebuild the trust of CAF members.”
One of the ways to improve the leadership culture is to ensure more women are elevated to the “most senior roles,” the report stated.
However, Deschamps acknowledged it will not be easy to achieve rebuilding members’ trust in military leadership and reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
“Such goals require strong leadership and sustained commitment. But they are essential to the development of a modern military organization that not only embraces the principle of respect for human dignity, but is also able to optimize on the skills and talents of all its members. The Canadian public expects it, and CAF members deserve it.”
Deschamps said she is optimistic the culture will improve because of the willingness of the Canadian military to take a hard look at its own practices and procedures.
Lawson promised the military will make it a priority from leaders down to new recruits to fix the problem.
“The situation therefore will require a sustained effort from across the Canadian Forces for an extended period of time – we’re not talking about days and weeks, but months and years.”