Q&A: Rear Admiral Angus Topshee addresses 'moment of reckoning' over sexual misconduct in Armed Forces

·5 min read
Rear Admiral Angus Topshee pictured when he held the rank of commodore. Topshee says he is committed to creating a safe and inclusive culture within every unit of the Maritime Forces Pacific in the wake of several sexual misconduct investigations involving high-ranking military personnel. (CBC News - image credit)
Rear Admiral Angus Topshee pictured when he held the rank of commodore. Topshee says he is committed to creating a safe and inclusive culture within every unit of the Maritime Forces Pacific in the wake of several sexual misconduct investigations involving high-ranking military personnel. (CBC News - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers might find distressing.

The man in command of the Maritime Forces Pacific, Rear Admiral Angus Topshee, says the Canadian Armed Forces is in the midst of a reckoning.

Since early February, 11 current and former military leaders have been sidelined, investigated or forced into retirement from some of the most powerful and prestigious posts in the defence establishment due to a series of sexual misconduct investigations.

To discuss the effect the investigations and allegations are having on those serving their country on the West Coast, CBC host Gregor Craigie spoke with Topshee at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What impact are the misconduct investigations having on morale?

A: The first concern always has to be for those affected by the behaviour and this is both a current issue and a long-standing issue.

A 2015 external review made clear that this was a long-standing problem that we have not come to terms with as quickly as we should have and I think we're in our moment of reckoning right now.

That's a positive in the sense that it's going to force us to truly confront this and make the changes we need but, at the same time, it's disappointing we haven't been able to do a lot of these things sooner.

How do you lead through a moment of reckoning like that?

Obviously there are decisions that need to be made at the most senior levels about the resolution of some of the investigations that are ongoing that are likely going to be decided beyond my expanded control.

What I need to focus on is creating the right culture and climate within every unit of Maritime Forces Pacific.

The direction I've given to the team is we're not going to really worry about what ultimately happens to Admiral McDonald or any of the other ones who are under investigation. We're going to let that process play out.

Meanwhile, every commanding officer, every member of a command team, is responsible for maintaining the right culture within their units and that's where I intend to hold them accountable.

At the same time, we're working to be as transparent as possible at how we're dealing with all of these complex issues. It sometimes can seem simple how to address these problems, but it's very often a complex thing to try to unpack an incident or an allegation to fully understand what happens and the best way to deal with that.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Are there adequate mechanisms to deal with sexual misconduct in the military?

The regulations that existed have always been strong and powerful. The problem is we fell out of the habit of using them effectively and actually holding people accountable.

What we haven't been successful at is making sure that when that initial response has failed, we hold the people further up the chain of command accountable for not delivering immediate action.

We were not using the tools we have and people lost trust in us. So, we need to make sure they still continue to trust things like the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and that they know how to access the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service when appropriate.

We're at a point where some people have lost confidence in anything that has the tinge of military, so how we make sure they are comfortable reporting to someone so that it can get investigated and looked at is one of the challenges we are facing.

You've been in the military for 30-plus years. How have things changed or evolved since then?

I joined as a naval warfare officer in 1996 and half the trainees were men and half were women. None of those women are still in that trade and three of those men have gone on to reach senior ranks in the navy.

When I look at that, that's not because of differences in talent. That's because of systemic factors that made those women choose different options or be pushed toward different options. That showed me long ago we had a problem we had to address and we've been slow to do it.


Do you have specific suggestions that could have changed the outcome of your class in 1996?

I think a more effective mechanism to recognize and address systemic misogyny and harassment would have really made a tremendous difference.

Now that I'm in a position where I have control over things like that, I'm determined to make sure that that type of situation never occurs again and that we create an inclusive, diverse, welcoming workforce where everybody is able to truly maximize their potential.

As someone in charge of training and education, what do you notice about new recruits?

People who join the Canadian Armed Forces reflect society, so we have all types and we do find some people who don't really understand the values that we espouse in terms of duty, loyalty, integrity and courage.

When we find these people, we tell them if they can't adhere to our values, then they're not welcome in our institution and we tend to be fairly successful in eliminating that in basic training at this point.

The other thing is that we see more recruits coming in with a much more advanced perspective on gender expression and gender identity. It's not an issue at all for people of a younger generation. And there's that energy comes in — that acceptance of diversity is fantastic to see in the young Canadians joining the forces now.

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