HALIFAX — The sexual misconduct crisis afflicting Canada's military is hurting recruitment and morale in the ranks, Anita Anand said Friday as she used one of her first public addresses as Canada's new defence minister to lay out her priorities for the position.
Top of that list was what Anand described as significant and lasting change to the military's culture as the Armed Forces faces a crisis of confidence following complaints of inappropriate and in some cases criminal sexual behaviour involving senior officers.
It was in this context that Anand, who took over as defence minister last month from Harjit Sajjan, who was criticized for not doing more to address such behaviour among the top brass, noted the damage wrought on the military — and why culture change is her primary concern.
"This crisis is hurting morale and recruitment in the Canadian Armed Forces," she said in an address to Canadian and foreign delegates during the opening of the annual Halifax International Security Forum, which runs through the weekend.
"And I believe that in order for our military to be effective, our troops must feel safe, they must feel protected, and they must feel respected wherever they are, whatever they are doing."
Anand's speech came just under a month after she was named defence minister, becoming only the second woman to take the position after Kim Campbell held it for six months in 1993.
It also came two weeks after Anand announced she had accepted retired Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour's recent call to transfer the investigation and prosecution of military sexual misconduct cases to civilian authorities.
The minister reiterated her decision on Friday, saying the move "demonstrates that we are serious."
"I am serious and committed to transparent institutions free from conflicts of interest," she said. "This is a first step. There's no quick fix that will make these problems go away overnight."
Among those in attendance in Halifax was Gen. Wayne Eyre, the former Canadian Army commander who has been serving as acting chief of the defence staff since February, when Adm. Art McDonald stepped down due to a military police investigation into his conduct.
McDonald has since called for the government to reinstate him after military police opted not to charge him, but the government instead put him on administrative leave and promoted Eyre.
Anand later declined to provide any update on who will become the permanent defence chief or when a decision will be made, though she did take umbrage with a letter that McDonald recently sent to other senior officers making his case for reinstatement.
"The appointment of the CDS is an appointment that the prime minister makes," she said in response to a reporter's question. "I will say on the issue of Admiral McDonald that I found the letter that he wrote inappropriate."
While Anand spent the first part of her address focusing on sexual misconduct in the ranks, she later went out of her way to underscore the important work that the Canadian military has been doing as the current crisis has been raging.
That included contributing hundreds of troops to long-term care facilities early in the COVID-19 pandemic, helping distribute vaccines in dozens of remote communities, and responding to more than a dozen natural disasters over the past two years.
The most recent is this week's disastrous flooding in B.C., where the first of what will likely end up being hundreds of troops have started to arrive from Edmonton to help with evacuations, sandbagging and other emergency tasks.
Anand also underscored the role Canadian troops are playing overseas, including in the Asia-Pacific region, where she noted Canadian warships have maintained a "solid presence," which includes several traverses of the Taiwan Strait.
While much of the world considers the 180-kilometre strait to be international waters, Beijing claims ownership of the strait separating mainland China from Taiwan and has repeatedly condemned such passages by warships from the U.S., Canada and elsewhere as illegal.
Anand also recommitted to the Liberal government's defence strategy, which was released in 2017 and includes a plan to dramatically increase military spending over the next 20 years to expand the size of the Armed Forces and purchase new equipment.
There have been some concerns in military circles that the government could scale back that planned spending if and when it starts looking for ways to cut the federal deficit, which has soared to record highs during the pandemic.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.
— Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa, with files from Danielle Edwards in Halifax.
The Canadian Press