Sexual misconduct, abuse of power, adultery and secrecy: What I witnessed in Canada’s military

Karyne Gélinas, PhD Student, Business Administration, Saint Mary’s University
·5 min read
<span class="caption">Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson manages military personnel command, which gives him authority over career consequences for military members found to have engaged in sexual misconduct, he is on indefinite leave with pay after being accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang</span></span>
Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson manages military personnel command, which gives him authority over career consequences for military members found to have engaged in sexual misconduct, he is on indefinite leave with pay after being accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

As a female veteran observing reports of sexual misconduct among senior Canadian Armed Forces officers, I have been forced to make sense of my own experience.

Over the years, I witnessed firsthand the culture of secrecy and adultery that isn’t spoken of outside military circles. Everyone knows it happens, yet everyone remains quiet. The “no fraternization” policy is treated as a suggestion and rarely enforced. It is widely understood that “what happens in deployment, exercise or training, stays there.”

Something is wrong with Canada’s military. From the recent testimony given in parliamentary committee on the handling of the Gen. Jonathan Vance investigation, to a senior military commander being under investigation after being accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate, and the Liberal government’s recent shutdown of the probe into sexual misconduct. My doctoral research since leaving the military has led me to conclude that the military unconsciously fosters a culture of sexual misconduct, abuse of power, adultery and secrecy.

Consequences and failed regulations

Both women and men participate in these behaviours. It feels as though it’s widely accepted, so much so it borders on being encouraged. The accepted sexual behaviours in the Forces can have severe consequences beyond harassment. And like everyone else, I went along with it. I entered a “pact of secrecy” and became part of the problem by being a bystander.

In 2015, following a Supreme Court Justice report on sexual misconduct in the military, Operation HONOUR was established to “eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviours,” within the Forces, including LGBTQ2+ discrimination.

Six years later, Operation HONOUR has ended despite multiple high-ranking officers facing accusations of sexual misconduct.

There is an undeniable need for a culture change. However, the problem will not be fixed through the force-feeding approach of continuously creating regulations and policies to establish the desired culture — that has proven to be ineffective.

A different approach

The literature is scarce when examining the military outside of mechanistic and cultural perspectives.

A theoretical approach to understanding the military is to adopt organizational theorist Gareth Morgan’s psychic prison metaphor. This idea implies an unconscious power structure acts as a control measure.

Morgan says, “powerful visions of the future can lead to blind spots,” and strong groupthink can lead to organizational pathology, which addresses internal aspects of an organization that has become dysfunctional, counterproductive, inefficient, disruptive or destabilizing.

Morgan’s psychic prison metaphor tells us that cultural structures, rules, behaviours and beliefs define the organization and are “personal in the most profound sense.” By using the psychic prison metaphor to understand military organization, we might be able to better understand the military culture and its taken-for-granted assumptions, and determine a better way to address the needed change. It “encourages us to recognize that rationality is often irrationality in disguise” and “plays a powerful role in drawing attention to the ethical dimension of organization.”

When I was a new junior officer, I filed my first complaint of misconduct, which led to five other individuals coming forward. As punishment, the person the complaints were against was asked to write an apology letter. Years later, he bragged about the paper trail being removed before his posting. I took this information up my chain of command and was told that it was in the past.

Despite this misconduct reoccurring with other members, nothing was ever done.

That instance made me lose faith in the system. I never filed another complaint of misconduct again, and kept telling myself it was either “not bad enough,” that “I could handle it,” or I would deem it “OK, it was the alcohol.” I had become a prisoner of the psychic prison.

In an interview with Global News, Navy Lt. Heather Macdonald (who alleges misconduct against Canada’s defence chief) says she is bothered that someone in a “trusted position” has such “weak ethics and values” to leak her allegations to the press. She believes “that what process we have needs to remain fair, and everybody including me should have due process.”

In saying that, Lt. Macdonald is unconsciously protecting the institution as I did. She believes that the leak will affect the due process but it’s the same process that has failed time and time again.

The psychic prison, while not visible, manifests itself through our actions. Our silence perpetuates the issue. In the Forces, we are taught to protect the mission and the institution, before self. The psychic prison unconsciously traps us all: victims are afraid to speak out, aggressors face little retribution and bystanders simply turn a blind eye.

Towards a culture change

The bulk of Canadian Armed Forces’ research focuses on the measurable and the visible, but only scratches the surface of what the military culture truly is. I believe there are deeper levels of understanding to be reached, and the psychic prison offers a new approach for understanding the embedded inequalities and misconducts.

Undoubtedly, the first step is to identify and acknowledge the presence of such a strong power structure. But a permanent change will only be possible once we understand the unconscious level and the invisible forces imposed on members.

Acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre is on the right track when he said “the gaps are becoming apparent, such as power dynamics and understanding the use and abuse of power in a hierarchy like our own.” But until he sees how everyone colludes consciously and unconsciously in perpetuating these dynamics, nothing will change.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Karyne Gélinas, Saint Mary’s University.

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Karyne Gélinas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.