Crisis at home for Canada’s Armed Forces

How can we protect women’s rights abroad but not within our own ranks?
By: /
May 28, 2015

The review on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) submitted by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps and released to the public on April 30, is unequivocal in its findings: the military has perpetuated a culture that is conducive to the abuse of women in its ranks.

It may strike many as ironic that protecting women’s rights has been a central part of the narrative of recent military operations, yet the CAF has been more than once plagued by sexual misconduct scandals. This time, Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson (and his soon-to-be successor Lt-Gen Vance), should accept that this is an endemic problem within the organization and get to work.

Moreover, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Jason Kenney need to set clear directives on what to do next. So far, they’ve been on the sidelines of public debates. The burden of the response has been assigned to Major-General Chris Whitecross and the Chief Warrant Officer, who are tasked with reviewing the report’s recommendations and proposing a detailed action plan.

As Whitecross herself admits, the report is controversial within the military, even divisive. Testifying in a parliamentary committee on May 25, she noted that there was little consensus within the military as to the gravity of sexual misconduct within the Armed Forces. This complacent attitude, even at the highest levels of military leadership, sends the wrong message to CAF members.

Instead, service members of all ranks should be appalled by the report’s findings and think about what they can do to change the culture so that the very best professional standard, which is what Canadians expect of their military, can be upheld. Yes, the evidence gathered by Deschamps is highly critical. The only thing that can hurt the CAF more now is to do nothing. Especially damaging are comments by military observers who say they’ve never witnessed such abuse in the CAF. Even if true, these types of remarks are not constructive. At best, this reaction comes of as naïve; at worse, defensive. The report’s release is a unique opportunity for civilian and military leaders to act decisively in favour of change.

Three actions strike me as urgent:

  1. Involve all levels of the military. The focus on senior military leadership that we have seen in the media, though essential, is insufficient. Service members in lower ranks can and should participate in changing the peer-pressure dynamics that have left victims of sexual misconduct and abuse both professionally and socially excluded. The recent anti-bullying campaigns in Canada and the United States have demonstrated that meaningful change can occur when you empower individuals instead of simply deferring to authority figures.

  2. More and better training. Gender-awareness training within the Canadian Armed Forces needs an overhaul. The Deschamps report shows that the current approach is not taken seriously, or worse, derided. A new training program, designed in collaboration with external experts, should educate CAF members on how everyone’s participation is needed to uphold the highest professional standard. Training should also focus on how that standard is to be consistently enforced in the professional environment that is to emerge in the aftermath of the Deschamps report. Gender-awareness courses should be evidence-based and draw on better data collection from a new incident reporting mechanism that sits outside of the chain of command.

  3. Complacency must not be tolerated. Finally, for training to be internalized, it should strike a cord: this means integrating interactive exercises, testimonies and assessment approaches that put the emphasis on the individual’s duties and responsibilities, as much as the organization’s. Training and education can be a mechanism through which individual service members are shown that complacency will not be tolerated. As the Australian Chief of Army has told his own forces following reports of sexual misconduct in the Australian Defence Force: “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
In a relatively short term, the remedies of improved reporting and more targeted training have to be swiftly implemented and consistently monitored. In the medium-to-long term, the CAF have an interest in addressing the underlying cause of sexual misconduct, which is the lack of respect for women’s abilities, as noted in the Deschamps report. There is a clearly identifiable vicious cycle at play: women are under-represented in the CAF, which makes them more vulnerable as a peer group and subject to tolerating abuse. This, in turn, contributes to poor retention and does nothing to attract more women to join.

The hostile attitude toward women in the military, as described in the report, adds to the stressors female service members face. On deployment, many women will have to face sexual assault from their fellow male soldiers and even “friendlies,” in addition to fighting the enemy.

If the long-term solution is about changing the military culture, the key question moving forward is how to make more room for women in the armed forces, recognizing that a diverse force will strengthen the organization, as has been the case in other male-dominated professional environments. This cannot be achieved if the majority of Deschamps’ recommendations are only accepted ‘in principle.’