After sending a rocket through the ranks of Canada’s military last summer warning that sexual misconduct will no longer be tolerated, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is cautiously reporting signs of a turnaround.
Six months later the Canadian Armed Forces has taken a hard look at its curriculum and training, top commanders have been through awareness training, and personnel are being urged to report sexual assault, harassment and misconduct.
“We are beginning to see early progress,” Vance reported this week, “but we are still far from where we need to be.”
That’s a fair assessment. The military has a tough slog ahead.
Too many women in uniform have had to cope with a corrosive, misogynistic workplace where they faced crude jokes, porn, voyeurism, unwanted advances, hostility, sexual harassment and assault. It was all detailed in a searing report last year by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps. She also found the military to be hostile toward gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. Deschamps put forward thoughtful recommendations to address a toxic cultural problem that has sapped morale and scared off recruits.
On Vance’s watch the military has rolled out “Operation Honour,” with a view to promoting “heightened awareness” of the issue and cultivating a culture change in the ranks. “Op Honour,” he told the Toronto Star’s Bruce Campion-Smith, is no flash in the pan. It “goes forever.”
As a practical step, a Sexual Misconduct Response Centre has been set up to offer some help. “It’s being used,” Vance reports. “If a victim calls the centre and wants there to be an investigation, there will be an investigation.”
Slowly, troops are coming forward. The centre fielded questions from 204 people in the last four months of 2015, including 156 members of the military. Of those, 53 were concerned about a sexual offence and 32 about sexual harassment. The centre referred 23 cases to the military police. Six investigations were opened last year and two more so far this year. It’s a start.
Still, these are small numbers, given the Canadian Force’s 87,000 members, some 10,000 of whom are women. That suggests trust continues to be an issue. Complainants may fear reprisals. That’s a problem, in light of the military’s goal to have women comprise 25 per cent of the ranks, up from roughly 15 per cent.
Moreover the military has yet to come up with a clear definition of sexual misconduct, as Deschamps urged.
Nor do the forces have a real handle on the scope of the problem. Statistics Canada will conduct a survey in the spring.
Finally, the centre itself is less than what Deschamps envisaged. She urged a robust, fully “independent centre … outside the CAF” that would field complaints, support victims, actively advocate for them in investigations and monitor accountability. While the centre does operate outside the chain of command, it is still firmly within the defence department, reporting to a deputy minister.
And its advocacy role is limited. Chiefly, it offers a sympathetic ear and counselling by phone or email, on a 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday basis, and it steers callers to other resources and complaint mechanisms. It can’t always protect personal information. And callers with complaints about sexual misconduct or assault are advised to contact the military police, or civilian police.
Vance should be prepared to give the centre a broader, more activist mandate if that’s what it takes to build the required trust. Sometimes a sympathetic ear isn’t enough.
As Vance recognizes, the military has “only just begun this mission,” and engineering cultural change will take time. For now, he hopes that people who might once have shrugged off abuse, or just sucked it up, will come forward and report it. Criminality will be dealt with through the military or civilian justice systems, and harassment through a soon-to-be-reformed disciplinary process.
It’s a credible first assault on a steep hill. The military should keep its sights high, and keep climbing.