OTTAWA — The Canadian military needs outside oversight to deal with a pattern of failure to stop sexual misconduct in the ranks, several experts on the problem say.
“You have protracted media coverage of this issue and you see a number of articles go out, and then you see a zero-tolerance statement and then it kind of dies down,” said Megan MacKenzie, who studies military sexual misconduct at Simon Fraser University in B.C.
“And you can map that pattern over and over for three decades.”
The calls come after allegations against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, who spent his five years as Canada’s top commander driving efforts to end sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces.
Vance is now accused of having himself acted inappropriately while in uniform, allegations he has denied.
Military police, who recently revealed they investigated Vance’s conduct before he was made chief of the defence staff in 2015 but did not lay any charges, have launched an investigation of the new allegations.
The Liberal government has promised an independent review that has yet to be launched weeks after the allegations first surfaced, while a House of Commons committee is studying Vance’s conduct and how the government reacted to it.
Military commanders have long argued the Armed Forces is a unique institution and only those who have worn a uniform truly understand what makes it tick — implying outside interference could hurt its ability to defend Canada.
Experts like MacKenzie say it is all part of a pattern that ultimately leaves the Armed Forces no further ahead and service members still at risk.
Those same experts say what is needed is not more studies or zero-tolerance declarations from the brass — which is how Admiral Art McDonald, Vance’s successor, responded to the allegations — but real oversight and accountability for the military.
That could start with finally implementing a recommendation first made six years ago, when the Armed Forces was last struggling with allegations of a toxic, sexualized culture: the creation of an independent centre to hold the military to account for sexual assault and harassment.
The recommendation was the centrepiece of retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps’s plan to address the problem. She carried out a months-long investigation that was requested by the military and produced a scathing report in 2015 on the extent of the problem.
“It isn’t the silver bullet in dealing with culture change and all that,” said MacKenzie. “But I think it is the most obvious, clearest path forward towards some kind of sense that there’s accountability.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan and his NDP counterpart Randall Garrison, both of whom sit on the House of Commons committee that is studying the allegations against Vance, have voiced support for an independent centre like the one Deschamps recommended.
Military commanders have long resisted such an external oversight body, upon which seven of Deschamps’s 10 recommendations were based, and successive governments tacitly sided with them by leaving the Armed Forces to manage the issue on its own.
The federal government did set up what is known as the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre in September 2015. Part of the civilian arm of the Department of National Defence, it provides support for victims and information to military leaders.
“But it’s not about accountability,” said Maya Eichler, an expert on military sexual misconduct at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “It never was, and it never can be.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokesman Todd Lane said the Liberal government expanded the SMRC’s mandate in 2019 to take a more holistic look at sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces.
“Changes to the SMRC, including greater independence, may be considered by the previously announced independent review,” Lane added in reference to a review of the military justice system currently being conducted by retired Supreme Court justice Morris Fish.
Those interviewed suggest this is part of a pattern going back to the 1990s, when the issue of sexual misconduct in the ranks first made headlines, and is part of a broader problem with the military’s reluctance to accept outside oversight.
“The Canadian Armed Forces have had extreme discretion on the direction that the organization should take since the Cold War,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, who has studied gender integration in the Forces. “They’ve had that licence to kind of decide what they want to do.”
The military has had some new forms of accountability imposed on it over the years.
Following the Somalia scandal, in which Canadian troops tortured and killed a Somali teenager while they were supposed to be helping put down a civil war, the government set up the Office of the National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman in 1998.
Yet the ombudsman’s office is not truly independent: it reports to the defence minister and requires approval from the Department of National Defence for its budget and staffing, which has led to clashes. The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre also relies on the department for its budget.
The Armed Forces in October launched what it described as a new phase in its fight against sexual misconduct by specifically working on lasting culture change. Yet it also acknowledged that the previous five years had produced only mixed results.
Those interviewed suggested institutions such as the military are incapable of changing their culture from the inside given that, as Eichler put it, “we’re talking about an institution that has historically been designed around white, heteronormative men.”
They also argued the Armed Forces has a history of denying or ignoring problems such as sexual misconduct until they are publicly exposed, at which point the military is forced to react until attention fades.
The government and military have been urged to take numerous actions to address sexual misconduct in the ranks, such as distinguishing inappropriate jokes among the troops from sexual assault and harassment, and sending criminal allegations to be handled in the civilian justice system.
“But external accountability is an absolutely necessary precondition to even begin the process of military culture change,” said Eichler.
Duval-Lantoine goes a step further, suggesting the need for an independent oversight body with power to compel the Forces to act on recommendations and reports.
“It’s good to have an excellent monitoring body because we can identify what the problems are,” she said. “But if we don’t give the military the incentive — the carrot and the stick — to put in place those measures, we might go back to the pattern of the 1990s.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press