Gen. Jonathan Vance, centre, presided over the Royal Canadian Navy’s change of command. Vance has retired as chief of the defence staff but faces allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies. McDonald, Vance’s successor at the apex of the Canadian Forces, has stood aside while unspecified allegations against him are investigated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Gen. Jonathan Vance, centre, presided over the Royal Canadian Navy’s change of command. Vance has retired as chief of the defence staff but faces allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies. McDonald, Vance’s successor at the apex of the Canadian Forces, has stood aside while unspecified allegations against him are investigated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Misconduct allegations put spotlight on military leaders’ rise in sexualized culture

CAF’s senior leadership began their careers when sexual harassment was not taken seriously, says reservist

Emerging allegations of sexual misconduct against senior members of the Armed Forces are raising concerns about the extent to which the top brass is tainted by such behaviour — and prompting sharp discussions about how to fix the problem.

The ideas include everything from restorative justice or even a truth-and-reconciliation commission to a marked change in how the military chooses its leaders and a shuffle in the top ranks.

Today’s leaders came up through what retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps described in 2015 as an “underlying sexual culture” that was hostile to women and left victims of sexual assault and harassment to fend for themselves.

“It’s quite clear that most of the CAF’s senior leadership began their careers around the same time, when sexual harassment and sexual assault were not taken seriously,” says former air force reservist Christine Wood, co-chair of the military sexual-trauma survivors’ group It’s Just 700.

Royal Military College of Canada professor Alan Okros, whose work focuses on leadership, gender equality and diversity in the military, says the issue first emerged in 1998, which is when the first harassment- and racism-prevention training was introduced.

Deschamps herself found that while the so-called SHARP training was seen by some as effective, “others, by contrast, viewed it as a caricature.” Deschamps specifically noted that after a few years, the military stopped hiring outside experts to conduct the training.

The past few weeks have seen a number of allegations emerge against senior leaders. That has led to ongoing speculation within defence circles as to which top commander will be accused next.

It is impossible to tell just how widespread the problem is within the military’s top brass, but Queen’s University professor Stéfanie von Hlatky, who studies gender in the military, says recent Statistics Canada surveys offer some clues.

The first of those surveys of military personnel in 2016 found 80 per cent had seen or been targeted by such behaviour. Nearly half of women who reported having been sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months said the perpetrator outranked them.

“It’s actually pretty astounding to just look at those numbers,” von Hlatky said. “If you’ve got this prevalence at all levels, then it’s not just a question of generational change, but it’s really something that has been left unaddressed for too long.”

Okros and von Hlatky believe one way to start addressing the problem is to change the way the military selects its leaders, a process that places a heavy emphasis on what is called “operational effectiveness,” or accomplishing missions.

“They went, they got the job done,” Okros says. “But some drove the team, drove their people, pushed them and got the job done, but left people in their wake that were broken.”

While operational effectiveness is the core of how the military measures success in nearly every domain, Okros and von Hlatky say more emphasis should be put on how commanders have treated their troops.

But what to do about the problem right now?

“Does the (chief of the defence staff) reset the standard?” Okros asks.

“Go out as a personal challenge to every general and flag officer, every chief warrant officer, and say: ‘I want you to stop … take a hard look in the mirror, think about your past, think about what you’ve done and think about your ability to lead the required culture change. And if now is the time for you to graciously retire, I’d be happy to take your letter.’”

The past week saw Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen appointed as Canada’s first female vice-chief of the defence staff, the military’s second-in-command. Lost amid the applause was an unusually long list of generals and senior naval officers announcing their retirements.

While defence analyst David Perry says part of that because of a steady growth in the top brass over the past five years, which leads eventually to more generals and admirals on retirement lists, he says some of the retirements were unexpected.

Canadian Forces College professor Andrea Lane, who studies gender in security, believes there must be ways for victims of military sexual misconduct to come forward and tell their stories.

“There is no mechanism right now for women or other victims to be able to say: ‘You did something to harm me in the past and I would like you to acknowledge it and apologize for it,’” she said.

“The only way for anybody to have any redress is this very punishment-focused military discipline system.”

The federal government reached a settlement agreement in 2019 with survivors of military sexual misconduct who had filed a class-action lawsuit, which provided financial compensation as well as the promise of a yet-to-be-delivered apology and “restorative engagement.”

The details of that restorative engagement have not been spelled out, but they are expected to differ from typical restorative-justice initiatives in that victims will not directly address those who did them harm. They will instead relate their experiences to a senior military leader.

It’s also unclear how that will feed into the broader fight against sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces.

Lane suggested what may be needed is something along the lines of a truth-and-reconciliation commission, which would help air the many grievances that exist within the military and start moving toward healing without senior officers across the board facing charges.

“It could be solved by instituting a parallel restorative justice system for people to be able to come forward and say: ‘Look, you did something bad and you’re now in a position of power. And I don’t think that you should be in a position of power if you can’t accept responsibility for what you did. But at the same time, I don’t think you should be demoted or fired.’”

Military

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Regional District of Nanaimo plans to make its operations more efficient as it works on long-term goals around carbon-neutrality. (PQB News file photo)
Regional District of Nanaimo works to become carbon neutral by 2032

RDN committee of the whole members endorse plan developed by consultant

The Millstone River in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file photo)
Regional district looks at value of Nanaimo’s natural assets

Report focused on the Millstone River could inform future decisions on corporate asset management

Protesters gather along the Pearson Bridge on Terminal Avenue in downtown Nanaimo last month as part of an event called Worth More Standing. (News Bulletin file photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: B.C. hasn’t managed forests properly

Protesters opposing logging in Fairy Creek speak for many British Columbians, say letter writers

Nanaimo singer Victoria Vaughn recently released an EP with local producer Austin Penner. (Photo courtesy Taylor Murray)
Nanaimo singer and recent VIU grad releases EP about becoming an adult

Victoria Vaughn’s ‘Growing Pains’ recorded with local producer Austin Penner

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has listed Harbour Air and Air Canada flights to and from Nanaimo, from April 3, 4 and 12, on its list of flights with COVID-19. (News Bulletin file)
COVID-19 cases reported for Air Canada, Harbour Air flights, says disease control centre

Nanaimo flights for April 3, 4 and 12 listed on BCCDC’s list of flights with COVID-19

Pat Kauwell, a semi-retired construction manager, lives in his fifth-wheel trailer on Maxey Road because that’s what he can afford on his pension, but a Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw prohibits using RVs as permanent dwellings, leaving Kauwell and others like him with few affordable housing options. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Housing crunch or not, it’s illegal to live in an RV in Nanaimo

Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw forcing pensioner to move RV he calls home off private farm land

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Nothing stopping provinces from offering AstraZeneca vaccine to all adults: Hajdu

Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Noel Brown, Snuneymuxw First Nation carver, observes the house post he carved, which now is situated in front of the Kw’umut Lelum centre on Centre Street in Nanaimo. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
House post representative of work of Kw’umut Lelum in Nanaimo

Snuneymuxw First Nation artist Noel Brown’s carved red cedar house post unveiled Friday, April 16

(Black Press file photo).
UPDATED: Multiple stabbings at Vancouver Island bush party

Three youths hospitalized after an assault in Comox

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to open up COVID vaccine registration to all B.C. residents 18+ in April

Registration does not equate to being able to book an appointment

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. finance minister to table historic pandemic-challenged deficit budget

Budget aims to take care of people during pandemic while preparing for post-COVID-19 recovery, Robinson said

Most Read