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Opinion

Military slow to address sexual harassment problem: Senators

Now it’s time for the government and the military to listen—and to act. Failure to do so will negatively affect the operational capacity of the CAF.

Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, left, and Commander Designate of the Canadian Army Jean-Marc Lanthier, pictured July 16, 2018, arriving at a Canadian Army change of command Ceremony on Parliament Hill. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—In 2014, Maclean’s and L’actualité revealed that sexual assault in the military takes place with disturbing regularity—about five times per day.

To its credit, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) took these reports seriously.

The military hired a former Supreme Court justice to conduct a wide-ranging assessment of military policies and practices regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment.

And when Marie Deschamps concluded that there is an “underlying sexualized culture in the CAF … hostile to women and LGTBQ members,” top brass launched Operation Honour in December 2015, with the aim of eliminating harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Problem solved?

If only.

The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has been studying sexual misconduct in the military. We are not alone. Two committees of the House of Commons are also studying the problem. Statistics Canada is working to understand the extent of it. Canadians care about the issue, are concerned by ongoing reports, and are anxious for proof that the military is undertaking the cultural change necessary to address this complex social issue.

While our committee believes that senior management is genuinely committed to addressing this issue, it is clear from the evidence we heard that good intentions alone are not sufficient to effect desperately needed change.

The Sexual Misconduct Report Centre (SMRC) is a case in point.

Created with the intention of ensuring military members affected by sexual misconduct have adequate support, the SMRC “is not even a shadow of the centre I outlined in my report,” Ms. Deschamps told us.

Despite the fact that, according to the CAF, the centre has “evolved appreciably since its establishment” as a centre directing victims to support options outside of the chain of command, we argue there is still work to be done. The SMRC’s current mandate does not include any responsibility to hold the chain of command accountable for dealing with sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces, nor does it provide services to veterans.

Moreover, the committee heard that the level of support provided to victims by the CAF continues to be insufficient; often those affected by sexual misconduct end up on medical leave and are eventually discharged. The CAF should endeavour to support these members by providing the necessary medical, legal, and therapeutic assistance they need to heal from their real and debilitating military sexual trauma. Some victims may wish to continue their military careers; these wounded warriors may also need social support to overcome stigmatization within their unit.

Data on inappropriate sexual behaviour is not centralized, a failing that was flagged by the Auditor General of Canada in a 2018 report. A central database—the Operation Honour Tracking and Analysis System — is being developed but it is unclear how or if this database will be coordinated with case information collected by the Sexual Misconduct Report Centre. It is imperative that Operation Honour policy and initiatives be informed by updated data, while protecting the victims and bystanders who report sexual misconduct in the CAF.

We also heard witnesses express concerns regarding the definition and use of several terms, such as “harassment” as defined by the military. However, we recognize that in April of this year the CAF released an Operation Honour Manual and a new, more comprehensive, official definition of Sexual Misconduct, which includes the following: “Actions or words that devalue a person or group of persons on the basis of their sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” The committee will monitor what guidance the CAF will provide to address alleged incidents of sexual misconduct once the Defence Administrative Order and Directive 9005-1 is released.

While the committee recognizes certain initiatives, witnesses reported that the military’s ongoing Operation Honour is beset by problems. Despite the fact the Military Police have put in place a specially trained Sexual Offence Response Team, and Operation Honour has broadly rolled out related training, some witnesses noted that activities related to the operation were often tacked on to people’s regular workloads and that there remains a general lack of buy-in within the military in addressing sexual misconduct.

What’s more, there’s minimal oversight of the implementation of Operation Honour. While an external advisory council has been created, witnesses told the committee that it is primarily intended to provide independent, third-party advice instead of evaluating the military’s response to harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

In general, there must be better oversight and accountability of Operation Honour commitments; this should include regular reports on progress achieved. Our committee also recommends that an external body be empowered to assess the effectiveness of measures put in place, including the SMRC.

If the Maclean’s and L’actualité articles were a clarion call for the military, our report shows that the CAF has been slow to mobilize.

New initiatives have not led to sufficient outcomes; the actions that have been taken can be charitably described as well-intentioned first steps taken “in response to external pressure.” The level of effort required to address this pernicious problem within the Canadian Armed Forces cannot be anything less than the passion and courage that all CAF members bring to kinetic operations.

We listened to what witnesses, including victims of sexual misconduct, had to say and the committee made evidence-based recommendations about what needs to change.

Now it’s time for the government and the military to listen—and to act. Failure to do so will negatively affect the operational capacity of the CAF. Attracting and retaining qualified Canadians to serve will become difficult if testimonials about a toxic work environment, where some current and former members don’t feel safe, continue.

Senator Gwen Boniface is chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. She represents Ontario. Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais is deputy chair of the committee and represents Quebec-Victoria. Senator Mobina S.B. Jaffer is deputy chair of the committee and represents British Columbia. Read the report, Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Canadian Armed Forces, or learn more about the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.

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