OTTAWA — The fight against sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces entered a new era on Tuesday as former procurement minister Anita Anand became only the second woman to hold office as Canada’s defence minister.
The appointment ended weeks of speculation around who would take over from Harjit Sajjan, whose fate appeared all but sealed after overseeing a crisis of confidence in Canada’s military leadership over the past eight months sparked by allegations against several senior officers.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke glowingly of his new defence minister during a news conference held after the elaborate ceremony at Rideau Hall where his new cabinet was sworn in, more than a month after his Liberals were re-elected to a second minority mandate.
The prime minister specifically noted Anand’s role leading Ottawa’s efforts to purchase vaccines and other supplies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while touting her previous experience as an expert on corporate governance as directly relevant to her new role.
“We know there is a crisis within the culture in our Canadian Armed Forces,” he said.
“And one of the things people will be learning about Anita Anand in the coming months is that she is a world-class expert in governance, with decades of professional experience that she will bring to bear to make sure the Canadian Armed Forces … are worthy of the extraordinary women and men who choose to serve.”
Yet while Anand’s appointment was greeted with cautious optimism, there were also warnings that her arrival isn’t a quick fix, with the government facing fresh calls to establish external and independent oversight over the Canadian Armed Forces to address its many problems.
“It’s pretty remarkable to have a woman in this role as minister of defence, and that’s something that I think needs to be highlighted,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said during a news conference shortly after the new cabinet was sworn in.
“But at the end of the day … they’ve had six years to bring in an independent process. And so that hasn’t changed. And that to me is a big problem.”
Anand is only the second woman to serve as Canada’s defence minister. Kim Campbell held the position for six months in 1993 before becoming prime minister. While Anand’s appointment no doubt sends a message, observers said that alone isn’t enough to bring about change.
“I’m not one of those people that think just putting a woman into this position will magically make it solve the problems,” said Megan MacKenzie, an expert on military sexual misconduct at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“She’s stepping into that role at a time when we’ve had a prolonged crisis. And so I really hope she’s supported so that she can do her job and is not expected to sort of fix the systemic problem without proper tools.”
Anand arrives at a critical time for the Canadian military, which has been battered by months of troubling allegations that some of the military’s most senior officers engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour — with new allegations seemingly emerging every few weeks.
Trudeau earlier this month blasted the top brass after it was revealed that a general who wrote a character reference for a soldier convicted of sexual assault was reassigned to a job overseeing some of the military’s work on sexual misconduct. Trudeau said they “simply don’t get it.”
Opposition critics, defence experts and victims’ support groups have pinned much of the blame for the ongoing scandal on the Liberal government and, in particular, Sajjan, who will now serve as the minister of both international development and economic development in B.C.
When Sajjan first took over the role in early November 2015, the former Vancouver police officer was widely seen as a positive choice, given his previous service as a lieutenant-colonel in the army reserves, which included stints in Afghanistan.
Yet Sajjan struggled to effectively communicate when it came to military matters, and was seen as being too deferential to those senior commanders such as then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, under whom he had served in Afghanistan.
Those concerns exploded into the public discourse in February after Global News reported several allegations of sexual misconduct involving Vance. It was later revealed that one was first flagged to Sajjan by the military ombudsman in March 2018.
“That’s a key the job of the … minister of defence is to manage the relationship between the civilians and the military,” Carleton University defence expert Steve Saideman said. “And that has been done poorly. I would say the military has been left to manage itself.”
Despite what amounted to a clear demotion for his longtime defence minister, Trudeau defended Sajjan as “someone who has been there to fight for the women and men who serve in our Armed Forces, and to push back against the culture that excludes, that marginalizes people.”
One of the key questions facing Anand is the degree to which she will be able to exert control over the Canadian military, which has a reputation for pushing back against attempts to rein it in.
While Anand’s role in procuring personal protective equipment, ventilators and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic has been praised, her work on corporate governance was noted by It’s Not Just 700, a support group for victims.
“INJ700 does not look at whether the new (minister of national defence) is male or female — INJ700 looks for a defence minister having the skills to do what is required of them on the defence portfolio and the military sexual misconduct issues,” the organization said in a statement
“The military sexual misconduct issues are complex. INJ700 expects that Minister Anand will continue with intense scrutiny and focus on these long-standing issues while handling the complexities of the National Defence portfolio.”
MacKenzie said the need for external oversight of the military when it comes to sexual misconduct, as retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps first called for following an explosive review of the problem in 2015, remains evident.
“Putting a new minister in, female or male, shouldn’t detract from the very complex and detailed recommendations that Marie Deschamps made,” MacKenzie said.
“Those were very thoughtful recommendations that came after a very thorough examination of this issue. Ignoring those 10 very serious recommendations and simply putting in a new minister certainly simplifies the problem in a way that’s not accurate.”
Trudeau declined to commit to any new external oversight of the military, and instead pointed to an ongoing review of the problem being led by retired Supreme Court justice Louis Arbour.
Sexual misconduct is far from the only issue facing the Armed Forces at this juncture, and the new defence minister will need to get quickly up to speed on a variety of topics, including the many missions underway around the world and the ongoing effort to buy new military equipment.
Anand has an advantage over many of her ministerial colleagues taking over new portfolios, in that her previous job included significant oversight of various military procurement projects. That includes the planned purchase of new fighter jets and warships.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried a headline that referred to Anita Anand as Canada’s second defence minister.