Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Culture becomes latest front in military’s fight against sexual misconduct

Culture becomes latest front in military’s fight against sexual misconduct

OTTAWA — Members of the Canadian Armed Forces are being told that it’s possible to be the “ultimate soldier” while still caring for other people as the military launches the next phase of its fight against sexual misconduct in the ranks.

The new phase comes five years after the launch of Operation Honour, which was billed as an all-out effort to address what was found to be a highly sexualized culture in the Armed Forces that left victims to fend for themselves.

Senior military commanders as well as observers, advocates and several reports have since acknowledged the mixed results of that initial approach, which focused largely on supporting victims and punishing perpetrators.

Those efforts will continue, but the new phase launched on Wednesday also emphasizes addressing those aspects of the military’s culture that might be contributing to sexual misconduct — some of which are long-standing.

The military’s second in command delivered a strong message to anyone who would disagree with the need to behave appropriately.

“There is zero contradiction between being the ultimate soldier, aviator, sailor, warfighter, if you will … and treating people well,” vice-chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“This is the crux of the issue. There is no machismo and conflict-oriented culture that renders it permissible to treat people inappropriately. And that’s the message,” he said.

“Anybody who still lives in that arcane space needs to leave.”

To mark the start of the new phase, the Armed Forces on Wednesday released a detailed plan called The Path to Dignity and Respect that itself noted a “disconnection” between the military’s stated culture and reality on the ground.

That disconnect has been highlighted in a number of reports compiled and released since the military first found itself under fire in 2014 over its handling of sexual assault complaints and other inappropriate behaviour.

Statistics Canada last year found minimal progress in eradicating sexual misconduct in the ranks while the auditor general reported in 2018 that the military was failing to support victims properly and resolve cases quickly.

That was despite senior leaders having vowed starting in July 2015 to take a zero-tolerance approach to the problem, which was identified as a real threat to the military’s unity and effectiveness.

“There’s a lot that’s been done since 2015,” Rouleau said. “But it was mostly reactive work. It was getting after the immediate, urgent things in the face of this really big problem that we had to deal with.

Yet the past five years also laid the foundation for the new longer-term strategy, said Rouleau.

“We got some of the research done,” he said. “We consulted external experts. And today, releasing The Path, which is this strategy that aligns us culturally, signals a shift from the reactive to the proactive.”

While much of the plan focuses on the “aligning” the military’s culture to its values and principles as part of an ongoing fight against sexual misconduct, it also lays out some specific actions for the Armed Forces to undertake.

Those include not only punishing perpetrators, but also looking at ways to rehabilitate and reintegrate those who might be able to stay in uniform.

One thing missing is any plan to helping victims reintegrate into the Armed Forces or civilian life after coming forward with complaints, said Marie-Claude Gagnon of It’s Just 700, a support group for survivors of military sexual trauma.

“Given the high number of my group members who either quit or were medically released after reporting, or being forced to report, a sexual assault, I think a plan is necessary,” said Gagnon, a former naval reservist.

She cited the results of a survey of victims of sexual misconduct by the military published earlier this year as evidence of the fears and poor treatment that such service members experience when it comes to reporting such behaviour.

“In the CAF survey on sexual misconduct, fear of career loss, and career impact, is a big deterrent for victims to report,” Gagnon said. “If there is no plan to help ensure successful careers to victims, victims will be less willing to report.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Military sexual misconduct