OTTAWA — The federal government sought to emerge from a dark period in the Canadian Armed Forces’ legacy on Monday as political and military leaders delivered a long-awaited apology to victims of military sexual misconduct.
Streamed online from National Defence Headquarters, the apology followed the federal government’s $600-million settlement with tens of thousands of current and former Armed Forces members who experienced such behaviour while serving.
It also came as the Liberal government and military leadership face questions and criticism over their perceived failure to address allegations of inappropriate — and criminal — sexual misconduct among some of the military’s top leaders.
Defence Minister Anita Anand led the 40-minute apology, delivered alongside chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and Defence Department deputy minister Jody Thomas. Anand acknowledged successive governments had failed to protect those who willingly signed up to protect Canada
“I apologize to the thousands of Canadians who were harmed because your government did not protect you, nor did we ensure that the right systems were in place to ensure justice and accountability,” she said during the event, which at one point was being watched by about 8,000 people.
“For far too long, your government failed to dedicate enough time, money, personnel and effort to deal with sexual harassment, sexual assault and discrimination based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation in the military and the department.”
Countless lives have been harmed by that inaction and systemic failure over the years, she added, a legacy the Canadian Armed Forces, Defence Department and federal government will carry for a long time.
Anand took over as defence minister in October from Harjit Sajjan, who was criticized for not doing more to address offensive behaviour among the top brass. She promised real action, saying: “Things can change, they must change, and they will change.”
While the minister went on to praise the dedication of Canada’s current military and Defence Department leadership to addressing the issue, she stopped short of providing any specific details on how real change will come.
Anand told The Canadian Press in an interview Monday that was a deliberate decision.
“Even though we have planning … underway for a number of steps that we will be taking to reform the current system, I wanted to make sure they did not detract from the apology,” she said. “Because this is an important moment for survivors and complainants.”
Reservist Sam Samplonius, a survivor of military sexual assault who is co-chairperson of It’s Not Just 700, a support and advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault and trauma, welcomed Monday’s apology by the minister and other leaders.
“I was hoping that they would maybe broaden onto what things that they’re doing,” she said. “However, I also can understand how they really wanted to concentrate on the apology, part of that.”
Samplonius said she and others are hoping the government and military leadership will provide an update, after many broken promises and missed opportunities in the past.
“One thing we’ve heard within our group prior to the apology being delivered was there was a great sense of: ‘Apologies are nice, but let’s see some action,’” she said. “So I think that’s what a lot of people are waiting for.”
Opposition parties also called for more details on the government’s plan to actually address the scourge of sexual misconduct in the ranks, even as they used the opportunity to attack the Liberals for not having done more, sooner.
The Conservatives and NDP urged the Liberals to implement retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps’ recommendation of an independent centre outside the military’s chain of command for receiving reports of inappropriate misconduct.
The Liberals have instead tapped retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to come up with her own recommendations for addressing the problem of sexual misconduct.
“The status quo must immediately change,” Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay said in a statement.
“It’s time for the Liberals to take concrete action, including implementing the recommendations from the 2015 Deschamps report, and ensure that the process in place to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct is transparent and respectful.”
NDP defence critic Lindsay Mathyssen echoed that call, saying: “It is beyond time that this so-called ‘feminist’ prime minister and his government moved beyond words and finally make sure everyone can serve equally.”
Meanwhile, during a news conference to announce a new child-care deal with New Brunswick hours before the apology, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau underscored the importance of the moment while facing questions about why he didn’t deliver the expression of regret himself.
“There have been many discussions around the right way to move forward, and I’m very pleased that the chief of defence staff and the minister are the ones making this apology,” Trudeau said. “But as you’ve seen, this is an issue that matters deeply to me.”
While Anand spoke on behalf of the government, it fell to Eyre to apologize on behalf of generations of military leaders who turned away from — or in some cases perpetrated — acts that caused harm to those under their command.
“The harm you suffered happened on our collective watch, on my watch,” he said. “Whether through naivety or ignorance, both inexcusable, the problem persisted. The harm continued, and it has yet to be successfully or sufficiently acknowledged or addressed.”
Eyre took over from Admiral Art McDonald as Canada’s chief commander in February as military police investigated an allegation of misconduct against McDonald that resulted in no charges. Eyre promised to end what has been a cycle of failure.
“For our military, we must change our culture,” he said. “We must build trust. There is no currency as difficult to earn or as easy to squander. We will take tangible actions to make real and lasting change. This time we will not fail. This is my commitment to you.”
The apology from Thomas was directed at civilian officials at the Defence Department who have also been affected by sexual misconduct, as well as family members and others.
Thomas, who took over as deputy minister in 2017, reflected on her own past service in the Royal Canadian Navy, saying she has since struggled with her decision to ignore inappropriate behaviour that was directed at her.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press