Opinion: Yet another blow to PM’s feminist credentials

News of the appointment last week of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to conduct yet another external review of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military predictably went down like a lead balloon.

Arbour’s qualifications for the job are not in question. On the contrary, she comes to it with a solid reputation.

But if the recent past is any indication, Arbour’s strong credentials may well be wasted on the Liberal government.

It has just spent the past six years allowing a similar report to gather dust on its shelves.

At Stephen Harper’s bequest, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps conducted an exhaustive external review of the sexual misconduct issue. To no one’s surprise, she found it to be endemic within the armed forces.

Her 2015 report recommended the creation of an independent agency for reporting misconduct.

Those findings and that core prescription were in Trudeau’s prime ministerial in-tray when he took office.

And yet, following up on the recommendation to create an independent body has not made it into the marching orders the prime minister has given Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over the years.

At this point, it is fair to wonder whether Trudeau and/or anyone in his immediate entourage even read the Deschamps report.

For weeks, the media and the opposition parties have been trying to find out why Sajjan along with Trudeau’s staff took so little action when first apprised in 2018 of allegations of misconduct against then-Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance. This, after all, is a government that never lets an opportunity pass to flaunt its self-styled feminist credentials.

Given that, being on the lookout for instances of sexual harassment would be expected to be a priority.

It is not as if the problem and its systemic nature had not been flagged for the attention of the government.

And yet, to listen to the prime minister recently, his advisers were unaware that the allegations against Vance were sexual in nature.

Forget that there is correspondence between some PMO staffers that suggest otherwise.

For anyone who had read Deschamps’ report, sexual harassment would logically be one of the first possibilities that would spring to mind upon hearing about misconduct allegations against Vance.

In light of the prime minister’s oft-stated commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct, the mere possibility that Canada’s top soldier might be part of the systemic problem he was tasked with fixing should have set off alarm bells.

That it apparently did not is testimony either to a remarkable collective case of wilful blindness or an abysmal lack of interest – at least when it comes to the military – for following up on Trudeau’s words with effective action.

The average tenure of a Canadian defence minister rarely exceeds three years. Sajjan has been in the job for almost six.

It is not as if Sajjan did not have time to settle in and take stock of the magnitude of the problem. Based on his own department’s accounting, there have been more than 500 reports of alleged sexual assaults and another 221 reported incidents of sexual harassment over the past five years.

Over that same period, the government extended Vance’s tenure, gave him a raise and hand-picked a successor, Adm. Art McDonald, who had to step aside one month after taking the reins because he too is being investigated for sexual misconduct.

By now, Liberal strategists must know that Sajjan is a dead minister walking.

He is clearly not the person to lead a much-needed cultural revolution within the armed forces.

If anything, Arbour’s appointment suggests the government – starting with the minister – is clueless as to how to go about charting a path to the independent reporting process it has spent almost six years not bothering to consider.

If there is a purpose for leaving Sajjan to twist in the wind, it would mostly be to distract from the fact that Trudeau’s armour as a self-appointed feminist knight has taken yet another hit.

With an election possibly looming, polishing that increasingly battered armour matters. On that score, the fact that Arbour’s brief extends beyond the widely expected time frame of the next federal campaign is politically convenient.

Among the Liberal assets going into a third campaign under Trudeau’s leadership is the fact that the party enjoys a sizeable edge on the Conservatives among female voters. The prime minister can only hope that women’s patience with his feminist assurances runs eternal.

Chantal Hébert is a National Affairs writer.

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