Opinion-Policy Nexus

If the decades-long scandal over sexual abuse and misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces has accomplished nothing else, it has created a cottage industry for retired justices of the Supreme Court of Canada – three of them so far.

Former justice Louise Deschamps was the first.  In 2015, Deschamps delivered a report that urged the government to transfer the responsibility for the investigation of misconduct complaints and the prosecution of offenders from the CAF chain of command to an independent civilian agency.

In April this year, the Trudeau government, trying to dodge a parliamentary storm over allegations of sexual misconduct against General Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, appointed another SCOC retiree, Louise Arbour, to retill the soil that Deschamps had gone over in 2015. Meanwhile, a third retiree, Morris Fish, delivered a 400-page report last week that called on the military to clean up its act.

“The nature, extent and human cost of sexual misconduct in the CAF remain as debilitating, as rampant and as destructive in 2021 as they were in 2015,” Fish wrote.

(He might have added that the flood of complaints continues unabated. The in-house military justice system began prosecuting sexual offences in 1998. Its effectiveness, or lack thereof, can be seen a single statistic: 1,500 or more new complaints every year.)

Fish recommended a hybrid investigation/prosecution system in an apparent attempt to find middle ground between the determination of the military leadership not to surrender disciplinary authority and the political need of the government to be seen to be doing something to make the CAF a safer workplace for women.

He proposed that the existing body of military investigators and prosecutors be replaced by a unit of civilian investigators and prosecutors. Although the new unit would operate under civilian law, where complainants’ rights could be better protected than under military law, the unit would still operate within the CAF command structure. It would not have the independence sought by Louise Deschamps.       

Sexual issues – harassment, coercion and physical abuse (from unwanted touching to rape) – have been systemic problems for so long, and the attempts of successive governments to address them have been so pathetic, that I don’t see how a halfway, hybrid system on the Morris Fish model would change anything. I suspect it would come across to victims of misconduct as more empty tokenism.

The method of handling misconduct is just one element of a much deeper issue – the need to change the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces.

One former officer offered me his perspective: “What is happening is, we are witnessing an institution struggle with cultural change and not doing very well.”

I agreed not to identify the officer other than by saying the officer enlisted in the 1980s, recently retired, and has given the matter some careful thought.

“While sexual misconduct has occurred at all rank levels, the focus now is on a small number of senior general officers/flag officers, all of whom likely have around 30 years of service,” the officer said. “This means that they joined the military sometime in the 1980s or thereabouts, and they reflect the attitudes prevalent at the time.

“Not only that, but they were, at least for the first formative years of their careers, under the tutelage and influence of officers who had joined the service 20 or more years before they did. This latter group of officers would have demonstrated behaviours and attitudes prevalent in the 1960s, or possibly even late 1950s.”

The officer continued: “When I joined, it was a hard-drinking military. Alcohol was often consumed at lunch, at the end of the workday, and Happy Hour in the mess sometimes began shortly after lunch and lasted until 7 p.m. or later. When we went on exercise, we took alcohol with us.  Americans who came on our exercises were horrified by the idea of drinking in the field. The Armed Forces operated three detoxification centres, and I personally knew several older officers and NCOs who were chronic alcoholics. Not only was all this tolerated, it was sometimes informally encouraged.”

Change began, gradually, in the early 1990s, the officer said. “Alcohol consumption is nothing like what it was. Drinking on exercise is generally forbidden and drinking on operations is likewise except for rare situations. Alcohol-related offences which were once not taken seriously are now career-enders.

“Such a change took decades. Returning to the current problem of a feeling of entitlement and misuse of power towards female subordinates by some general officers, we are facing a similar situation, but society and political leadership today are not prepared to wait decades. Once found out, the offenders will be exposed and dealt with. This is painful and embarrassing for the military and for those of us who are proud of our former service, but is a necessary purge.”

The officer talked about Major-General Dany Fortin, who was removed from his position in charge of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s COVID vaccine distribution system.

“While I have very little time for General Vance – no surprises as to his situation – I have a huge amount of respect for Major-General Fortin. I have known him since he was a lieutenant-colonel, and he is one of the finest officers I have ever met. I am very suspicious about the accusation levelled against him, and about the manner in which it was leaked. Unfortunately, without even so much as a hearing, his career is finished and his personal life likely too.”

The officer’s conclusion: “I have known Lieutenant-General Gen Wayne Eyre, the commander of the army, who is acting as the chief of defence staff, since he was a captain, and he is a very professional and forthright individual and a fine officer. If anyone can sort things out, he can, if he is allowed to. … Strict, swift and public measures must be taken to fix things, but they will not be fixed overnight. I just hope that fairness will prevail over feeding frenzy.”

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired recently from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].


Monday, June 7, 2021 - 09:53