Megan MacKenzie is a professor and the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University.
Recently, when asked to comment on yet another Canadian Armed Forces sexual misconduct scandal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the military ”simply doesn’t get it.” Mr. Trudeau seemed to be trying to separate himself from the CAF’s dysfunction and preserve his reputation as a feminist leader who does “get it.”
It’s easy to assume that blatantly sexist and out-of-touch senior military men – or “the old boys’ network” – are the main challenges to addressing sexual misconduct in the CAF. However, the greatest obstacles to change on this issue have been Mr. Trudeau himself, alongside Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Canada is not a military dictatorship, which means that responsibility for ensuring the military institution is functional sits squarely on the shoulders of these two ministers. But they have only delayed action through calls for more investigations and reviews, and they have deferred responsibility back to the military, who they claim are the “the proper authorities” when it comes to addressing this issue. By dodging responsibility and allowing a Defence Minister with little expertise and seemingly no will to lead on this issue to remain in power, Mr. Trudeau’s feminist brand is exposed as he effectively serves to protect CAF’s old boy’s network.
The past year has only been an extended crisis of what has been a historic problem with sexual misconduct at the CAF. There are so many senior leaders on leave, under investigation or facing allegations of sexual misconduct that it is dizzying. What is absolutely clear is sexual misconduct is a systemic problem and that the CAF’s top leaders are not only incapable of handling the problem, they are deeply implicated in it. All too often, those looking for a silver lining to sexual misconduct ask if this is just a generational, old boy’s problem. The hope is once young and more progressive leaders get into positions of power, there will be less misogyny and systemic sexual violence.
But sexual misconduct is not a generational issue – it is a deeply engrained cultural problem that reproduces itself. At the heart of this problem are beliefs and practices that position women and femininity as weak, while heralding a type of masculinity that celebrates the use of violence and the display of power through aggression. When this is combined with military exceptionalism – or the widespread belief that military service is unique and service members should be held to separate standards to civilians – a military culture that is defined by both sexism and impunity is fostered. Within this culture, older generations of old boys are replaced with new old boys that share the same objective: to sustain a sexist system of impunity, and their power within it, at all costs.
While previous generations of service members and political leaders thrived in a work environment where overt sexual misconduct and harassment was openly written off as “jokes,” hazing or a valued part of “building character” and camaraderie, the new generation of military and political old boys have more sophisticated techniques. These include declarations of zero tolerance of misconduct in the face of ample evidence of institutional tolerance, statements supporting cultural change with no resources or actual plans to support this change, quietly moving abusive service members to other roles, and gaslighting victims and encouraging them not to come forward lest they ruin their careers.
Because Mr. Trudeau is not leading systemic change when it comes to sexual misconduct in the military or putting people in power who have the capacity or will to do so, he is ensuring this crisis is not the watershed moment that it ought to be. Indeed, if he wanted to, there are three steps Mr. Trudeau could take immediately to show a commitment to this issue.
First, he should implement all the recommendations of the 2015 Deschamps report, with priority given to ensuring cases of sexual misconduct are handled in the civilian justice system. Second, he should empower the military ombudsman as an independent office to lead cultural change and handle misconduct complaints particularly related to senior military leaders. Third, he should call for a sexual-misconduct audit, encouraging any CAF members to come forward to a newly designated civilian justice team that has been empowered to investigate all allegations thoroughly.
It’s time to stop looking to the dysfunctional CAF for solutions to the sexual misconduct crisis and trace both the source of the problem and the person responsible for fixing it back to the Prime Minister.
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