Lawrence Stevenson is the managing partner at Clearspring Capital, the founder and former CEO of Chapters, and a member of the RMC Class of 1978.
After numerous examples of serious inappropriate behaviour by many senior leaders in the Canadian Armed Forces, former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour delivered her Independent External Comprehensive Review (IECR) last month, offering up a number of recommendations to address the issues of sexual misconduct. Many of those recommendations are worthy. But as a proud graduate of the Royal Military College (RMC), I strongly disagree with this existential thought from her review: “The military colleges appear as institutions from a different era, with an outdated and problematic leadership model. There are legitimate reasons to question the wisdom of maintaining the existence of these military colleges.” (“To be clear,” she wrote elsewhere in the report, “closing the colleges altogether would be a missed opportunity.”)
But there is a legitimate reason that all serious armed forces in the world have military academies: They not only cover academics but also train young officer candidates in the military skills that will prepare them to serve as officers. Canada’s military colleges have a long legacy in this country, having been founded in 1876; the RMC flag was the basis for the modern Canadian flag. And over the course of nearly 150 years, Canada’s royal military colleges have graduated outstanding alumni, including Marc Garneau, Chris Hadfield, and Captain Nichola Goddard, a graduate of the RMC class of 2002, who valiantly gave her life in Afghanistan in 2006 so that we could be free from terrorism here at home. I suspect that the families of other RMC soldiers, sailors and airmen who have made the ultimate sacrifice in all our wars, including most recently in Afghanistan, would also strongly object to losing the colleges.
In the fall of 1977, I was interviewed by a journalist on The Fifth Estate on the subject of admitting women to the colleges. She started off her broadcast by standing on RMC Kingston’s parade square, saying: “Here I stand at the last bastion of male chauvinism in Canada.” During my on-screen interview as the senior officer cadet in fourth year, I repeated the party line: that the military colleges were in place to train combat officers, and since women could not be combat officers it followed logically that women should not be admitted to the military colleges.
My own personal view at the time, though, was that the right compromise was to turn one of the military colleges (of which there were then three) into an all-female military college. Given that U.S. military college West Point had already made the decision to admit women, it was clear to all that Canada would follow suit (for political reasons primarily, since the military was opposed). This indeed happened with the first class of female cadets, who entered the colleges in 1980. Since then, women have excelled at RMC militarily, academically and athletically, and many have been selected to the position of cadet wing commander, the most senior appointment in fourth year, conclusively proving that the decision to admit them to RMC was the right one.
Despite women’s decisive success in these spaces, Ms. Arbour has flagged the “ongoing incidence of sexual misconduct.” Indeed, sexual misconduct is a very real problem that needs to be addressed at all universities. But while a Statistics Canada survey of 500 military college cadets found that 68 per cent had witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, a 2018 Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities survey of 7,000 Queen’s University students (just across town from RMC Kingston) claimed that a full 71 per cent of these students experienced sexual harassment. Yet no one is suggesting today that we should shut down Queen’s or my alma mater Harvard University, which was among the prominent U.S. universities with alarmingly high rates of sexual misconduct, according to the terrific 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground.
Too often, entire institutions are discarded when the actions of individuals are the point of concern. In 1993, for instance, three Canadian soldiers in the storied Canadian Airborne Regiment were convicted of torturing and killing a Somali teenager. Two years later, the federal government decided for political reasons to disband this proud regiment – in which I served as a captain, back in 1980. Disbandment was the wrong decision. Many soldiers wearing the Airborne’s maroon beret had given their lives in the Second World War. The guilty certainly deserved to be punished, and they were; the leaders should have stepped down, and they did. But the institution itself should have lived on. The same holds true for Canada’s military colleges: Cadets guilty of sexual misconduct should face punishment, but eradicating RMC itself makes no sense.
I attended a West Point graduation in 2009 for the daughter of a friend, and the commencement speaker was then U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates. His address was not the kind of message that would be delivered at civilian universities: He emphasized that many of the cadets graduating and listening to him on this sunny day north of New York would be killed in the next few years in Iraq and Afghanistan. It highlighted how West Point and other U.S. military academies shoulder more than their fair share in defending their countries. Indeed, 40 per cent of the West Point Class of 1943 were killed in the Second World War.
So yes: A lot is being shoehorned into a four-year college program. That is because RMC is not just a four-year college program; like West Point, it is designed to form the leaders of our very capable military forces. As Thucydides said, “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” RMC has trained warrior-scholars for close to 150 years, and in the tumultuous circumstances we face today, this is not the time to destroy the institutions that help keep us safe and free.
Editor’s note: (June 20, 2022) A previous version of this piece suggested that Ms. Arbour's review recommended the closure of the RMC. The review only questioned their existence.
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