The Canadian Armed Forces has failed to stamp out sexual misconduct and should permanently move the prosecution of criminal code sexual offences to the civilian system and turn over harassment complaints to the human rights commission, a report by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour says.
Ms. Arbour also calls on Ottawa to review the future of Canada’s military colleges, and appoint an external monitor to track the progress of her report’s recommendations. It is the third report in seven years to give the federal government similar suggestions to address the military’s toxic culture and widespread sexual misconduct. The other two were also written by retired justices of the top court.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been accused of letting the recommendations from the past two reports slide, and on Monday, Defence Minister Anita Anand was unable to say if she would accept all 48 of the actions Ms. Arbour detailed. Her report calls for urgent and profound changes to how the Forces operate to “create an even and safe playing field for women in the profession of arms.”
The report was triggered by a sexual assault reckoning in the highest ranks of the military last year. As former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance, and his replacement (now removed), and other top officers were investigated for harassment or assault, the government tapped Ms. Arbour to study the issue and how the Forces could set up an independent reporting system.
The government said it would accept at least 17 of the recommendations, but the more complex suggestions, including one of the most important, a proposal to transfer all sexual assault cases to the civilian system, will be decided on by the end of this year.
Ms. Arbour noted at a news conference that sexual misconduct in the military is “nothing new,” and that the armed forces and the federal government already have a “massive amount of existing recommendations.”
She said she called for the immediate appointment of an independent monitor to track progress, and stipulated that the government disclose which recommendations it won’t accept in the hope her report doesn’t meet the same “inertia” as previous ones.
The problem in the Forces was documented in a 2015 report from former justice Marie Deschamps and a 2021 report from former justice Morris Fish. Ms. Deschamps found that women in the military were routinely victims of sexual misconduct, including degrading comments, harassment, date rape and inappropriate relationships between people of different ranks. Last year, Mr. Fish found that six years after Ms. Deschamps’ report, sexual misconduct in the military remained “persistent, preoccupying and widespread.”
Ms. Arbour’s report said “one of the dangers” under the Forces’ current operating model “is the high likelihood that some of its members are more at risk of harm, on a day-to-day basis, from their comrades than from the enemy.”
Ms. Arbour’s report details a “disconnect between rhetoric and reality” in what Forces leaders said they would do to end sexual harassment and what actually was done. The Deschamps report produced a “flurry of activity” in an attempt to fix the problem. “Unfortunately, those efforts have so far failed,” Ms. Arbour wrote.
The very program designed to eliminate inappropriate sexual behaviour in the Forces, Operation Honour, is emblematic.
Mr. Vance created it when he was chief of the defence staff in response to Ms. Deschamps’ report, calling harmful sexual behaviour a “threat” to the Forces. There was a public perception that action was taken, but victims were skeptical, Ms. Arbour said. Their perspective was validated when, internally, Operation Honour was quickly dubbed “Hop on her.”
“They need to change how they do many things – and profoundly so,” Ms. Arbour concluded. The “disrepute” that the sexual misconduct crisis has brought to the armed forces is a “justified condemnation of an archaic and deeply damaging organizational culture.”
In her report, Ms. Arbour stressed the need for the government to accept all of the recommendations, noting they are inter-related and based on the assumption that the others will also be implemented.
“I know that those who live with these issues on a day-to-day basis are eminently capable of determining how best to proceed, if they accept the general direction and changes I am proposing. On the other hand, I am equally convinced that if they do not, no amount of detailed recommendations will produce the desired result,” she said.
Ms. Anand said the government accepts Ms. Arbour’s report in its “entirety” and the government is “aligned in terms of our views of this problem and how we should address them.” However, she repeatedly said more time is needed to review recommendations such as the transition of criminal sexual assault cases to the civilian system.
“We will act quickly to analyze, review and plan our responses,” Ms. Anand said. “I will personally be evaluating whether and when we can implement these recommendations efficiently and effectively.”
Ms. Arbour questioned the delay, saying the change pertains to about 30 cases a year compared to the more than 2,300 handled annually in the civilian court system.
Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University who studies the military legal system’s response to sexual assault, said she’s disappointed the government isn’t acting now. The military was only granted purview over sexual assault cases in 1998, and has proven to be slower than the civilian system and to mete out less severe consequences for perpetrators.
In her report, Ms. Arbour said that if the government accepts her advice on moving sexual assault cases to the civilian system and having sexual harassment and discrimination complaints dealt with by the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, another oversight body for the Forces would not be needed.
“Civilian authorities should be the first ‘port of call’ for the reporting and investigation of all serious forms of sexual misconduct,” the report said.
Ms. Anand said she would appoint an external monitor as soon as possible to report on progress regularly. The government will also accept recommendations related to policies for promotion and succession, diversifying the military’s senior ranks, and changes to the sexual misconduct response centre.
“This report will not fall by the wayside,” Ms. Anand said when asked how the government will ensure the latest report results in change.
Both opposition parties slammed the government for slow progress on an issue that has been clearly defined for years. The NDP said the government should implement all 48 recommendations. The Conservatives said they need more time to review the full report.
The report also calls on the government to assess the future of Canada’s two military colleges, in Ontario and Quebec. They have a well-documented problem of sexual harassment, discrimination and misconduct, Ms. Arbour wrote, noting that the Deschamps report said sexual harassment was considered a “passage obligé.”
Ms. Arbour said she found similar issues. “The college environment for female cadets remains unwelcoming and at times hostile,” the report finds. She said the colleges are not delivering on their mandate and questioned how culture change can happen without changes in the colleges that feed into the Forces. The government said it was still assessing this recommendation.
Academics who have studied the sexual misconduct crisis in the Forces said they were disappointed the government wasn’t moving ahead with more of the recommendations, especially ones like the transition to the civilian system. Still, Stéfanie von Hlatky, a Canada research chair in gender, security and the armed forces at Queen’s University, said the government could already have done a lot, but Ms. Arbour’s report leaves no room for other excuses.
Megan MacKenzie, a professor at Simon Fraser University, said she’s concerned the Liberals could take too long to act on Ms. Arbour’s recommendations and miss the opportunity, for example, if the government or ministers change. “We’re at this moment where there’s a crisis,” Prof. MacKenzie said, “and it needs to be converted into action quite quickly.”
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