The story Louise Arbour tells about the military’s handling of sexual misconduct is a tale of an insular organization so resistant to change and outside ideas that it needs external actors to monitor its behaviour on many levels.
That goes beyond moving the prosecution of criminal sexual offences to the civilian justice system to having the Canadian Human Rights Commission handle cases of sexual harassment in the military, appointing an external monitor to review progress in the Canadian Armed Forces, and maybe even scrapping Canada’s military colleges.
That’s needed, Ms. Arbour tells us, because the military has a long history of responding to reports and recommendations with a flurry of activity that ticks off boxes to claim things are being done, while little real change occurs. That happened after the Somalia inquiry in the 1990s, the former Supreme Court justice reported, and that happened after former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps delivered a shocking report on sexual misconduct in the military in 2015.
Yet this tale still leaves one wondering about the folks who were supposed to be providing external oversight to the military all along, but didn’t: the government. In particular, that means Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government and his defence minister from 2015 to 2021, Harjit Sajjan.
Now, it is a good thing Mr. Trudeau seemed to recognize this failing, albeit under the duress of political controversy. His government appointed Ms. Arbour. A new minister, Anita Anand, was tasked with delivering reform.
Better late than never. Maybe.
The problem now is that Mr. Trudeau and his ministers still don’t seem to have found the guts to oversee the military. You know – beyond rhetoric. It is a basic duty of the government of the day to ensure civilian control of the military, but the Liberals have been too distracted, and too scared, to exert control.
They feared digging into the details of military matters – Mr. Sajjan didn’t even seem to think it was his job – and stirring up disputes with generals that promised more political headaches than rewards. But by now, after a mountain of allegations of sexual misconduct against high-ranking officers, you’d think there isn’t much choice.
On Monday, it wasn’t clear the fear is gone. Or that the pattern that Ms. Arbour decried – the military responding with a flurry of activity, and bodies, and paper directives that don’t really change much – won’t be repeated.
Ms. Anand said she “accepted” all the recommendations in Ms. Arbour’s report, but she deployed a significant amount of bafflegab to cloud the fact she wasn’t actually committing to implement all of them.
She said she would immediately adopt about a third of them, 17, including appointing an external monitor. She said she’d ask senior officers and officials for a plan on whether and when the rest can be put into practice. It turns out “accepting” isn’t the same thing as doing.
Handing over complaints of non-criminal sexual harassment in the military to the Human Rights Commission? The brass won’t be keen. Ms. Anand didn’t commit. Will the government really consider closing the Kingston, Ont., and Saint-Jean, Que., military colleges? General Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff, suggested the brass is “aligned” with Ms. Arbour’s report on that. What does that mean? They’ll study it.
Governments don’t have to accept every recommendation, of course. But the obfuscation, and vapid claims of alignment, are unsettling signs.
Luckily, Ms. Arbour, sitting beside Ms. Anand and Gen. Eyre at Monday’s news conference, made a point of warning against the oft-repeated pattern of delay, deflect and dodge.
One of her recommendations is that Ms. Anand formally declare which recommendations she won’t pursue. “If something is not going to happen, let’s just say it,” Ms. Arbour said. She added that she is wary of recommending more oversight bodies because it detracts from the political responsibility of people like Ms. Anand.
That is the crucial element. And at this point, we still have to doubt the political will.
Ms. Anand delivered a seize-the-moment admonition that if things don’t change in the Canadian Armed Forces now, Canada might end up with a military that can’t fulfill its mission. But that’s a warning that she should deliver to her fellow cabinet ministers, and Mr. Trudeau. After all, they’re supposed to be in charge.
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