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Officer cadets on the parade square during the graduation from the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., on May 20.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The future of Canada’s military colleges is under scrutiny after former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, in her comprehensive review of the Department of National Defence and Armed Forces, asked whether they should remain degree-granting institutions and recommended a review of their operations.

The Royal Military College at Kingston and its counterpart at Saint-Jean in Quebec have a long and significant history in shaping the officers who have led Canada’s armed forces. In Ms. Arbour’s words, the graduates of RMC form a kind of informal elite within the Canadian Forces.

But in her review, which focused on sexual misconduct in the military and on leadership, Ms. Arbour raised questions about whether military education needs to be rethought.

“The military colleges appear as institutions from a different era, with an outdated and problematic leadership model.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, as they currently exist,” Ms. Arbour wrote.

“There is enough evidence that military colleges are not delivering on their mandate that I believe alternatives must be explored with an open mind.”

She recommended that an external education specialist lead a review of the colleges that would look at the quality of education, the military training and the socialization that they are delivering. She said that other models for delivering military education should be examined, suggesting in particular that the government consider having prospective officers attend civilian universities and then attend a military institution for a year of professional military education and training.

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A second recommendation on education called for the elimination of the cadet wing command structure.

Ms. Arbour added that while these questions are assessed, the government should take steps to tackle the “long-standing culture concerns unique to the military college environment, including the continuing misogynistic and discriminatory environment and the ongoing incidence of sexual misconduct.”

The two recommendations on education are not among those in the review that the government immediately accepted and committed to implement.

In a statement Tuesday, the Defence department said despite progress toward meaningful cultural change at RMC in recent years, it is clear that more work and change is needed.

Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre said at a press conference Monday that the military would re-examine its educational system.

“Do we have the model right for Kingston and for Saint-Jean, or is there another model that would better serve us?” he said. “We are going to study the recommendation.”

Nearly every major military among Canada’s allies has its own institutions for the training of officers, a system that traces its roots to the specialization of warfare in the 19th century. RMC opened in the 1870s and today has more than 1,000 full-time students, both graduate and undergraduate.

Questions about its direction have persisted for more than a decade. A 2017 auditor-general’s report found RMC couldn’t demonstrate that it produced officers at a reasonable cost and that there were weaknesses in the training it provided. Educating a student at RMC was roughly twice as costly as at other universities of similar size, the auditor-general found, and twice as costly as producing officers through other pathways.

One of the arguments for a specialized military institution is that it socializes officers to the institution, but Ms. Arbour’s report raised questions about several aspects of the environment at RMC.

The student population is not as diverse as it is at other universities, with an undergraduate population at RMC last year that was about 22 per cent women and 24 per cent visible minorities, significantly different from other Ontario universities where women are often 50 per cent or more and visible minorities closer to 40 per cent of the student body.

A Statistics Canada survey of more than 500 respondents at RMC and Saint-Jean in 2020 found 68 per cent said they had witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviour in the previous year. Ms. Arbour said the interviews her team conducted with cadets during their review were worrisome.

“I was told that almost every female cadet has either experienced an incident or more of sexual misconduct ‘or worse,’” she wrote.

Ms. Arbour said her recommendations “could imply significant and difficult changes” ahead at RMC and Saint-Jean. But it’s time for a reassessment of their role, she wrote.

“The many pressures of the military college environment impair the quality of academic success, as a lot is being shoehorned into a four-year college program,” Ms. Arbour wrote.

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