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Canada Top general slams ‘toxic narratives’ in media coverage of Canadian Forces

Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance says he’s tried to be transparent about how the Forces respond to issues around sexual assault and PTSD, but he says it’s also created an impression his troops are mired in controversies.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada's top general says the country's armed forces have been demeaned by "very toxic narratives" in media coverage of sexual harassment in the military and poor treatment of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance made the comments during a speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, where he also said that Canada is poised to do "great things" with its American allies in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump once the new administration gets its footing.

"If you're paying attention to the news today, there are some very toxic narratives about the armed forces," Gen. Vance said.

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"The narrative that seems to prevail right now is if you join the armed forces, you are going to be sexually assaulted, raped or you're going to suffer from PTSD at some point and may commit suicide."

Gen. Vance said he has worked to be transparent in the way the Forces have responded to those issues. But that has wrongfully encouraged an impression that his troops are mired in the controversies.

"The more I deal with it, the more transparent I am about dealing with it, the more it prevails and carries on the myth that this is what we are all about. It's not," he said.

He said about 20 per cent of personnel who suffer trauma on operations will suffer PTSD.

"But don't think, for a minute, that we are a bunch of victims about to happen because we're not. Most of the time we are the biggest, strongest and best anywhere we go. People forget that sometimes in this narrative of accusation about who we are."

The general's remarks come as the Canadian Forces are grappling with issues of sexual harassment and assault in its ranks. In December, Gen. Vance said he would discharge anyone who sexually harassed or harmed another member of the military.

According to a Statistics Canada survey released in December, about 1.7 per cent of full-time members of the armed forces, or nearly 1,000 members, said they have been sexually assaulted within the previous year. Proposed class-action lawsuits have also been launched by former members of the armed forces.

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The Globe and Mail has examined the suicides of Canadian soldiers and veterans who served on the Afghanistan mission. The newspaper's investigation has revealed that at least 72 have ended their lives after returning from the perilous deployment. Many were on the front lines in Afghanistan and struggled with post-traumatic stress or other mental illnesses connected to their experiences in the war.

More than 40,000 Canadian military members deployed to Afghanistan. A military study has found that 14 per cent of those who served on the mission were diagnosed with a mental-health disorder linked to the tour. The rate was higher among those who were in combat.

On another issue, Gen. Vance said he is an "eternal optimist" about the path ahead, and despite the alarm in some quarters about the U.S. direction under Mr. Trump, "We are on the verge, I think, of great things together with the new administration."

He talked of common interests in procurement, the ability to share intelligence with close allies and his close professional relationship with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff – the body of senior uniformed leaders of the American defence department. He declined to take questions from the media to clarify his remarks.

Toward the end of his appearance, he added: "I am happy to have the lash laid to me in the media, but you know what? A little bit of encouragement to carry on and do our thing? I could use that too."

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