Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it was "offensive, inappropriate [and] completely unacceptable" for Canada's top military commander to call sexual harassment in the Canadian Forces "biologically wired," but sources said on Wednesday that the government had no plans to expedite General Tom Lawson's retirement.
Gen. Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, is slated to step down this summer and be replaced by Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance. The transfer of command is expected to take place in July. But Gen. Lawson still appears to have the confidence of the Harper government.
On Wednesday afternoon, a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the general will depart on the "same schedule" as planned.
The military community has been abuzz over the matter, with some saying the top commander should call it quits now.
Retired lieutenant-colonel Norbert Cyr, who served as public affairs adviser to Walter Natynczyk, a former chief of the defence staff, told The Globe and Mail that Gen. Lawson should go now. "I am appalled. I think, frankly, he should resign. He's shown a distinct lack of leadership in taking charge of this issue."
In the Commons on Wednesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair urged Mr. Harper "to put an end to this toxic culture within our military" and ensure the Forces implement all the recommendations of a recent report on sexual assault within the military.
The Prime Minister said he has no patience for such behaviour but cautioned against branding the entire military as compromised. "Sexual misconduct and sexual harassment are unacceptable in any institution. There is no excuse for it," Mr. Harper said. He added, however, he doesn't believe politicians should take any action that would "slur all of the men and women in uniform."
Gen. Lawson's commitment to address the problem of sexual harassment in the Forces is being called into question after his comments about the link between biology and sexual assault in an interview Tuesday with CBC's Peter Mansbridge on the network's Power & Politics.
When Mr. Mansbridge asked Gen. Lawson about harassment in the military, the general replied: "It would be a trite answer, but it's because we're biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It's not the way it should be." Asked to elaborate, he said: "Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely, men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members."
He apologized for the remarks, calling them an "awkward characterization," and did not give further interviews on the matter.
A sexual assault prevention educator said the remarks call the military's efforts to deal with the issue into question.
"It's not only offensive to women to say that when you are in the presence of men you should expect men to behave that way, but it's also really offensive to men to argue that men are basically animals that can't contain themselves," said Julie Lalonde, an award-winning educator who teaches about the need for consent in sexual relations.
"And I think it's also important to note that this was him speaking directly, off the cuff," she said. "So it is very easy for his communications team to issue an apology after the fact, but it's clear that that was his view because that was his first response to the question from Peter Mansbridge."
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told reporters: "I'm at a loss for words on the chosen verbiage that the general used. It's not something – it is not something that I agree with and it's not something I appreciate, not in senior management."
Mr. Mulcair said he feared that Gen. Lawson's exit would not mark an attitude shift. "The real problem is that nobody is working for a change in the culture in the military on the issue of sexual harassment," Mr. Mulcair said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the comments were unacceptable and the apology inadequate: "Gen. Lawson should be immediately dismissed," Mr. Trudeau said after a party caucus meeting on Wednesday.
A report issued this spring after a lengthy investigation by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found there was a sexualized culture within the military in which women suffer routinely from degrading expressions, sexual jokes and unwelcome touching. Major-General Chris Whitecross has since been dispatched on a program aimed at reducing the problem.
Ms. Lalonde said she herself was whistled at, cat-called, laughed at and openly disrespected by officer cadets at the Royal Military College last year – an incident for which she received an apology from Brigadier-General Al Meinzinger, the college's commandant.
"So we have three top military leaders giving very different answers," Ms. Lalonde said. "You have Gen. Meinzinger, who issued an apology to me saying what I experienced was harassment. You have Maj.-Gen. Chris Whitecross, who is travelling across the country right now saying we have a problem in the Canadian military. And then you have Gen. Lawson, who is giving this really weak response saying we don't have a problem and, when we do, we can't do anything about it because it's biologically determined."
Ms. Deschamps's report urged the creation of a fully independent agency to receive complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct and offer support to victims of assault and harassment, like the ones that exist in the United States, Australia and European countries. Gen. Lawson agreed to the recommendation for a new organization in principle, but the Canadian military would only commit to creating a centralized system to handle complaints.
Stefanie von Hlatky, a military expert at Queen's University in Kingston, said the general's comments betray a lack of serious work and preparation on the sexual harassment file.
"A thorough understanding of sexual misconduct in the military would lead to more constructive commentary from the CDS," Dr. Hlatky said. "So far, it seems the hard work has been delegated to Maj.-Gen. Whitecross's task force, while Lawson fumbles when pressed on the issue. The Canadian Armed Forces, I'm sure, are eager to strive for a higher professional standard and to find proactive ways to address the fundamental problems raised in the Deschamps report."
She said she hoped that Lt.-Gen. Vance, Gen. Lawson's replacement, will bring more "robust leadership" to the issue of sexual harassment. "This transition has the potential to bring new momentum to the action plan that is being designed to address sexual misconduct in the military," she said.
With reports from Daniel Leblanc and Bill Curry