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New head of Canadian military sends strong anti-harassment message

New Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance gestures as he speaks during a change of command ceremony in Ottawa, Friday, July 17, 2015.


The new Chief of the Defence Staff is sending a strong message that sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated under his command, declaring in his first order as leader of Canada's military that the "harmful behaviour" has to stop.

General Jonathan Vance, the former commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command who twice led Canadian troops in Kandahar, was sworn in on Friday to take over from retiring General Tom Lawson.

In his first speech as CDS, Gen. Vance told the officers, politicians and bureaucrats attending the ceremony in a downtown convention centre that the well-being of members of the Armed Forces will be his top priority and that of all other officers of the army, navy, air force and special operations.

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"Any form of harmful sexual behaviour has been and always will be absolutely contrary to good order and discipline. It is a threat to morale, it is a threat to operational readiness, and a threat to this institution," said the general. "Therefore, as my first order to the Canadian Armed Forces, everybody must continue to work together to eliminate this harmful behaviour. It must stop now."

The Canadian military has been accused of tolerating an endemic culture of sexual harassment and victim-blaming.

A report released in late April by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found that women in the Forces are routinely subjected to degrading expressions, sexual jokes and unwelcome touching. The report said that the environment within the military is conducive to sexual assault and a large percentage of cases are not reported as women have become desensitized to it.

Even before that report was released, Gen. Lawson appointed Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross to lead a new agency to oversee allegations of sexual misconduct and to provide advice, independent of the military chain of command, about how to deal with the problem.

But the depth of the military's commitment to tackle sexual assault has since been repeatedly questioned. Last month, Gen. Lawson created a stir when he said during a nationally televised interview that sexual harassment is "biologically wired" into some male troops and that some of them believe it is reasonable to press their desires on others – a remark for which he later apologized saying it was an "awkward characterization."

Among those who took the podium at Gen. Vance's swearing-in ceremony was Jason Kenney, the Minister of National Defence. He urged the new CDS to move forward with the work of Lt.-Gen. Whitecross and her team.

Gen. Vance responded in his own speech by promising to act on the recommendations of the Deschamps report without delay.

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Incoming chiefs of the defence staff usually take media questions after their swearing-in ceremonies, but a news conference scheduled with Gen. Vance was cancelled early Friday morning. When asked why, senior defence officials deferred questions to the Prime Minister's Office, which did not respond.

But the general left no room for uncertainty about where he stands on sexual harassment.

"We need to take care of each other, like warriors do, and those who work with us, by treating each other with respect and honour, always," he said. "Our jobs are dangerous enough, and there are plenty of adversaries and situations that would do us harm; we shouldn't ever be doing harm in any form to each other."

Leaders, said Gen. Vance, protect the people under them and must see every soul they lead as precious.

"If you don't, the only people following you will be the bullies and the predators and they, frankly, are the most useless in combat operations. We're better off without them in our ranks," he said.

Correction: This article originally listed Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross's rank as Major-General. While she held the rank of Major-General at the time of her appointment, she has since been promoted.

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