The Canadian Armed Forces are marred by a "sexualized culture" that disproportionately affects lower-ranking female members, and most victims of sexual misconduct don't report the wrongdoing, a sweeping report has found.
Still, Canada's top military officer refused to promise to enact the main recommendation in the hard-hitting report, namely the creation of a fully independent agency to receive complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct and offer support to victims of assault and harassment. The United States, Australia and European countries such as France have already created organizations that are outside of the chain of command to deal with the reluctance of victims to come forward with complaints to their superiors.
General Tom 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.
"We have to look at what provides the proper outcome for our members," the Chief of the Defence Staff, who is soon to retire, said at a news conference on Thursday. "Should it be above the Chief of the Defence Staff? That is one of things we will be looking at."
Marie Deschamps, the former Supreme Court judge and author of the report, said the independence of the institution was crucial to dealing with the problem. She promised to keep a watchful eye on the Canadian Armed Forces, which are embarking on an international round of consultations before deciding on the best solution for the country's military.
"I don't hear a 'no,' so that is a start," Ms. Deschamps said. The report was prompted by media reports of sexual misconduct.
Gen. Lawson acknowledged that in his eyes, the biggest problem identified in the report is the clear under-reporting of complaints. He had played down the possibility of systemic problems in the military last year, but said he has since been convinced that they exist.
"The problem lies not only with those who behave poorly or maliciously, the responsibility also rests with those who idly stand by and permit inappropriate behaviour to persist, from jokes to harassment to assaults," he said.
He called for a cultural shift inside the Canadian Armed Forces, stating that other massive changes have occurred in recent decades, from implementing tighter safety for fighter pilots to tackling mental-health problems.
Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West said failure is not an option in dealing with the problem, while Major-General Chris Whitecross said her team was already looking to offer improved services and support to victims of inappropriate sexual actions.
After engaging with 700 members of all ranks across Canada, Ms. Deschamps found a clear "disjunction" between the military ethos and the day-to-day reality of its members.
Women suffer routinely from degrading expressions, sexual jokes and unwelcome touching – a situation that leads to abuses in a number of circumstances, including date rape and inappropriate relationships between males and females of differing ranks.
"Cumulatively, such conduct creates an environment that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and is conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault," the report said. "At the most serious extreme, these reports of sexual violence highlighted the use of sex to enforce power relationships and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit."
One member was quoted as saying "there is not a female who has not had a problem" since joining the Forces. The situation starts as soon as women enlist, although "trainees are reluctant to call the behaviour of their trainers in question for fear of negative repercussions."
"Ultimately, many women report having to develop a thick skin and to become desensitized to a culture of sexually inappropriate conduct," the report said.
Over all, the report found that "a large percentage" of cases of sexual assault and harassment are not reported, given fears that complaints will hurt one's career or not be treated confidentially.
"First and foremost, interviewees stated that fear of negative repercussions for career progression, including being removed from the unit, is one of the most important reasons why members do not report such incidents. Victims expressed concerns about not being believed, being stigmatized as weak, labelled a trouble-maker, subjected to retaliation by peers and supervisors, or diagnosed as unfit for work," the report said.
One of the main problems facing the Canadian Armed Forces is a widespread perception that it is acceptable to objectify women's bodies, make hurtful jokes and "cast aspersions" on female members.
"The [report] found that members appear to become inured to this sexualized culture as they move up the ranks," the report said. "Officers tend to excuse incidents of inappropriate conduct on the basis that the CAF is merely a reflection of civilian society. There is also a strong perception that senior [non-commissioned officers] are responsible for imposing a culture where no one speaks up and which functions to deter victims from reporting sexual misconduct."
One of the major problems for women in the Forces is that they are not welcomed by all of their male colleagues. "Many men continue to hold negative attitudes about the presence of women in the military. … Most men did not view sexual language as harassing, and thought that attempts to 'police' language would be 'ridiculous'; as one male participant states, 'girls that come to the Army know what to expect.'"
The result of this situation is that some officers higher up in the chain of command "are genuinely unaware of the extent of the inappropriate sexual conduct that is occurring on the ground, the harm to individual members, and the damage to the CAF as a whole."