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General Paul Manson was chief of the defence staff from 1986 to 1989 and is Canada’s oldest living former CDS. General Ray Henault served as chief of the defence staff from 2001 to 2005 and finished his military career as chairman of the NATO Military Committee in Brussels from 2005 to 2008.

Deeply troubling evidence of sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces has created a crisis of confidence in the military. In particular, massive media coverage of recent allegations against several senior officers, including a former chief of the defence staff and his successor, brought home to Canadians the seriousness of the matter and has led to a resounding call for culture change.

Lost in much of the resulting debate, however, has been the effect on those who serve or who have served. Pride of service has always been a hallmark of membership in Canada’s military, and witnessing the damage that has occurred to the very foundation of that pride has been a painful experience for veterans and current members alike.

Knowing as we do that the vast majority of military personnel are ethical, law-abiding citizens who abhor sexual misbehaviour, we urge Canadians to understand that these dedicated people, more than anyone, are seeking to bring about the changes needed to eliminate such behaviour. They want to play a major role in the corrective process so that they, as serving members, can restore a high regard for the military in the eyes of the public.

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The men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces understand that the continued failure to provide protection from all forms of inappropriate sexual conduct at the hands of other members of the Armed Forces is shameful. It has been heartbreaking to hear the horrific accounts of those who have been hurt in this way, only to be denied the compassion and respect they deserved because of institutional barriers and poor leadership.

In the end, no matter what policies, systems or processes are implemented, it is a fundamental responsibility of all leaders – indeed, all members of the military, of every rank – to look after their teammates and offer full support to those who have been hurt during their service and to prevent further transgressions. In this the military must work in full co-operation with all civilian authorities and agencies and act quickly to implement the recommendations of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, in her upcoming review of sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces, and from former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish in his recently released review of Canada’s system of military justice. Accusations of misconduct against any member of the military must be treated seriously and expeditiously by authorities at all levels of the institution.

Doing so will require the preservation of the basic principles of our democratic, law-based society. The presumption of innocence must be upheld in the course of investigations, and conclusions must be evidence-based. The privacy of involved individuals, whether accuser or accused, must be respected in accordance with Canadian law. Punishment, where warranted, needs to be appropriately based on the circumstances of the case. The application of military law has to be demonstrably effective and free of bias or interference.

We have seen how some senior officers have been subjected to allegations, information leaks from unnamed sources and negative public pronouncements in the media. These have real consequences, as the highly public removal from office of high-ranking military leaders is arguably the most significant sanction imaginable in the profession of arms. As was seen in the wake of the suspension of former vice-chief of the defence staff Mark Norman in 2017 over a breach-of-trust charge that was ultimately dropped, these acts can have serious consequences for the individual and their family. They can also negatively affect ongoing missions, operational readiness and critical national security programs.

There are countless examples in history of senior military leaders being relieved of command for having been judged as underperforming, acting unlawfully or behaving unethically; this is a part of traditional military culture, especially in the heat of combat. In peacetime, however, other factors can come into play, including when higher authority deems such removal necessary to demonstrate the maintenance of the high standard expected of those entrusted with command authority and responsibilities.

There is a clear need to act aggressively and visibly on any allegation of sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces. However, in all of this, authorities must take into account an important objective: rebuilding and sustaining the confidence, morale and trust of all uniformed personnel. If their pride is thus restored, the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces can be relied upon to play a vital role in eliminating sexual misconduct within their ranks and continue to excel in their critical operational missions at home and abroad.

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