Leah West is a former armoured officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and a former national security lawyer with the Department of Justice. She teaches national security law and counterterrorism at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
For months, many have been preoccupied with the politics of a military misconduct scandal in the highest ranks, sparked when a current military officer levelled serious allegations of sexual misconduct against Jonathan Vance, Canada’s longest-serving chief of defence staff. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan clearly hoped to pin the scandal on the Conservative government that appointed the former CDS to the role; however, questions in parliamentary committees and on the floor of the House of Commons about who knew what, and when, have continued to hound the PMO, culminating Tuesday with a motion by the Official Opposition for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fire his chief of staff, Katie Telford.
But while this political theatre plays out, victims of sexual assault and misconduct in the military have continued to come forward with their stories, desperately trying to refocus the conversation on what truly matters: Despite years of clear evidence that sexual misconduct is rampant in our military’s culture, nothing has changed. I know because I am among them.
In my first year after graduating from the Royal Military College, a superior officer from my unit sexually assaulted me at a house party. The next morning at work, I passed out in the bathroom. An ambulance took me to the hospital, and military police were called. At some point, the police informed my commanding officer about the assault. He called me into his office and asked me how I thought he should handle it. Too afraid of what would happen to my career if I asked him to pursue an investigation, I told him what he wanted to hear. We never spoke of my assault again.
My story is not unique. For decades, women who are prepared to sacrifice everything to defend this country – their lives, their rights and freedoms, not to mention time with their children and loved ones – have effectively been told that they aren’t worthy of the same respect as their male counterparts. Put simply, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) leadership does not value women or their contribution to the mission enough to make the military a safer and fairer place for them.
This reality was made perfectly clear in a report issued by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps in 2015. She was appointed to conduct the independent review in 2014 when a survey about the CAF’s harassment policy did not align with incidences of sexual misconduct reported in the media. When the Deschamps report was released, military members – officers and non-commissioned members, men and women alike – were not ready to hear the harsh truth about an organization that shapes every element of their work and personal life. I recall hearing several women in uniform, including senior officers, speak out against the report at the time, stating that it did not reflect their experiences in the CAF.
In hindsight, this is not surprising. It was not military members who asked for a review in 2014, after all; they certainly had not asked for an outsider to come along and publicly condemn the organization and its members, and tell them how to change. Ultimately, the rank and file did not accept the report’s findings, and the senior leadership failed to implement many of its recommendations. Operation Honour, the CAF mission championed by then-Gen. Vance to prevent and address sexual misconduct, fell far short of the genuine effort necessary to change the parts of CAF culture that permit inequitable treatment of women to run rampant across the organization.
But for all its failings, Operation Honour did spark discussion of sexual misconduct in the Forces. As women continued to rise in the ranks, they started to reevaluate their surroundings and what they had been forced to endure to succeed. Women like Lieutenant-Colonel Eleanor Taylor, an experienced and highly respected combat veteran who once appeared under the newspaper headline “There’s No Life Like It,” looked around and decided they’d had enough; so disgusted was she by the failure of the CAF to confront the systemic issues of sexual misconduct and abuse of authority in the military that she resigned in March, sending shockwaves through the ranks.
Unlike the reaction to the Deschamps report, Lt.-Col. Taylor’s letter and her anger resonated with women in the forces. In the past several weeks, I have spoken to dozens of veterans and women in uniform who all express one overwhelming sentiment: seething rage.
Along with their anger comes a new and steadfast determination that things must change in the CAF. They and some of their male counterparts are determined to accomplish the objective of reforming the military’s culture. It is them who will make this change. Yes, the findings of Louise Arbour, another former Supreme Court justice who has been tasked by the Trudeau government with a broader review of CAF culture, will inform that change – but the CAF must reform itself.
I believe in these soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. I also believe that the CAF’s current leadership – acting Chief of Defence Staff Wayne Eyre, Vice-Chief of Defence Staff Frances Allen, and Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan, appointed last week to lead a newly established team as Chief of Professional Conduct and Culture – is the right team to bring about genuine institutional reforms. Gen. Eyre has made clear that he understands that culture change cannot be ordered or brought about with new policies and more PowerPoint presentations. Now he must take concrete steps to ensure that every leader within the organization, down to the smallest subunit, is empowered to demand better, take the necessary actions to eradicate toxic behaviour and antiquated ideas about what it means to be a man or woman in the armed forces, and reward those who truly embody the military ethos.
This is the real story. This is what matters. And this is where our elected officials, the media and voters need to focus their pressure and support. Getting to the bottom of the Vance scandal might score a few political points, but it will not bring about the change needed in our Canadian Armed Forces. This is going to take a lot of work, and we all have a role in seeing this through. If you’re not on board, get out of the way.
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