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Members of the graduating class are shown during a Celebration of Life at RMC for the four fallen cadet officer in Kingston, Ont., on May 19.LARS HAGBERG/The Canadian Press

Ken Hansen is an independent defence and security analyst who retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2009 in the rank of commander.

Last week, former Supreme Court chief justice Louise Arbour released her long-awaited report into reforming the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces, in the wake of many allegations of sexual misconduct throughout the ranks. One recommendation in particular piqued my attention: Ms. Arbour asked whether the Royal Military Colleges in Kingston, Ont., and at Fort Saint-Jean in Quebec should continue to serve as undergraduate degree-granting institutions, or whether potential officers could attend civilian universities instead, including through the existing Regular Officer Training Plan, which provides prospective officers a salary while they attend school. The report noted “long-standing culture concerns” with the Royal Military Colleges, and calls for “a safer and more inclusive learning environment for our cadets.”

I know the military’s education system well. During my time in the Personnel Branch at National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) in the early 1990s, I had approximately 750 young naval officers under my purview. But one event in my career there still stands out, and led me to believe that the Royal Military Colleges are indeed an expensive and ineffective means of producing quality officer candidates: the abrupt and mass resignation of engineering students in a graduating class of naval cadets from Saint-Jean.

It was an unprecedented situation. In 1990, that group of about 25 young navy officers obtained their outright release from the military, paying out a significantly discounted charge of about $25,000 for the four years of education they’d already received. For the navy, that meant the loss of the product of all that education and training – a significant blow to the naval training system they were meant to undergo. The systemic costs were assessed to be in the millions of dollars. To lose so many of those who were esteemed to be our “best and brightest” prompted my superiors to ask me to investigate and produce a report.

I found that the group of students had carefully formulated this secret plan from the very outset, as they had set up a continuing savings plan for each cadet to have the means to pay out their fees at graduation. This raised the question of their dedication to service, which they had all sworn at the time of their enrolment.

But I also found little proof for the widely accepted premise that the military colleges produced better officer candidates. My analysis of naval officers’ annual evaluations at the time showed that, for junior naval officers, graduates from RMCs in the naval operations profession performed no better than any other candidate that came from the other entry streams. Their evaluations were marginally higher in the area of potential for higher rank, but in terms of performance on board ship and on professional coursing, their scores were only average. These military college graduates were not promoted faster than the candidates from the other programs; the rate of advancement had more to do with what ship they had been assigned and what sort of operational program it followed. A busy ship, I found, would provide the real advantage needed for a graduate to get the needed experience; old and deteriorating ships (known as “hell ships”) were nothing but traps that would slow down professional development.

The real kicker? At the time, the directorate at NDHQ had already assessed the per-student cost to be easily double that of what was the most costly and relevant university degree in Canada. And it was inefficient, too: Even in the days when there were three military colleges in Canada, the capacity to train all officers for a total regular force of 70,000 through these programs never existed. Direct entry officers who had paid for their own university degree, been commissioned from the ranks or were accepted straight out of high school have long accounted for the majority. And the release rate among RMC graduates, in the 10-year window I examined, was about double that of other programs.

Changing the culture of any institution, military or otherwise, is hugely difficult, and I know this firsthand from this investigation, too. My report on that mass resignation got barely a nod from the first two levels of review, but the third resulted in the confiscation of all copies, worksheets, data and notes. The army brigadier-general wanted no more “sniping” at a valuable and irreplaceable institution such as the RMC. There was to be no more discussion on the subject.

The reforms proposed by the Arbour report have some merit, based on my experience. But my experience also tells me that its many recommendations – including reconsideration of the military colleges – will generate ferocious opposition, and not necessarily backed by objective analysis.

Editor’s note: (June 10, 2022): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a graduating class of navy cadets; in fact, it was the class of navy engineer cadets.

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