Steve Lukits teaches in the department of English, culture, and communication at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.
As Canadians’ disgust grows with new and almost daily revelations of sexism in the Canadian Armed Forces, Kate Armstrong’s 2019 book, The Stone Frigate: The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out, gives insight into the origins of the crisis – and offers some hope that it may be overcome.
That hope comes from the first-year officer cadets – the future leaders of the CAF – I teach in my English classes at RMC. Since its publication two years ago, I have been reading and talking with these students about Ms. Armstrong’s book. The 18-year-old women and men in my classes are shocked at the sexualized behaviour, harassment and abuse Ms. Armstrong suffered from the male cadets – men who are of the same generation as the former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, who is now being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct.
The book’s events, which took place between 1980 to 1984, when Ms. Armstrong was at RMC, have for my students become reality as Mr. Vance, his replacement and other senior officers face allegations of sexual misconduct. The situation has been compounded by the abject failure of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to act when he first heard about Mr. Vance’s alleged misconduct.
The most telling incident from the book that we talk about is when Ms. Armstrong finds out that the senior fourth-year students have made a bet among themselves about who can have sex with the most first-year women. A fourth-year cadet warns Ms. Armstrong to be careful because she is an attractive woman.
While my students commend the senior cadet for this warning, they also confront an ethical problem that they realize is at the heart of the current crisis in the CAF. Why didn’t the cadet who warned Ms. Armstrong not protest and tell his cadet peers that what they were doing was wrong?
In a rigidly hierarchical military culture, where the rule is teamwork and a deep reluctance to question or contradict the group and those who outrank you, it is very difficult for the individual military member to stand up against such forces for what is right. Some of my students reject such open opposition: fix the system from the inside, they argue. Why risk being ostracized by the group or even risk your career by speaking out?
Other cadets say that remaining quiet in the face of unethical conduct just perpetuates what is clearly wrong. The quiet in the class that follows this argument suggests that this is a tough situation to be in, even for these young people who are brand new to the military culture of compliance.
We also talk about masculinity, a sensitive topic when 80 per cent of my first-year students are men. The Canadian military – even with women in the ranks, including in combat arms, the last male holdout – is a ready place to enforce traditional gender stereotypes, for young men especially.
Yet it is the young men in my classes, and past male graduates of RMC who also received their commissions as officers, who must change the sexualized culture of the CAF. It will be these men’s public individual acts of ethical leadership, perhaps quietly witnessed by all ranks, that will begin to overcome sexism and other discrimination in the CAF, and not the top-down, bureaucratic programs, like the failed Operation Honour, or another study by a female Supreme Court justice (who is certain to find the well-known problems), that will begin to heal the CAF.
As we talk about Ms. Armstrong’s book and its warnings about sexism, my students’ thinking is energized by a special guest to our class, RMC’s commandant, Brigadier-General Sébastien Bouchard. Reflecting on Ms. Armstrong’s book, Brig.-Gen. Bouchard asks the officer cadets how they will want to be remembered. He also asks how he will be remembered by cadets 40 years from now.
And it is not an idle question. Ms. Armstrong writes about a sexist and physically abusive senior cadet who wanted to meet with her at her class reunion in 2014. He admits to her: “I should have stood up for you at RMC, for all the women. I feel like I need to apologize for my entire class. We were weak… The bet sums up my class.”
My students tell me that sexualized contests still happen among officer cadets at RMC. I hope that reading and talking and thinking about Ms. Armstrong’s book will encourage some of the men to stop such despicable conduct, so that they will be remembered for doing what is right and changing the CAF for the better.
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