Ken Hansen is an independent defence and security analyst who retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2009 in the rank of commander.
Four of the highest-ranking officers in the Canadian military are currently out of jobs after allegations of misconduct: former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance; his very recent successor, Admiral Art McDonald; Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, Chief of Military Personnel Command; and Air Force Lieutenant-General Chris Coates, who commanded the Canadian Joint Forces organization.
The situations are not all alike, from what little we know. Lt.-Gen. Coates, for his part, made his situation – an affair with a U.S. civilian co-worker – known to his superiors, and while the Department of National Defence had deemed it a non-violation, he requested his release from the CAF in March for personal reasons, “including what I believe would be in the best interests of the Canadian Armed Forces.” The former chief of defence staff, meanwhile, had retired before charges of inappropriate behaviour with female subordinates came to light, and he has denied them. Adm. McDonald has stepped down from his post while an investigation is conducted into an alleged misconduct incident, and he has made no comment on the matter; Vice-Adm. Edmundson is on indefinite leave with pay after a sexual-assault claim that he has repudiated.
But one thing seems clear: The acting Chief of the Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, has reacted weakly and without focus.
Lt.-Gen. Eyre has professed a lack of knowledge about how to proceed with the situation, and has wondered aloud about creating a formal guidebook on the subject, mainly because the courts-martial approach has never been used for trials of such high-ranked officers. On Mar. 5, he sent out a discursive letter to all members of the military, in which he referred obliquely to “certain behaviours” that he characterized only as “troubling.” In another letter later that month, he identified “sexual misconduct revelations and allegations” and laid down an action plan for investigation and change, but then piled on a wide range of unrelated issues. These only diluted and confused what should have been his main message: trust has been broken among CAF service officers. And to send an unambiguous message to any officer who is found guilty of such a breach of trust, the CAF should formalize a policy that any offenders will have their meritorious-service decorations rescinded, from the highest medal in the Order of Military Merit to the lowest of the ubiquitous Canadian Forces’ Decoration.
Trust is central to how modern military forces operate, and it must function both upward and downward in the rank structure. The staff or crew supports the commander, who is trusted to issue orders that balance the twin priorities of accomplishing the mission and ensuring the welfare of their subordinates. Modern military operations are broad in scope, complex in nature and technical in almost every aspect, so small teams of experts built on trust are the foundations of today’s armed forces. But while good leadership is constantly stressed at all levels of military training and education, good followership is seldom mentioned; discipline and loyalty are the key concepts.
This is not new. Everyone in the military knows that having a sexual relationship with a subordinate is wrong and that sexual assault is a serious crime. It was also not so long ago that anyone who had same-sex relations, whether with someone in the military or not, was hunted down, interrogated and ruthlessly discarded in the name of keeping the military secure and trusted. While there are many examples of successful military spouses in appropriate relationships, a superior officer having secretive sexual relations with a subordinate makes them just as theoretically vulnerable to extortion. So to characterize alleged predatory acts as “troubling” creates a double standard for military members, seemingly depending on their rank. That cannot be tolerated.
Repairing this trust will not be easy, and there is apparently little confidence that it will ever happen. A Nanos Research poll indicates that a majority of Canadians believe that the military cannot change its workplace culture relating to sexual misconduct, mirroring the findings of the Bastarache investigation into the RCMP. One female army officer, Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, has even courageously resigned in protest because, in her words, she has been “sickened” and “disgusted” by the actions of top-level officers. People, as Lt.-Gen. Eyre indicated, are modern militaries’ most precious resources, and they are difficult to attract, recruit and retain; breaking trust should thus be seen as a major betrayal of high principles that can render a force ineffective.
According to Angelo Caravaggio, the executive director of C9Leadership and a former lieutenant-colonel in the CAF, toxic leaders are focused on themselves and their reputations, while effective leaders motivate and empower their staff by building trust and respect between them. And so any punishment should hit such toxic leaders where it hurts: by stripping them of personal merit medals that bolster their reputations.
The military, after all, loves a spectacle when awarding these to supposedly deserving members. They should be removed just as publicly from those found guilty, so that the feeling of shame we all have about being betrayed by our leaders stabs them in the same place where we held pride of service and trust in our military teammates: right in the heart.
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