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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

The Canadian Armed Forces offers excellent career prospects for women, according to the Canadian Armed Forces. Its recruiting page promises women a life of adventure, accomplishment, competitive pay and benefits, and a commitment to work-life balance.

Even better, it’s a human resources utopia: “Forces members have the right to be treated fairly, respectfully and with dignity in a workplace free of harassment,” one of the recruitment videos promises. “When you put on the uniform of the Canadian Armed Forces, you will be treated with equal respect.”

Is it just me, or does something smell fishy here? So fishy you can actually smell it through your computer? That’s quite a feat.

It was just this week that Gregory Lick, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, said, “the ongoing sexual misconduct scandal within the Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence is moving from crisis to tragedy.”

Mr. Lick gave a press conference during which he blasted both the CAF and the Department of National Defence for inaction on the misconduct scandals, for messing with his office’s mission, and for their tendencies to commission new reports instead of actually, you know, implementing the recommendations of the last several reports. I’m not an expert on civil servants’ body language, but I think Mr. Lick’s gasket was in danger of blowing.

And who could blame him? The sexual misconduct scandals in the Canadian Armed Forces manage to be shocking, confusing and endless, all at the same time. It’s like a horror movie franchise with countless sequels, each with its own particular gruesome twist.

The Globe and Mail even printed a handy synopsis, sort of a “previously on Melrose Place…”. Except this isn’t a soap opera, it’s a real-life tragedy for countless men and women who’ve suffered harassment or assault. “Two parliamentary committees have been studying the issue of sexual misconduct in the military,” The Globe noted in April. “In addition, three military police investigations are under way into the conduct of former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, Admiral Art McDonald and Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson.”

Over the spring, the Status of Women committee heard distressing testimony from current and former members of the forces who had suffered what is known as military sexual trauma. Women talked about being twice victimized, once by the assault itself, and then by the investigation that followed. They talked about feeling like they were going crazy when their complaints were ignored.

“I joined the Canadian Armed Forces in July of 2018. Since then, I feel like I’ve experienced a lifetime’s worth of sexual assault and misconduct,” aviation technician Emily Tulloch reported. She outlined crimes she’d been subjected to, including rape and sexual assault. Lieutenant Heather Macdonald talked about the specific difficulties of reporting assault in the Navy. “Most times, the victims pay a greater price than the perpetrators when they come forward, and that is why most victims are reluctant to come forward.”

They all talked about how the culture of the Canadian military – overwhelmingly white, male and heterosexual – has failed to change and embrace recruits who do not look like them. Senior leadership has failed to set an example from the top, unless it’s an example of what not to do.

There is a sense, reading these women’s testimonies, of exhaustion that nothing is changing even six years after the landmark Deschamps report identified and offered solutions to toxic military culture. There is also an eerie sense that they’re a bit like Cassandra, speaking truth that no one wants to hear.

Lt. Macdonald warned about the perils of the “old boys’ club,” and less than two months later, the second-in-command of the Forces, Lieutenant-General Mike Rouleau, resigned after he was spotted playing golf with Mr. Vance, who as we’ve noted is under investigation by the military. An old boys’ club is bad enough, but an old boys’ army is a whole other level of unsettling.

And at this point it is a boys’ club. Only 16 per cent of CAF members are women, and it looks like the military is going to fail at achieving its stated goal of bringing that number to 25 per cent by 2026. The number of women in the military has grown by only 1.3 per cent in five years.

I can’t say I blame women for not wanting to join this particular institution. Who’d want to be hired by a company when its headquarters were on fire? But if we accept for the moment that we need a military, then we need one that reflects the country it serves.

Of course, there have already been numerous reports, commissions and committees recommending how this might be accomplished. The Status of Women Committee’s report, released earlier this month, offers further guidance, from implementing the Deschamps recommendations to establishing an independent inspector-general’s office that can investigate complaints and report directly to Parliament.

Crucially, it also calls on the government to implement a strategy for recruiting and retaining women and others who are under-represented in the military. Perhaps this could start with a social-media campaign that simply says, “Can we start again, please?”

Seriously, any recruitment strategy would seem to require an acknowledgement of the terrible mistakes along the way, and the actual, verifiable steps that are being taken to improve the culture for everyone. Pretty pictures just aren’t going to cut it. Not when the truth is out there, and so many people are speaking it.

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