Kelly S. Thompson is the author of Girls Need Not Apply, a memoir about her time as a captain in the Canadian Armed Forces.
It is impossible to count the number of demeaning instances of sexual harassment and assault I’ve witnessed and experienced over my eight years as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Still, I never complained. I was a trained harassment advisor, but ironically, it wasn’t until a female colleague confided that a lieutenant-colonel was making her uncomfortable that I was prompted to finally make a harassment complaint. It was up to me, I felt, to protect her, even though the offender had previously swore at me and routinely demanded I make his coffee. The result? He told me I needed to learn to take a joke.
Today, when I continue to speak out publicly against this systemic failure to protect survivors, men tell me to get over it. Some tell me I was being a whiner; others, that I should be raped silent. Many of these critics are current or retired military members, and in the same sentences as various threats, they insist there is no culture or harassment “problem” in the Forces.
So, like many others who work or have worked in the Department of National Defence, civilians and military alike, I warily welcomed last week’s apology from Defence Minister Anita Anand, Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre, and Deputy Defence Minister Jody Thomas. Although I can only speak to my experience, there are many others who have been waiting for this day with similar mixed feelings. This hypermasculinized environment has been evident and pervasive for generations, and it is not some revelation in the era of #MeToo – so there is reason for skepticism, particularly around whether or not this acknowledgment of our suffering would come with practical, enforced policy changes.
Still, I tuned in to the apology. And despite my misgivings, I found myself wanting to believe it.
Ms. Anand assured listeners that this time would be different. And she didn’t just refer to a more global “we” – each speaker also employed the more personal and more accountable first-person subject, “I.” “I apologize to the thousands of Canadians who were harmed because your government did not protect you, nor did we ensure that the right systems were in place to ensure justice and accountability,” she said.
Think of all the times you’ve been hurt, and how much was soothed by a sincere “I’m sorry.” I know well – as an author and public speaker who has travelled the country to discuss harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces, and who has been approached many times by other people who say “yes, this happened to me, too” – that a genuine apology can have a profound healing capacity. These words create a space in which survivors can feel heard, when many are used to being silenced for fear of professional repercussions or worse, further harassment and assault. “I apologize” was an important step.
“Things can change, they must change, and they will change,” Ms. Anand added, and while I may be naïve, I’m inclined to believe her. I don’t want to live in a world without hope, and seeing a woman of colour in this position of power gives me that. Her appointment signals the potential of a new CAF that is as diverse as our country.
But if this apology is to be the start of powerful change, then our Prime Minister – the leader of our country – should have been standing next to his representatives. Yes, these problems existed before him; each prime minister has unfortunately, at one point or another, empowered alleged harassers or abusers with positions of authority. But someone will always be left holding the proverbial hot potato. If Justin Trudeau isn’t ready to accept that kind of accountability, I don’t know how the survivors are meant to trust his government’s assurances. We said we’d die for our country. Survivors are owed a similarly weighted pledge in return.
So while I’m hopeful, I remain guarded. If survivors and the next generation are to have faith in this organization again, they need action. They need safe reporting options without professional repercussions. They need impartial and thorough investigations that are executed by an outside, civilian authority. They need an end to the cycle of promotions and protections that perpetrators receive.
For some of us, this apology has been a balm; for others, it’s a fire-starter of emotion. But what the word “sorry” does not do for anyone is fix the past.
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