Stéfanie von Hlatky is a Canada research chair on gender, security and the armed forces and director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston. Tandy Thomas is an associate professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Marketing at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is reeling from the fallout of new allegations of sexual misconduct, this time affecting the highest levels of leadership. This is a huge blow to continuing efforts aimed at eradicating such conduct within the ranks, in addition to being demoralizing for the force and the population it serves.
Why is this issue so pernicious in the military? In 2015, the CAF was provided with the answer as former chief justice Marie Deschamps exposed the scope of the problem in her External Review Authority (ERA) report. Over the past five years, the CAF has introduced initiatives to eradicate sexual misconduct, to increase diversity, and to improve training, but these interventions have essentially left military culture untouched.
The CAF is well suited to adapt quickly in the face of adversity because service members are trained to make and carry out decisions in complex environments. Military culture has been optimized over time for operational effectiveness in battle. It entails tight group cohesion, rigid hierarchies, and obedience, all of which are vital for reacting quickly when bullets are flying. But this culture, which is so effective in combat and other operations, has unintended consequences.
This culture has been exploited, especially by those in positions of authority. The very structure that supports operational excellence has enabled the CAF’s sexualized culture to emerge and persist. Rigid hierarchies and obedience also make it extremely difficult for subordinates to speak up when they are the victim of sexual harassment or assault and for others to blow the whistle if they witness these transgressions. A journey of culture change needs to convey both shared responsibility for sexual misconduct but also, and perhaps more importantly, a shared vision of inclusion, dignity, and respect that transcends power hierarchies.
We must recognize that military culture is hard to change because the culture is so ingrained in its members, embedded in traditions, and part of members’ sense of professional identity. From the moment members are recruited, they are trained to fit the mould. Culture change means undoing years or decades of professional socialization and indoctrination.
Getting buy-in for culture change faces further resistance from (mostly) male service members, because many feel they have been unfairly targeted by Operation Honour, the CAF’s mission to eradicate sexual misconduct, launched in 2015. This is common, unfortunate, and likely to get worse with this latest scandal. At the same time, Operation Honour is too focused on the perpetrator. This much is evident from existing training packages, which could be improved with an increased focus on military culture, militarized masculinity, abuses of power, the needs of victims and survivors, and more emphasis on empowering members to act. The Path to Dignity and Respect, the CAF’s most recent effort to address sexual misconduct, is promising because it puts culture and climate front and centre in the discussion, thereby making cultural change everyone’s business.
But that change will not be easy; culture change is slow and multi-faceted. The solutions will invariably lack the operational efficiency and tactical precision that drive military success. Interventions will need to focus on both rooting out perpetrators but also building a new culture, keeping in mind that the military is not an isolated institution facing this problem: The CAF is embedded in a broader culture of toxic masculinity that permeates many aspects of Canadian society. The military is, in many ways, a microcosm for the challenges facing Canadian society as a whole and, as such, the military is not alone in its pursuit of, and struggle in achieving, diversity, integration, and respect for all members of their community. To their credit, the CAF has been facing their demons in the public eye and have opened their records up to scrutiny. This openness is an important first step, and one that must continue.
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