The Liberal government’s handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance has all of the components of what should be an earth-shattering, heads-rolling political scandal.
There are the obvious reasons: that no one in government did much of anything when presented with claims of serious sexual misconduct on the part of the country’s highest-ranking military officer. But there is also the much broader implication: that despite this government’s self-proclaimed feminist swagger, it completely failed to act on the endemic problem of sexual assault in the Canadian military when it knew it was simmering away.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the reins of government the same year retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued her report into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. The report featured 10 major recommendations to address a “sexualized culture in the CAF,” including the creation of an independent body to receive and address complaints. That never happened.
“Operation Honour” – the campaign launched in 2015 to address the toxic sexual cultural in the military, crassly nicknamed “Operation Hop On Her” by some in uniform – didn’t achieve much of anything beyond awareness of the problem. According to figures tabled by the Department of National Defence, there were 581 reported incidents of sexual assault and 221 cases of sexual harassment between April 1, 2016 and March 9, 2021. The operation, such as it was, formally shuttered after allegations against Mr. Vance and other top military brass publicly came to light earlier this year.
If hundreds of (mostly) women were being sexually assaulted in any other federal workplace – and were accused of lying by their superiors – there would be marches in the street and demands for resignations. The minister on the file would not be able to get away with claiming he didn’t want to look at allegations for fear of “political interference,” as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan claimed, implausibly, when questioned about Mr. Vance during a committee hearing. Similarly, the Prime Minister would not be allowed to both boast about his government’s “feminist credentials” and claim, also implausibly, that no one in his office knew the charge against Mr. Vance was a “Me Too” complaint – though e-mails show otherwise. And the minister would not be able to announce, with a straight face, a new independent review by another former Supreme Court justice – as Mr. Sajjan did Thursday – as a remedy just six years after the completion of the last one.
But this particular scandal somehow remains a rather insular one. It has not, according to public polling, moved the needle on this government’s support, nor has it provoked much outcry beyond from invested parties and political operatives.
Part of the reason is that Canada is in the midst of an acute crisis: Alberta has the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in all of Canada, Ontario has stopped all non-emergency surgeries and Nova Scotia has all but shut down for two weeks. The public is undoubtedly less inclined to tune into the goings-on of the standing committee on national defence when they are being inundated with warnings about overflowing hospitals.
But there might be more to the public’s apathy on this issue beyond simple timing. Scandals involving the intersection of politics and the military rarely resonate with the public (beyond extreme examples, such as the 1993 Somalia affair, in which two Canadian soldiers beat a Somalian teenager to death). Canadians also often shrug while warships literally sink into disrepair. Procurement processes are rife with conflict and delays. Veterans get railroaded with a major overhaul to their pensions, which is only reversed after a decade of lobbying and the election of a new government. And a vice-admiral can be made a scapegoat for an embarrassing government leak, charged criminally, then have the charges stayed without so much as an apology by a government that still claims that it is an arbiter of moral good.
The disconnect might have something to do with Canadians’ relative unfamiliarity with all things military. Unlike the Americans, for whom army life is infused in various aspects of pop culture, daily life and politics, Canadian civilians, especially in urban centres, only think of the CAF when they’re asked to clap before hockey games. The military has its own chain of command, its own police, its own prosecutors and its own justice system, which together renders it an entity altogether foreign for Canadian citizens with no direct connection. The average woman simply can’t relate to or understand the experience of a woman in the CAF, which might be why women’s centres at universities all across Canada haven’t yet issued public demands for accountability for those who have shrugged off systemic abuse.
Mr. Sajjan’s announcement that the government will repeat the process of an independent review, after failing to implement a number of recommendations from the last one, is quite clearly a feigning of real action so Ottawa can keep kicking the can down the road. That is worthy of your outrage – not simply from the hundreds of women in uniform who told their stories years ago, but from the millions of Canadian women who might not understand army life, but can nevertheless recognize when their government sold them fake feminist promises.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.