Emma Phillips was counsel to the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. She is a partner at Goldblatt Partners LLP.
Two weeks ago, the Canadian Armed Forces released its first "progress report" on its efforts to address the problem of sexual harassment and assault in the military. The initiative, dubbed "Operation HONOUR," comes as a response to the problems identified last spring in an independent review by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps.
Most notably, the Deschamps report found that the military is characterized by a sexualized culture that is hostile to women and LGBTQ members, and which is conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault. She also found that sexual misconduct is vastly under-reported and that there is a widespread perception among members that aggressors can act with impunity.
While it is too soon to know whether genuine improvements are being made, the progress report provides some reason for optimism. In September, the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence opened an independent Response Centre outside the chain of command, giving complainants the opportunity to make a confidential complaint and/or seek information without fear of repercussion. In just over three months, the Centre had received 29 complaints of sexual harassment and 34 complaints of sexual assault from members of the Forces.
In many ways, the number of complaints is a good sign. That members are now coming forward to report their experiences, and that the military is tracking these incidents in an open and transparent way, represents a significant change from the previous culture of denial.
In 2012, for example, military leaders interpreted a surprisingly low rate of complaints of sexual harassment – 31 incidents over 10 years – as indicative of a low rate of occurrence, rather than of an environment of intimidation in which members were unwilling to come forward. The importance of these changes in reporting practices should therefore not be underestimated.
The leadership of the Canadian Forces has also striven to send a clear message that inappropriate sexual conduct will not be tolerated – a notable change in attitude from the comments of former chief of defence staff Tom Lawson that some men are simply "wired" to commit sexual misconduct. In the same vein, there is an apparent recognition that tackling sexual misconduct is critical not only because of the harm it does to individuals, but also because it undermines the unit cohesion necessary for a successful military.
Sexual misconduct is not simply a "women's problem" but a problem for the organization as a whole. (Though one has to wonder why all of the leaders appointed to the Strategic Response Team are women, making it all too easy for some members of the organization to dismiss it as marginal to the "real business" of the Canadian Forces.)
While these first steps are positive, it remains an open question whether they will be followed by sustained and effective change. Will complainants of sexual violence be supported instead of stigmatized? Will the serious deficiencies in military policing identified in the Deschamps report, including inept and insensitive investigations, be remedied? Will members take Operation HONOUR to heart or dismiss it as overly "politically-correct" and irrelevant to the operational realities of the military? Will commanders impose meaningful and consistent discipline where inappropriate sexual conduct occurs, or will they turn a blind eye and sweep it under the rug?
Ultimately, will the Forces be able to regain the confidence of its members that it takes sexual harassment and assault seriously, or will victims reject Operation HONOUR as a superficial attempt to save face?
The answers to these questions will only become apparent over time. But if the Forces follow through on these initial efforts with sustained commitment, backed with the necessary resources, significant progress can be made. This is critical not only to rebuilding members' trust in the organization, but also to strengthening our military operations. If successful, the Canadian Forces may also serve as a model for other militaries internationally, many of which are struggling with the same problems.
Indeed, the strategic plan laid out by the Forces to tackle sexual misconduct stands in stark contrast to the failure of the UN to address recent allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers. The struggle to address sexual misconduct in the military is therefore also an opportunity for the Forces to show real leadership – to its members, the public, and the global community.