Ottawa has appointed former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to examine sexual harassment and misconduct in the military, charting a path for how the Canadian Armed Forces could set up an independent reporting system.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said on Thursday that Ms. Arbour will conduct an independent review, providing recommendations on how the military and the Department of National Defence can create such a system for those affected by sexual misconduct.
The Liberal government has faced months of pressure over who knew what and when about a three-year-old allegation of sexual misconduct against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.
The latest review will follow one from six years ago, when another former Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, recommended an independent centre of accountability for sexual assault and harassment outside the Forces.
Ms. Arbour said in an interview that at first she asked herself why Canada needed another report on the subject after the one from Ms. Deschamps. She said she thought, " ‘Seriously, do we need to go back there six years later?’ "
But “when I looked at it again, I thought, ‘are we going to wait another 15 years to look at this continued apparent dysfunction? And the apparent, more than apparent, prevalence of sexual harassment, sexual misbehaviour in all its forms?’ “
Mr. Sajjan also apologized to members of the Forces and those in the Department of National Defence who have been affected by sexual harassment and violence and who felt they did not have adequate support.
”I am truly sorry,” he said. “We know we must transform the culture of the defence team to one of dignity and respect and we need to put in place an external reporting system outside of the chain of command to begin rebuilding confidence.”
Ms. Arbour said the Deschamps report was “more than an eye-opener, it was a shell-shock,” and that now, “a large part of the diagnosis is there, the sexualized culture and so on. Now, we may need to get into the nitty gritty of what exactly do we mean by external oversight and external control of this.”
She added that she has hope and confidence that change is possible. “Sometimes you need more than one effort.”
Ms. Arbour worked with the United Nations as an International Criminal Tribunal chief prosecutor examining the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She was also UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Mr. Sajjan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, among other officials, have been criticized by opposition parties for the handling of the 2018 allegation. Two parliamentary committees have been studying the issue of sexual trauma in the military in the past number of weeks, including the defence committee, which has focused on Mr. Vance.
He is the subject of an investigation by military police, as are Admiral Art McDonald and Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson. Adm. McDonald, who initially replaced the former defence chief, stepped aside in February because of an allegation of misconduct. Vice-Adm. Edmundson is on leave from his role as head of military personnel.
The review led by Ms. Arbour will examine policies, procedures, programs, practices and culture within National Defence, and she will make recommendations on addressing systemic issues and culture change within the organization. Ms. Arbour will also examine the Forces’ military-justice system to ensure it is more responsive to the needs of those affected while holding perpetrators to account.
“Clearly, for this to have the credibility for the work that Madame Arbour is going to be doing, we absolutely have to look at the military-justice system,” Mr. Sajjan said, adding that she will focus on ensuring the system functions to support survivors who are coming forward.
It was also announced Thursday that Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, and Defence deputy minister Jody Thomas will create a new internal organization to be led by Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan. She will be the chief of professional conduct and culture. The DND said this will ensure that immediate steps are taken to act on any interim recommendations that are made.
Lt.-Gen. Eyre said he understands that there is skepticism. However, he said that Lt.-Gen Carignan will be given authority to direct changes such as examining training, including that of leaders, as well as the use and abuse of power.
Six years ago, an external review by Ms. Deschamps found that the only way to increase the reporting frequency of misconduct is to set up a mechanism outside the chain of command. The 2015 report also said armed forces in countries such as the United States, Australia and France have independent offices to which sexual misconduct can be reported, and that provide victim support, conduct training for prevention, and track data.
During recent testimony before the House of Commons defence committee, Ms. Deschamps said she was left with the impression that little has changed since her findings were released.
Ms. Deschamps said Thursday that she welcomed the appointment of Ms. Arbour, adding that the mandate for her appeared to be broader than the one she was given.
“As such, this would not be a mere repetition of what I did,” she said.
Ms. Thomas said that Ms. Deschamps’s report explained the deep and pervasive problem of sexual misconduct in the Forces to a far greater extent than anyone understood prior to findings. She said the government is hoping to work with Ms. Arbour to understand how abuse of authority continues, how it is allowed, and to look at elements including training, policies, programs and recruitment.
Ms. Thomas said the government accepts that the report by Ms. Deschamps was not implemented as intended but promised that Ms. Arbour’s findings would be carried out.
Leah West, an assistant professor of International Affairs at Carleton University, said in an interview that steps should have been taken to determine how to set up an independent body when it was first recommended by Ms. Deschamps in 2015.
“When you have a recommendation and nothing is done with it, that is the signal to everyone in the organization that the organization doesn’t believe it’s necessary,” she said.
She praised the fact that Ms. Arbour was chosen for the position because the former justice championed the rights of victims of sexual violence.
Prof. West, who retired as a captain from the Canadian Armoured Corps in 2012, said she felt like her own personal story with sexual misconduct in the military was not heard. Prof. West told The New York Times in March that she was sexually assaulted by a senior ranking officer at a party in 2008, found unconscious the next day, and the military police were called. Her case was turned over to her commanding officer, and he asked her how she wanted him to proceed.
She said she didn’t know what to expect after the story was published, but hoped that her member of Parliament, or senior leadership in the Forces who she has worked with, would reach out. Prof. West said no one asked her to testify before parliamentary hearings on sexual misconduct in the military and, overall, it felt “like nobody was listening.”
“I do believe in the capacity of the military to change and I do believe that it’s the military that’s going to change itself. It’s not going to be an external body.”
On Friday, the Conservatives plan to present a motion at the defence committee to have Ms. Telford appear for no less than two hours.
The push to have Ms. Telford appear follows a committee appearance by Elder Marques, a former senior adviser inside the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Mr. Marques told MPs last Friday that Ms. Telford spoke with him in March, 2018 about a concern related to Mr. Vance.
He also said that despite a lack of detail around the nature of the allegation, everyone appreciated the potential gravity of the issue. Mr. Vance denied any wrongdoing in an interview with Global News earlier this year, but otherwise has not commented.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Thursday that the Liberal government is choosing to protect Ms. Telford rather than women in the Forces.
“The Liberals have been misleading Canadians on their cover-up of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces,” he said.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said that while he has “utmost respect for Justice Arbour, another review that will take months is a distraction.”
“Minister Sajjan has been in his role since 2014,” Mr. Garrison said. “He has had plenty of time to take meaningful action on sexual misconduct in the forces. Instead, he’s protected General Vance when he knew there were serious allegations against him.”
Three years ago, Mr. Sajjan was alerted to an allegation raised directly with then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne. Mr. Sajjan declined to see the evidence and alerted his former chief of staff, Zita Astravas, who made the Prime Minister’s Office aware. The PMO then referred the matter to the Privy Council Office, the department that supports the Prime Minister and the cabinet, but it could not obtain further information, Mr. Trudeau said.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said “nobody knew that it was a Me Too complaint.” He has also said that he only learned of detailed allegations against Mr. Vance in news reports this year.
With reports from Sean Fine
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