The leader of Canada’s military chaplains says his members, who provide spiritual support to Armed Forces personnel, are finding themselves on both sides of the sexual harassment crisis in the Forces because they counsel both victims and offenders.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Brigadier-General Guy Bélisle, the new Chaplain-General for the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service, said the chaplaincy seeks to help all who have been affected by any form of misconduct.
“This is a process, the healing process, so it is very important … to support these people. We are walking with them and ensuring they have all the resources they need to go through a difficult time,” he said.
Asked whom he meant by “these people,” he said he was referring to the victims especially, but was not excluding the perpetrators.
“Anyone in need receives chaplain support, including those who have been accused of misconduct.”
There are confidentiality issues, he said, but ”if someone has been harmed, we will make sure this is reported to the chain of command.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Chaplain-General said there are no current cases of harassment under investigation involving Armed Forces chaplains. “Information dating back over the last decade is not available, as we don’t collect data regarding harassment cases based on trade or occupation of the involved members,” the statement said.
Canada’s military has been facing a crisis involving allegations of sexual misconduct that has enmeshed both the rank and file and senior officers. It has also raised questions about how Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has managed the file. There have been two parliamentary inquiries into the problem and a review of how the military deals with the issue.
Chaplains provide services such as crisis intervention, relationship support and counselling and help address moral and ethical conflicts, challenges and dilemmas. There are 260 regular force chaplains as well as 125 primary reserve ones. They are embedded in units and generally follow those units wherever they go, whether into training exercises or deployments. According to the service, the ministry work takes place in their offices, members’ homes, unit lines and remotely.
Chaplains also provide religious services and serve various faiths, not just their own. Twenty-eight per cent are Roman Catholic, 18 per cent are from the churches of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, 16 per cent are Baptist, 3 per cent are Muslim, 1 per cent are Jewish, 1 per cent are Buddhist and 1 per cent are Sikh.
Service policy has chaplains providing help and support to all forms of Indigenous spirituality, requiring them to acquire an understanding of Indigenous history and culture.
Chaplain-General Bélisle succeeds Major-General Guy Chapdelaine, who in May said in an interview that it is incumbent upon the Armed Forces to rebuild trust after so many sexual harassment scandals.
Asked about those comments, Chaplain-General Bélisle said he has faith in the military’s leaders.
“Trust is built and rebuilt every day. I have great confidence in our leadership … we will be able to build that total trust, and Canadians are going to be proud of the Armed Forces.”
He acknowledged, though, that the Forces are facing challenges that are unprecedented in his 34 years in the military.
“Every new challenge always seems to be unprecedented at the time, but I have not seen anything like this,” he said. “I have faith we will get to where we need.”
Chaplain-General Bélisle joined the military when he was 20, in 1986, because he was looking for a dynamic profession, not a “day-to-day” job.
“I wanted to move around the world, be deployed. I was young. I was in really good shape, and that’s why I chose to become an infantry officer,” he said.
His path to becoming a military chaplain came out of his sociable nature. “I was doing the job of a chaplain already when I was an infantry officer,” he said.
He studied theology from 1998 to 2004 and was then posted as a unit chaplain.
As a Roman Catholic, he said, he is mindful of the power of spirituality. “Spirituality can help you to go through difficult times. I think this is what we can bring to our members.”
Although chaplains go into combat zones, they do not carry weapons. Chaplain-General Bélisle said chaplains symbolize peace and offer hope for a time beyond war.
In 2010 he was in Afghanistan, travelling with soldiers, and felt well protected. “I was with the best-trained soldiers in the world,” he said. “They love their chaplain, and they are proud to protect us when we go outside the wire with them.”
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