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The Canadian Forces flag flies outside office buildings in Ottawa, on March 9, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Senior women of the Canadian Armed Forces told members of Parliament that the military needs to work on preventing sexual misconduct and foster a culture where there are no reprisals for speaking out.

Rear-Admiral Rebecca Patterson, Commander of the Canadian Forces Health Services and Defence Champion for Women, told the House of Commons status of women committee Thursday that since joining the Forces more than 30 years ago, she has witnessed significant advances for women. Still, more needs to be done, she added, to make the military equitable, diverse and inclusive.

When it comes to sexual misconduct, the Forces need to stop such incidents from happening in the first place, she said, which means creating programs, policies and training.

She also voiced the need for a culture shift. “We still have a lot of work to do in creating an environment where people actually feel that they can come forward and share what has happened to them.”

She testified alongside Major-General Jennie Carignan and Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon, visiting defence fellow at Queen’s University and the Women, Peace and Security Champion, as part of the committee’s study on sexual misconduct in the military.

The Canadian Armed Forces have faced intense scrutiny amid military police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct involving former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, his successor Admiral Art McDonald and Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson.

Maj.-Gen. Carignan, who recently returned from leading NATO’s mission in Iraq and is transitioning into the position of assistant chief of military personnel in the Forces, said she has led troops on expeditionary operations ranging from peacekeeping to combat and has faced three main obstacles over the course of her career.

“First, the perception that women are weak. Second, the perception that women can’t perform in a combat environment. And third, the perception that women can’t be soldiers and mothers.”

Sexual misconduct in the Forces is a symptom of a “wider problem” that needs to be changed, she said. “We must foster a culture free from fear of reprisal for speaking out and reporting.”

Brig.-Gen. Bourgon began her career more than 33 years ago and said she has experienced many of the challenges women face in the military. Despite women making their way and showing that they belong in the Forces, there is still work to do to address sexual misconduct, she agreed.

All three women spoke of the difficulties serving members encounter when trying to access reliable child care.

Rear Adm. Patterson said women in the Forces tell her it is a “very critical issue.” It’s challenging for members who move frequently, she explained, because each time they are bumped to the bottom of a wait list.

“One of our priorities that we hear very often is about getting access to universal, accessible, quality child care that goes more than just 9 to 5, that meets the hours of service members,” she said.

Maj-Gen. Carignan, who has four children, said every time her family moved it was an “uphill battle,” and that all service members need child care to be able to do their jobs.

Fifty-seven per cent of military members do not have access to daycare through the military’s family resource centre, Brig.-Gen. Bourgon noted, because there is not enough capacity.

Some women who leave the military indicate that child care is one of the reasons, she added.

“It’s really important to focus on that because that is how we’re going to value our women serving in the Forces and how we’re going to keep them serving.”

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