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Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance prepares to appear before the Standing Committee on National Defence on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 6, 2018.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

General Jonathan Vance is the first to admit that his effort to change the gender balance in Canada’s military by creating a safer and more welcoming environment for women has proven to be a challenge.

Three-and-a-half years after he announced that sexual misconduct within the ranks would not be tolerated, the percentage of armed-forces personnel who are female has nudged up only slightly to 15 per cent.

And Gen. Vance is preparing to issue new directives around Operation Honour – the forces-wide campaign he initiated to reduce sexual assaults and harassment – after both the Auditor-General and an internal military assessment found it had the unintended consequence of making some victims reluctant to step forward.

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Related: Military’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual assaults still leaves gaps, Auditor-General says

The general is not sure how much the culture within the Canadian Forces has changed since he took over as Chief of Defence Staff in July, 2015 – in part because culture is almost impossible to measure. But, he said in a year-end interview in his office in downtown Ottawa, there will be no retreating from the goals, only a revision of the game plan to reduce sexual misconduct and boost the number of women in the armed forces.

“The nature of warfare, the characteristics of conflict, are changing,” he said. “We need a broader range of people. So, even if you are dyed-in-the-wool against gender balance, you can’t make a case any more for why you would only want men [in the military].”

The forces must adapt to cyberspace, and real space, and domains that are far different from traditional war theatres of the past, Gen. Vance said. “We need a broader range of skill sets, including critical thinking and creativity, because, in a chaotic conflict environment, doctrine and dogma here won’t work,” he said.

At 67,600 members, the military is at its target size. And with 60,000 people expressing an interest in joining every year, and 7,000 being hired annually, Gen. Vance says he’s confident he will have no problem expanding the ranks to 71,500, the new target as laid out in the most recent federal defence policy.

But, he said, he wants the right mix of people. First, he said he wants women to make up 25 per cent of the forces – a tough goal when their numbers are climbing by about one percentage point a year, and when news stories about the military’s sexualized culture make women reluctant to consider becoming soldiers.

“I don’t want to spin the stories because we deserve everything that is written about us; I just have to change the environment,” Gen. Vance said.

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To that end, the military adopted its zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and assault as soon as he became Chief of Defence Staff. But according to a recent report by the federal Auditor-General, the duty to report all incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour means third parties are reporting incidents even when the victims are not ready to step forward. And the military police is required to investigate all incidents even when victims would prefer to resolve the issue informally. Some victims are choosing to keep quiet rather than risk the ostracism of their comrades, the auditor said. So, Gen. Vance is about to change the directives.

A new set of guidelines will be released shortly. They will say the duty to report sexual assault and harassment still exists, but what happens after a report is made will be done with the input of the victim, Gen. Vance said.

Experts at the newly created Sexual Misconduct Response Centre have been asked to flesh out the plan. But the general expects all victims to be assigned an advocate who can guide them through the system. And an investigation may not have to start right away, Gen. Vance said. Maybe, he said, the person who receives the report of the sexual misconduct “doesn’t immediately have to do anything other than activate a mechanism that puts care and control and support around the victim.”

Gen. Vance said it is his sense that the climate is not getting worse, but there has not been a significant and measurable reduction of incidents of sexual misconduct in the military over the past three years. So, another part of his plan is to ensure that prospective soldiers understand from the outset what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable.

“We may have to think about making people good people before they are good soldiers,” he said. “Before you even begin recruit training, before you even get issued a uniform, maybe we have to spend a month [with pay] to teach you what right looks like.”

But that is a proposal for the future.

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The military, Gen. Vance said, was designed for mass recruitment. Now, it has the business tools and practices that allow for the selection of individuals. “That is a culture change for us,” he said. “Managing the armed forces one [recruit] at a time versus 100,000 at a time. That’s where we are headed.”

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