Feds initiate independent review into sexual misconduct in the military

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks on a livestream during a virtual news conference, in Ottawa, Thursday, April 29, 2021. Sajjan announced that former Supreme Court justice and United Nations high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour to lead what it is billing as an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The federal government announced Thursday an independent review into harassment and sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Arbour’s responsibility as head of the Independent External Comprehensive Review will include providing recommendations about what an external reporting system should look like, and examining the existing policies, procedures, and practices to make the system more responsive for victims.

“Over the coming months, we expect Madame Arbour to provide concrete recommendations on how the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence can address systemic misconduct they face, as well as offer recommended steps for implementing the necessary changes,” said Sajjan.

The group will immediately close out Operation Honour – the 2015 campaign instituted by former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance to prevent misconduct in the military – “understanding what did not work and why, and leveraging the valuable research that came from it,” take steps to implement Bill C-65, and support amendments to the National Defence Act, including the Declaration of Victims’ Rights.

In the long-term, the organization will synchronize efforts to combat misconduct, improve reporting mechanisms, give greater agency to victims, and bolster tracking mechanisms at the time a victim reports.

The objective of this independent review isn’t unlike the one proposed in 2015 and undertaken by another former Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps. One of the key takeaways of Deschamps’ 100-page report was the need for an independent reporting and accountability body, “with the responsibility for receiving reports of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as prevention, coordination and monitoring of training, victim support, monitoring of accountability, and research, and to act as a central authority for the collection of data.”

Asked why, nearly six years later, the government is proposing to conduct yet another review if one of the key solutions is already known, Sajjan said Deschamps’ work was a “good start” but more needs to be done.

“Clearly the work that was done was not enough. We also know that you cannot order away order change immediately. This is something we learned,” he said. “This is not just about doing another review, this is about taking a much more bolder step.”

Deputy minister Jody Thomas echoed Sajjan’s sentiment, stating that Deschamps unearthed the problems in the system, previously unknown to the public.

“Her report was enlightening and it was horrifying, as you know. What we’re hoping that we can work with Madame Arbour to develop is an understanding of why the culture persists, how it’s allowed to persist, and look at training, policies, programs, uniforms, recruiting, all the elements that go into making a member of the Canadian Armed Forces or member of the Department of National Defence, and why abuse of authority continues,” she said.

Thomas also said Arbour will have the ability to make suggestions and raise questions or concerns during the process of her review, instead of waiting to present her findings at least 12 months from now.

“Madam Arbour will be reporting to us as she sees things that require action. An external reporting system is a complex issue, it is not a matter of taking existing structures and just moving them to report to Parliament,” she said. “We need complete change, we need new authorities, we need a different approach to investigations.”

For individuals seeking support now, the government says the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) is accepting calls 24 hours a day for veterans and military and civilian members. There’s also a peer support program in the works, spearheaded by Veterans Affairs Canada, the Transition Group, SMRC, and It’s Just 700.

“There is an opportunity to bring in clinicians, professionals, to be party of that support network but it’s peer to peer, so it’s people who have had lived experiences. We will be able to give you an updated in a couple of weeks about how that work is proceeding and when the program will be truly up and running,” said Thomas.

'VERY SERIOUS BLOCKAGES' IN CAF: ARBOUR

Speaking to CTV’s Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme, Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour said she wants to get to the root cause of the toxic culture in the institution.

“I don't think anger is going to get me anywhere,” Arbour said in a one-on-one interview on Thursday.

“I'm very curious to really try to figure out where are the very serious blockages that are preventing this institution that is a critical institution in our democracy to live up to the expectations of the workforce and the Armed Forces in the 21st century,” she said.

Arbour said she plans to look into what factors are contributing to the culture within the CAF, from reporting sexual misconduct claims, to the handling of those reports by military police, as well as aspects of the military as a whole including recruitment, training, performance evaluation and promotions.

“We're talking about a huge institution with a very entrenched culture that was well documented in my former colleague Madame Deschamp's report, but six years later, I think we have an opportunity to really try to figure out where are the real barriers to change,” Arbour said.

Sajjan also announced the creation of the Chief Professional Conduct and Culture, led by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, which will function as an internal organization coordinating between branches to establish culture change.

Arbour said she wants to see “in reality how are people rewarded in their careers if they carry this kind of toxic bag with them.”

While Arbour says she is ambitious about what an independent review into the CAF can accomplish, she said she is also “very realistic.”

“I think the reality is that you're likely to find a culture that rewards a kind of performance, what they call operational efficiency... and may not have paid much, if any, attention to the carrying of the kind of values that are critical to affect real change,” Arbour said.

One aspect that is necessary to creating change in the military, Arbour says, is independent oversight.

“We're struggling with sexual harassment, sexual misbehaviour, sexual violence in all kinds of workplace environments, but the military, first of all, aspires to high standards, and is a very unique environment with hierarchy and command structures,” Arbour explained.

“We have to get right into that and figure out how to bring oxygen into the system, including external oversight that works,” she added.

POLITICAL REACTION

The issue of sexual misconduct in the military has gripped parliamentarians for the past several months after allegations against Vance and his successor Admiral Art McDonald came to light. On top of military investigations, two House of Commons committees are also studying the issue.

The Liberals are facing fresh criticism for their handling of the 2018 allegation levied against Vance when it was first reported to the defence minister through former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.

Sajjan has denied Walbourne’s testimony that the minister refused to look at the evidence and abruptly ended the conversation without any follow-up. He says instead, he redirected the report to the appropriate authorities, which in this case was the Privy Council Office.

Questions are circulating now about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew at the time after his former senior adviser told the defence committee last Friday that he and chief of staff Katie Telford were aware of a “complaint” involving Vance but didn’t recall it was understood to be sexual in nature.

Trudeau says his office wasn’t aware it was a “Me Too” allegation.

The Conservatives are expected to move a motion on Friday to call for Telford to appear before members to tell “her side of the story” within the next seven days.

Defence critic James Bezan said Thursday’s announcement by the government is an attempt to cover-up their inaction.

“For three months, the Trudeau Liberals have failed to take action. During that time, the Liberals have been misleading Canadians on their cover-up of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. The Trudeau Liberals have also refused to take any accountability for their failure to act on sexual misconduct allegations against General Vance three years ago,” he said in a statement to CTVNews.ca

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also weighed in on the news of the independent review, stating while he has a great deal of respect for Justice Arbour, a report already exists with concrete steps for change.

“We have a report the Deschamps report from 2015. The point of reports isn't to say when we're in damage control, ‘let's just launch another report.’ The goal should be what is happening to make women safe, what is being done to acknowledge the climate and the culture, which is dangerous to women in the Armed Forces and what is being done to fix it,” he said.