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The Canadian Military’s Sexual Misconduct Crisis Explained

Why the Canadian military is embroiled in another moment of reckoning.

The Canadian flag waving in front of the The facade of the headquarters of the Department of National Defence in Ottawa.

The facade of the headquarters of the Department of National Defence in Ottawa. (Photo: The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld)

The Canadian military is embroiled in another moment of reckoning. Separate allegations of sexual misconduct against former chief of defence staff General Jonathan Vance and his successor, Admiral Art McDonald, have spurred a controversy that is testing the armed forces’ commitment to eradicating sexual harassment and violence—and the federal government’s “feminist approach” to policy. (Vance has denied the allegations and McDonald has not commented publicly, citing an ongoing investigation.)

It’s déjà vu for survivors of sexual assault and harassment in the military. The issue has been repeatedly raised in recent decades, and it’s clear that sexual harassment and assault of military employees is a systemic problem. Now, a new review—the second in six years—has been launched to draft recommendations for the creation of an external agency to have oversight of the armed forces. Here’s what you need to know:

How did this controversy start?

The latest controversy involves Vance and McDonald, but Canada’s military culture has long been criticized for failing to protect victims of sexual harassment and assault.

In 1998, Maclean’s wrote about “a pattern of sexual harassment and assault” in the Canadian military, interviewing 13 women who said they were sexually assaulted in the armed forces. The survivors experienced nervous breakdowns and depression as well as at least one attempted suicide, reporters wrote. “All have left the Forces, heartbroken that their careers were shattered and angry that the military response worsened their conditions.” When the magazine revisited the issue in 2014, they found little evidence of a culture shift. The military “sometimes still closes its eyes to victims of sexual assault, and even punishes the women who denounce their rapists, rejecting them the very moment they start heading down the spiral of trauma.” The 2014 Maclean’s investigation also stated that an estimated five people are sexually assaulted every day in the military community.

The latest allegations came to light in February, when Global News first reported that Vance—who had retired in January—was facing accusations of inappropriate behaviour. Weeks later, McDonald, his successor, temporarily stepped aside as chief of defence staff after a separate misconduct allegation was made against him related to an incident in 2010 involving a female junior officer. (Global News has also reported on a separate allegation against Vance that involves a second female subordinate and a 2012 email invitation to “a trip to a clothing optional vacation destination.”) These revelations put pressure on the defence minister and prime minister’s office to explain who knew what—when. For the armed forces, it has exposed hypocrisy in the chain of command and undermined the work of high-profile campaigns to end sexual misconduct in the military.

Who are the people involved—and what have politicians said?

Maj. Kellie Brennan came forward publicly with allegations against Vance. She told a House of Commons committee in April that they had a 20-year sexual relationship which started when he was her boss and continued when he was chief of the defence staff. He fathered two of her children, she said, and provided no financial support.

Lieut. Heather Macdonald came forward after details of her case involving allegations against McDonald, then the chief of defence staff, were leaked without her consent. She told Global News she wanted to draw attention to the double standard within Operation Honour, the military’s mission to change its culture to track and prevent sexual misconduct. There’s no independent process to hold senior troops accountable for their actions, she said.

Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne told a Commons committee that he raised allegations of misconduct against Vance with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in a meeting in March 2018. Walbourne said Sajjan refused to review the evidence. Sajjan later told the committee Walbourne was wrong to come to him on the matter, suggesting his involvement in a potential investigation would risk politicizing it. Walbourne should have known this, Sajjan said. “In our society, the last thing we want is for elected politicians to make decisions that investigators need to make independently.” Despite having the authority to ask for an investigation, Sajjan referred the case to the Privy Council Office, a branch of government that supports the prime minister’s office and cabinet. The military ombudsman office, however, is not permitted to share details about a case to anyone without written consent from the complainant, which Walbourne did not have.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he personally did not have any knowledge about the allegation against Vance in 2018 and that “no one knew it was a Me Too complaint.” When members of a parliamentary committee asked why Trudeau was not informed of the allegation, his chief of staff, Katie Telford, told MPs during the May 7 hearing that they didn’t know any details of the complaint at the time. The Liberal government committed to making the military a workplace free from harassment and discrimination in 2015, Telford said, but acknowledged they have yet to achieve that goal.

How is misconduct and harassment reported in the military?

The military’s investigative arm is the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS). It’s the branch that is also responsible for investigating “serious or sensitive offences” including allegations of sexual misconduct. But concerns have long been raised about the efficacy of the military investigating itself using its own justice system. The CFNIS launched investigations into the allegations against Vance and McDonald earlier this year. Systemic issues, including inadequate training and the fact that an overwhelming majority of its investigators are male, as reported by Global News, are considered factors why some women are reluctant to report incidents in the first place.

Complaints can also be filed with the military ombudsman office. But the office is hamstrung with how a probe can proceed: it can share information related to a case or investigation with police or public servants only with the written consent of the complainant for privacy reasons.

How has the military responded?

Vance has denied all the allegations of inappropriate behaviour against him. McDonald has declined to respond to the allegation against him. The two investigations exploring the allegations against both Vance and McDonald remain ongoing.

The Canadian military has a problem with how it handles sexual misconduct and harassment within its ranks: That was the conclusion from former supreme court justice Marie Deschamps’ 2015 report that described an endemic “hostile, sexual environment” that has become normalized to create a culture “where no one speaks up and which functions to deter victims from reporting sexual misconduct.” The Canadian Armed Forces had hired Deschamps to write the external report in response to Maclean’s 2014 investigation.

One recommendation was to follow in the footsteps of the United States, Australia, and France and create offices independent from the military responsible for receiving and investigating complaints. These agencies would also provide support to victims and training to members. There was “very little accountability in the chain of command or the military police as to the outcome of any particular incident,” Deschamps found. The lack of statistics also stymied efforts to address sexual misconduct. The military launched Operation Honour later that year, led by Vance. In the five years since Operation Honour launched, the military has recorded 581 reports of sexual assault.
The Canadian military has yet to set up an independent centre for accountability to handle allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, as reccomended by Deschamp’s 2015 report.

What did the prime minister’s office know about the allegations against top military brass?

It’s unclear who in the prime minister’s office was the first to learn about the allegation against Vance. Elder Marques, a former senior advisor in Trudeau’s office, said he first heard about the allegation through either Telford or a member of her staff in early March 2018. Telford, on the other hand, has said that she learned about the allegation from Marques.

Marques told a parliamentary committee in April that a request from the former military ombudsman for an independent review into the allegation against Vance was approved by the Privy Council Office. “I received their confirmation that they would be taking further steps, I had no further involvement in this matter,” Marques said. Though there was little information available, Marques told MPs on the committee that he presumed the allegation against Vance “could be of a sexual nature.”

Why has this topic become a source of debate and discussion now?

The new allegations have renewed attention over the military’s failure to change a culture that is, as described by Deschamps, “hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.” Though some witnesses have told MPs that some improvements have been made in the military in terms of efforts to change a sexualized military culture that either, as Deschamps wrote, “[condoned] inappropriate sexual conduct” or turned “a blind-eye” to it, new testimonies give evidence of a problem that continues to exist.

Leah West was a former armoured officer and served in the military for 10 years. She told CBC’s The Current that when she was sexually assaulted by a superior officer from her unit, despite the military police’s involvement, there was no investigation. Her story shows a double standard: when she breached the military’s fraternization rule with a consensual relationship while she was deployed in Afghanistan, West was charged and returned to Canada for disobeying an order. “Women in the military are held to such a different standard. In every way,” West told CBC host Matt Galloway.

Emily Tulloch, an aviation technician, joined the military in July 2018. She told a parliamentary committee in April that she was raped in her first month of basic training and has experienced a “lifetime’s worth of sexual assault and misconduct” in her service since. Tulloch said she believes in the importance of the armed forces, but the military police handling her case made her feel like a criminal. Operation Honour got the conversation going, but its credibility has matured into a joke, she said, it’s time to end it and start something new.

“For many of us, Op Honour has aged like rotten milk. It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Tulloch said. “To make matters worse, in a cruel irony, it’s apparent that the man who created the whole operation is now being investigated under the same pretenses that he swore to fix.”