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Fire at the roots: Tackling sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces

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It has been less than two years since Madame Justice Marie Deschamps released her report in which she described an “underlying sexualized culture in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) that is hostile to women and LGBTQ members […],” and called for “broad-scale cultural reform,” among other things. In response, the CAF established “Operation Honour” and commissioned a Statistics Canada survey to gather more information on the issue. The survey results, released last Monday, revealed that little has changed since the Deschamps Report was issued. Not only do the results illustrate how difficult it is to remediate a sexualized workplace culture, they show how deeply rooted the problems are. Consider these troubling findings:

Abuse of Power

According to the survey results, 960 regular force members reported having been sexually assaulted (defined by the survey as unwanted sexual touching, sexual attacks and sexual activity to which the victim could not consent) in the last year – a disproportionate number of them were women.  Of this group, 50 per cent identified their supervisor or someone of a higher rank as the perpetrator.

This is a shocking abuse of power of which this country should be outraged. Moreover, it points to a profound failure on the part of CAF leadership to affect meaningful change in the organization. Canadians who choose to serve this country should not have to accept the prospect of sexual assault as a working condition.

Chronic Under-Reporting

The survey revealed that only one in four sexual assault victims reported the incident to someone in authority. That means that the majority of cases of sexual assault went underground. Considering that so many women were assaulted by their superiors, their fears of negative consequences for reporting were not irrational. And in an environment that continues to be sexualized, they may have assumed that they were better off handling it themselves.

If the CAF is serious about exposing these incidents, it must recognize that it currently lacks the organizational legitimacy to handle them internally on its own. It will need to create a reporting environment that is outside the chain of command and truly independent.

Climate of Indifference

It is disappointing to learn that almost 80 per cent of survey respondents said that they saw, heard or personally experienced inappropriate sexual behaviour, yet these numbers did not seem to translate into concrete action. And how is it that so many members of the military witnessed this behaviour and said or did nothing?  We imagine that this has to do with a perception in lower ranks, as observed by Justice Deschamps, that those in the chain of command, “either condone inappropriate sexual conduct, or are willing to turn a blind-eye to the incidents.”

In order to change the culture, the CAF will have to change this perception and empower its members to intervene to prevent assaults, and report them when they become aware of them. This can be done through an effective bystander strategy, which should include protections from reprisal, among other things.

The Punishment Does Not Fit the Crime

According to Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, who spoke at the news conference, over the last year, only 30 officials have been removed from command or supervisory roles as a result of sexual misconduct. There have also been a few convictions at courts martial and summary trials and administrative actions, including warnings and fines, levied on 83 individuals. This level of disciplinary action is nowhere near commensurate with the 960 survey respondents who indicated they’d been sexually assaulted during this time.

In order to affect meaningful cultural change, the military needs to dramatically increase the frequency and severity of discipline meted out to those who engage in sexual misconduct. There need to be real consequences and these consequences need to be visible to all members of the military.

The CAF has now had the benefit of an insightful and thorough report from a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as a Statistics Canada survey to which 43,000 (53 per cent) of its ranks responded. Now, the CAF must put all of this valuable information to work. The survey results can be used to benchmark the success, or lack thereof, of efforts to remediate a deeply troubled culture. Nothing less than demonstrable and quantifiable change in this institution should be acceptable to Canadians.

Janice Rubin and Megan Forward

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer, Janice Rubin, is a co-founder and co-managing partner at Rubin Thomlinson LLP. Janice regularly appears on Best Lawyers and Leading Practioners lists in Canada and is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on employment law.

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Megan Forward develops and delivers training sessions for her clients and conducts investigations and workplace assessments to help employers resolve issues related to harassment, poisoned workplace environments and bullying.