Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) was brought to light in 2015 after the Deschamps report highlighted the need to address underlying cultural norms that lead to inappropriate behaviour and misconduct.

Due to the suggestions outlined in the report, Operation HONOUR was implemented, with the objective of eliminating sexual misconduct within the CAF and addressing the culture problem.

Despite Operation HONOUR’s “zero tolerance” policy, sexual misconduct has remained an ongoing problem, with allegations now reaching some of the CAF’s most senior leadership.

While allegations against senior officials have shed light on how power differences create opportunities for sexual exploitation, there is also significant misconduct occurring among the junior ranks between non-commissioned members (NCMs).

A 2018 report from Statistics Canada found that 54% of sexual assaults against primary reservists involved peers, with a similar rate observed in the CAF’s regular force (52%).

Rates at the Royal Military College of Canada and the Royal Military College Saint-Jean were even more staggering, with roughly 86% to 94%, respectively, of unwanted sexualized behaviour involving fellow students.

While those who have experienced sexual misconduct can file complaints and report the perpetrators, this does not always result in justice. One former CAF member, for example, noted that, in her case, the “punishment” was a mere apology, with no further discipline or accountability. What’s more, the allegations were later removed from the perpetrator’s record. This example demonstrates a culture where perpetrators of sexual misconduct advance, or even have their records expunged, while victims of sexual misconduct may leave due to insufficient action, highlighting the root of some of the CAF’s retention challenges.

Recently, another external review into sexual misconduct was ordered and calls for an independent reporting system have been echoed by many critical of the government’s failure to address misconduct since 2015. While action has been taken in some regard, failing to address sexual misconduct in the CAF presents a national security issue on multiple fronts.

How does the problem of sexual misconduct in the CAF present a national security issue?

One of the most obvious challenges misconduct presents to national security is the impact it has on the goals outlined in Canada’s defence policy. The policy, and subsequent departmental reports, have consistently highlighted the need to increase the presence of female members in the military. The current recruitment and retention objectives aim to increase the presence of women in the military to 25% by 2026.

However, previous objectives aimed to increase representation to 25.1%. Yet, from 2017 to 2020, representation only increased from 15.2% to 15.9%.

Without a major culture shift, it makes it nearly impossible to believe that Canada will be successful in achieving an almost 10% growth in retention within the next five years. While there are many factors affecting retention, one cannot overlook the fact that a failure to act against sexual misconduct may be impacting the retention of female force members, as well as deterring recruitment.

Sexual misconduct also compromises operational effectiveness. Allegations against senior officials, such as Gen. Jonathan Vance and, most recently, Maj.-Gen Dany Fortin, can impact operational effectiveness in a variety of ways.

From a leadership perspective, allegations against senior officials call into question the integrity of the CAF, as these officials are supposed to embody the best the military has to offer.

The integrity of government leadership is also called into question, as allegations of prior knowledge of these investigations have been made against the Minister of National Defence, and the Prime Minister’s Office. Allegations of this nature also make senior leadership vulnerable, introducing the possibility of blackmail. Whether knowledge of these allegations is known internally or by foreign powers, it nonetheless presents a vulnerability and places national security in jeopardy.

Another threat concerns the loss of important senior officials due to insufficient action. For example, the failure to act against misconduct thus far has resulted in the resignation of Lt.-Col Taylor, one of Canada’s most prominent senior female officials. Senior leadership exiting the CAF can communicate to lower ranks that trust has been lost, and that the interests of military personnel are not priorities for the CAF.

International implications

Sexual misconduct in the CAF presents another set of national security challenges and compromises Canada’s international commitments. As a UN and NATO member, Canada has made a commitment to carrying out the objectives outlined in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which specifies four pillars that aim to address women and girls’ roles and needs in conflicts.

A specific aspect of this resolution focuses on ensuring and protecting the human rights of women from gender-based violence, as well as prosecuting perpetrators of these crimes. Failing to address sexual misconduct domestically undermines these efforts and weakens Canada’s standing as a leader in advocating for women’s rights and ensuring these rights are protected.

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy outlines the vital role of women in conflict resolution, as well as the importance of women’s rights for achieving sustainable development goals in many countries. Insufficient action thus not only causes harm internally but contradicts the values outlined externally as a priority. This in turn can impact other nations’ willingness to seek assistance from Canada on these matters.  

What needs to be done?

While the creation of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) has functioned as a useful tool, the issue remains that this only addresses sexual misconduct after it has happened, and does not function to reduce or change the culture that enables it. Moreover, although the SMRC operates outside of the CAF chain of command, it is still controlled by the Department of National Defence (DND).

There is a clear need for the introduction of an external, independent body to manage the reporting and discipline of sexual misconduct cases.

This is consistent with a similar call for an external handling of sexual assault cases in the British Armed Forces, where conviction rates of rape trials handled by the military justice system are only 10%. These starkly oppose trials within the Crown Prosecution Service, which range from 57% to 63%. Shifting the responsibly for investigations and discipline from the chain of command and DND to an independent body not only ensures victims’ stories are not minimized, but also allows for a more honest picture of where the problem manifests, and potentially a clearer solution of how to address it. This will also serve to eliminate the conflict of interest some investigators may face by accusing fellow soldiers.

As of now, most sexual misconduct cases are handled by the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service (CFNIS), which is comprised of military police and prosecutors. The CFNIS has also been criticized for its minimal representation of female investigators, which only accounts for 23% of investigators in the service.

Moving forward, the CAF has an opportunity to take a stand and meaningfully respond to this problem. With a longstanding history of women in the CAF, now is the time for serious action to be taken to ensure the protection of women in uniform, which only serves to collectively benefit the overall strength, cohesion and quality of our forces.

Utilizing gender-based analysis to understand the differential impacts on women is a step in the right direction, but policy needs to shift from a review mindset to putting tangible actions forward that protect women in the armed forces.

The focus should now be on developing a method for independent investigations into cases of sexual misconduct, whether that is through the creation of a new external agency or more collaboration with non-military law enforcement.

Vincenzo Soave has an MA from Western University and has a research and policy focus on national defence, international conflict, and security. He is currently working as a Research Consultant at King’s University College and was formerly employed as a Research Associate for the Canadian Society of Evidence-Based Policing. He has presented his work for the American Society of Criminology and his work has been published in Police Practice and Research: An International Journal.

Photo credit: Canadian Armed Forces.

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