A general revolt


By Michael Nickerson

Tom Lawson shrugs off misconduct of his troops "because we're biologically wired...". (Andre Forget/QMI Agency)

Tom Lawson shrugs off misconduct of his troops "because we're biologically wired...". (Andre Forget/QMI Agency)

It’s not often you see a mutiny played out in public. It’s not often you get to see a mutiny at all when you think about it. They are the things of movies and literature; William Bligh, Fletcher Christian, a little boat called Bounty and the like. Normally, acts of insubordination, real or imagined, get sorted out behind closed doors. Be it a stern word, a reprimand, a court martial, it’s kept away from prying eyes if at all possible. For no one likes their laundry aired in public. Especially not the armed forces; an attack on one is an attack on all, no matter how logically challenged such thoughts might be.

It’s the reason some have excused Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson’s response in the face of negative reports and bad publicity: the retiring general was seemingly watching the back of his troops on the way out the door. And it’s hard to doubt the good general thinks he’s been doing just that. From directives to ignore the recommendations in Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps’s report on sexual harassment and misconduct in Canada’s military before the report was even released, to only giving qualified support to the recommendations once they were published, the message was obvious: nothing is wrong here, you don’t understand us, mind your own business.

What’s harder to explain is when Lawson decided to actually share his thoughts with a nosy and naive journalist (some young pup by the name of Mansbridge) by stating that the root of all this harassment was “because we're biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others.”

In one sweeping statement he made clear to all and sundry that there was indeed something wrong, that the guy in charge doesn’t understand it’s wrong, and that if Canadians give a hoot about those who serve to protect them, they will indeed need to mind more than their own business. Quite a trifecta, that.

So, whether through sheer embarrassment or the threat that a flawed chain of command might come under permanent management from clueless (by military standards, anyway) bureaucrats, a triumvirate of generals spoke out and laid down the law, even if their superior wouldn’t. Recognizing that leadership involves unambiguous statements and not trite quips, the three heads of Canada’s land, sea, and air forces made clear how they would deal with harassment in Canada’s military, sexual or otherwise.

First up was Canadian Army Commander Lt.-Gen Marquis Hainse, with a no-nonsense directive to “take the appropriate action not only to support our personnel who have been a target of inappropriate behaviour, but also to prevent this behaviour from occurring in our areas of work or duty altogether.”

Not to be outdone, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, issued a memo stating, “I do not consider the misconduct characterized to date to be inappropriate behaviour. Rather, I find it to be absolutely unacceptable behaviour.”

But the award for most uppity general goes to Lt.-Gen Michael Hood, who used his swearing-in ceremony as the new chief of the Royal Canadian Air Force to state: “I’ll be sending a very clear message to my subordinate commanders that harassment of any sort, be it sexual or otherwise, has no place in the RCAF or, for that matter, throughout the entire Canadian Armed Forces. We must rid ourselves, once and for all, of this abhorrent behaviour.”

As revolts go, the mutiny of the Three Amigos will go down as bloodless and as polite as one would expect of a good group of Canucks with a public axe to grind, outside of a hockey rink at least. But it’s a tad unprecedented and telling when three senior generals need to state succinctly what their boss couldn’t, and recognize the seriousness of a problem that seems to be beyond the understanding of CDSs past and present.

Back in May, retired general and periodic Facebook poster Rick Hillier opined in reference to Deschamps’s report that “The CF in which I served is not the one described in that report.” Well, apparently it was, and is, Rick.

Thankfully, some senior generals have the courage to admit it and say so. One hopes they stick to their guns and make this more than a mutiny of words. The Canadian Armed Forces need a movement of meaningful action.