Chain of Command be Damned

looking beyond the caf leadership to deal with the problem of sexual misconduct

By Michael Nickerson

Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson requested the investigation into sexual misconduct recently released by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, but his leadership in addressing the issue can only go so far.  (DND)

Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson requested the investigation into sexual misconduct recently released by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, but his leadership in addressing the issue can only go so far.  (DND)

Last month former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps tabled her report about sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. The result of an investigation requested by Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson, its charged language describing “endemic” sexual misconduct caught the media’s attention. The good general’s response was to issue soothing promises of action, predictably vague. And all the while there were those hoping for change, those rolling their eyes at the idea of change, and not a few desperately hoping everyone would forget about the whole thing and watch the playoffs.

This one cuts a little close to the bone for me, and I’ll explain why. Back as a somewhat (read majorly) troubled teenager, I joined the army cadets. I learned to march, strip and clean a rifle, digest field rations, and ultimately have my hair cut under duress. I also experienced one of the more terrifying nights of my life at CFB Borden, making sure I stayed under the radar (by staying awake for 48 hours straight) of the pedophile in charge until I got home. I quit cadets soon after that and said little about it to anyone, until now.

I was incredibly lucky; I came from an affluent home with support and options to depend on. That is not the case for many (nay most) in the military. Also, as a cadet, I could leave on a whim, which I did. Those who sign up don’t have that option, and those who have made the military their career risk both that career and subsequent pensions should they “rock the boat.”

Which made it all the more enraging (I was going to say annoying, but that term really applies to issues of bad hotel service, not sexual assault) to hear the response of Major General Chris Whitecross, the new head of the response team to sort out all this sexual misbehaviour hullabaloo. To quote the general: “I joined in the 1980s and it wasn’t uncommon to hear off-colour jokes or be the brunt of comments or to feel uncomfortable in the work environment. I can honestly say it was tolerated then, it isn’t tolerated anymore.”

Not tolerated anymore? One can only assume she is referring to the last few seconds of history, because it most certainly has been tolerated, both recently and throughout the general’s 33 years of service. If nothing else, one has to wonder what “off-colour” meant in her day. For today, according to Deschamps, the jokes involve words such as “slut” and “bitch,” and suggestions of being a whore for career purposes. And that’s just the words.

CDS Lawson was moved to employ Deschamps’ services due to “disturbing reports” in the media last year. One of those was published by Maclean’s, and the first line in the article reads “Rape in the military.” They make clear that line is from the title of 1998 investigative piece, with 16 years of questionable improvement between the two. So how’s that “isn’t tolerated anymore” working for you, Major General Whitecross?

But let’s try something more recent. Esprit de Corps’ own retired colonel, now lawyer, Michel Drapeau has made multiple overtures (legal and political) on behalf of women who claimed they were sexually assaulted while studying at the Royal Military College. These were met with indifference and ultimate futility. To quote the colonel: “I took one of the victims to be interviewed by the military police yesterday, and to say that she is destroyed would be an understatement.”

Now consider that if a college student, accompanied by a seasoned lawyer and retired colonel, was “destroyed” during a military police interview, what about the women, men, and young cadets who don’t have those privileges, be it money or connections, to defend their rights and their dignity? They have to depend on the “chain of command” as if it provides some sort of divine protection. That’s what Tom Lawson and Chris Whitecross expect them to do.

Justice Deschamps disagrees. Her recommendation is to have an independent agency deal with these complaints, in essence, to intervene in the chain of command. And much like the Catholic Church and Canadian governments past and present, who have all violated the trust of those who committed to them, it’s time the Canadian military suffers the same fate: independent oversight and to hell with the chain of command.