By Sean Bruyea
“Got your six” also means “I’ve got your back.” It is the cultural bedrock of how military members look after each other. Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans, and other Canadians increasingly perceive senior military ranks and the federal bureaucracy as defending the institution and their own careers rather than caring for military members and veterans in need of assistance and protection. This deteriorating situation can change.
Former chief of the defence staff General Tom Lawson stated in 2015, “Frankly, our operational effectiveness depends on the unwavering trust and cohesion amongst all of our members, regardless of their gender or their background.” Trust and cohesion are sacred to military operations. However, “regardless of their gender or their background” is more aspirational if not tragically farcical for many who have needed the military to protect and care for them. Instead, too many have been abandoned or worse, abused by the military.
Canada’s post-World War II military has long been a bastion of white-male testosterone culture in spite of the growing recruitment of minorities and women. The CAF has been the repository for Caucasian male parochialism disproportionately recruited from economically marginalized regions of Canada. Consequently, most Canadians see the military as a last choice for a career.
CAF culture has spawned more than three decades of sexual harassment and abuse scandals culminating in the 2015 report by retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps. She found not only a widespread “underlying sexualized culture” with sex used to enforce the power dynamics and ostracize members, but a culture that intimidates victims and onlookers into silence while ironically stigmatizing as weak those who would speak out.
Abusive CF culture should not come as a surprise to the public or senior military leadership. Maclean’s magazine published four cover stories in 1998 chronicling the sexual violence in the CAF, including Canada’s first female infantry officer being bound to a tree and subjected to a mock execution. In 1980, the CAF promised the first women entering Kingston’s Royal Military College (RMC) that harassment and discrimination would not be tolerated. They were given a sexual harassment hotline. Yet the 1983 graduating class prominently declared itself, including a bedsheet-sized banner draped on the college headquarters, as LCWB or “Last Class With Balls.”
Thirty years and countless CAF sexual abuse cases of women and men later, current Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance declared, “This stops now.” He established a harassment reporting hotline. In 2016 thus far, complaints of sexual misconduct have risen 22 per cent over 2015. CAF culture appears incapable of change over three decades.
In contrast, CAF understanding of the injured has changed, albeit slowly and begrudgingly since seminal reports on quality of life were released in the late 1990s. However, the 24 Joint Personnel and Support Units (JPSU) that help the injured are underfunded and understaffed with a host of other problems identified by retired warrant officer Barry Westholm. Equally reflective of CAF ambivalence for the injured, JPSU staff is predominantly not trained in social work or rehabilitation let alone the unmilitary skills of compassion and care.
Care at the very least requires that individual needs are addressed in a manner largely defined by the individual. This creates a two-fold problem. First, military institutions have difficulty placing lower ranks first in anything other than rhetoric. The CAF is a command culture that places the institution and highest ranks above all else. Second, if you are not a senior officer or general, articulating one’s needs becomes nearly impossible in a culture that demands placing all else before one’s needs.
Both the institution at large and individual members require coaching on how to identify, express and accept an individual’s needs and limits. This is the basis of successful resilience training. Resilience is unlikely to get a successful foothold if institutional culture is not flexible, responsive and refuses to place the individual first. An institution that resists change, protects itself, attacks critics and rejects outside input is not a resilient institution. It is a weak institution with a strong façade. Ultimately, it is institutionally self-serving to place responsibility upon individuals to be resilient to the demands of an abusive culture.
The recent spate of suicides at or connected with RMC in Kingston exposes much weakness in the CAF. The military’s approach has been sadly predictable. Recommendations, such as those from lawyer and retired CAF Colonel Michel Drapeau, calling for outside independent oversight including a coroner’s inquest have been flatly rejected by the CAF. Instead, the military has called for a secretive and restrictive internal investigation that sidelines family members. Meanwhile, cadets will receive resilience training.
Putting the onus on the cadets to change whereas the institution itself remains squeaky and inflexibly clean while draping itself in self-congratulatory rhetoric has always been the military’s weakness and shame. When needs remain unmet, military members know they are not being cared for. No amount of bombast changes that. Labelling much needed-mental health units “centres of excellence,” while refusing to establish in-patient centres, is alienating. If the military member does not seek help, or fails to improve, then the message is clear: the military remains untainted and the member or veteran is clearly defective. By whose standard are these centres excellent? Such terms do not serve the needs of the injured and suffering but instead can drive them away from the help they need.
In 2014, Governor General Award-winning educator Julie Lalonde of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crises Centres was invited to speak to cadets at RMC on the issue of sexual harassment and violence. She was met with an environment of hostility. One cadet dismissed her outright: “I might have listened to you if you weren’t a civilian and a woman.”
This is the military’s disease. Military culture disdains first and foremost civilian culture, particularly aspects that show or imply weakness. The worst insult to a military member is the accusation of doing something like a civilian or being anything related to females: walking like a civilian, lazy like a civilian, thinking like a civilian, being a girl or a weak [insert female genitalia]. The most powerful threat: conform or be exiled as a contemptible civilian once again.
Those inside and outside the military who call for help or provide much-needed criticism of the institution are universally sidelined, or worse persecuted. Military members are intensely trained to notice, report and act upon life and death situations whether they be aircraft safety, fire on a ship, or enemy threats. Having one’s safety, security and care needs neglected is a life or death situation. Yet the military is surprised and angered when someone has the audacity to identify the institution’s failure to care for its members.
Changing a culture from without is extremely difficult. Modifying military culture from within with its deep mistrust and disdain of those outside the military can be dauntingly futile. The military has been unwilling to listen to the very outside ideas it needs to adapt to the changing society around it. The military insulates itself in a paradox to resist criticism and therefore avoids real change. Those inside who call for help or change are whiners who have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Outside critics are dismissed as wannabees, irrational and, since they are not part of the military, have no credibility to recommend change.
The military has long blamed the victims for the faults of the institution. One need only look at the CF’s callous handling of suicides and the abusive treatment of the suffering families over the past decades. Stuart Langridge, Charles Matiru, Shaun Collins, and the RMC suicides all demonstrate a military institution obsessed with protecting its image and persecuting those that need help the most. Military inquiries are often staffed by military insiders without medical training, passing medical judgement on military members and their families thereby avoiding accountability for the CAF and safeguarding the institution and its leadership.
We must never forget that no other institution, including mainstream religions, subjects individuals to such powerful indoctrination with lifelong effects. Those in the midst of a potent culture are incapable of seeing the full power that culture has upon its members. The military needs independent outsiders who have either meaningfully experienced and successfully transitioned out of that culture, or those who are willing to study or have studied the effects of military culture upon individuals.
A person will be willing to sacrifice for Canada and his or her comrades only if each and every soldier thoroughly and profoundly believes that the military and the nation will be there to care for and protect them, especially in times of vulnerability, injury and need.
Ultimately, politicians and the public must force change. The removal of incompetent and inept leaders perpetuating a culture of persecution, impunity and intransigence is a start. Then, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promised openness and transparency can begin. Without transparency and openness, the military and Canada will fail to keep faith with those who have got our six.