An Interview with Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, Director General of the Canadian Armed Forces Strategic Response Team on Sexual Misconduct
By David Pugliese
Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett enrolled in the Naval Reserve in 1975 and, following a stellar career, she was appointed as the first female Chief for Reserves and Cadets in 2011. In response to former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps’s 2015 external review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces, a strategic response team was stood up and RAdm Bennett assumed responsibility for this from LGen Christine Whitecross is September 2015.
In August 2015, the Canadian Armed Forces’ response to sexual misconduct expanded to a more comprehensive institution-wide effort under Operation HONOUR, the CAF mission to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.
RAdm Bennett met with Esprit de Corps at her Ottawa office on March 13 to discuss the CAF Strategic Response Team on Sexual Misconduct (CSRT-SM), its success, challenges, and where it’s headed next. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Esprit de Corps: How has the CSRT-SM evolved?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: The CSRT-SM was stood up in February 2015, under the leadership of LGen Christine Whitecross (then Major-General), in response to the external review conducted by retired Chief Justice Madame Marie Deschamps. Their mandate was to review the Deschamps Report and develop an action plan to implement the 10 recommendations. That was the case until July of 2015, when General Jonathan Vance took over as Chief of the Defence Staff.
Vance changed the mandate and made this a much broader, all-encompassing response to not simply address what was in the Deschamps report and her recommendations, but also the elimination of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour institution-wide. It now involves other agencies and CAF organizations and leaders across the entire institution. So, instead of being a small team with a narrow focus, this is a much, much broader CAF-wide response.
Even the composition of the team and our mandate has evolved quite a lot. We are now responsible for implementing and leading Operation HONOUR on behalf of the Chief of the Defence Staff as well as the External Review Authority (ERA) recommendations and links to other numerous related initiatives across the institution. We have a much different role in facilitating and being a catalyst for larger cultural change than just dealing with the Deschamps Report.
Esprit de Corps: Is this an interim solution, or do you see the CSRT-SM becoming a permanent fixture of the CAF?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: Originally the strategic response team had a three year mandate to accept the Deschamps Report and implement those recommendations. However, we now know that this requires major culture change that won’t occur within a three-year period. It requires broad, sweeping institutional change. You can’t simply focus on just one type of behaviour or one type of harassment. While we are addressing harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour and sexual misconduct, you can’t just fix sexual harassment without having an impact on the larger workplace culture.
It will be a longer mandate and one of my responsibilities is to look at what this should become, where it should reside within the institution, and whether this needs to be more all-encompassing about social programs and other aspects of workplace culture. And again, this isn’t necessarily a personnel issue. Should we be a separate institution, agency, or organization? Should we have a direct reporting relationship to the CDS? That’s what we’ll be developing now.
Esprit de Corps: Can you give me an example of some of the changes or programs you’ve implemented or reviewed so far?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: We’ve done a great deal of work and have communicated this in two progress reports to date and we’re about to release our third report that will focus primarily on the substantial work we have done on training and education as well as our response to the Statistics Canada (StatCan) survey results.
We initially concentrated on awareness and understanding of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour including the scope and spectrum of sexual misconduct and the impact on members and operational effectiveness. We immediately stood up the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and provided victim support that we’d never had in the past. We implemented new investigation procedures and training for our military police and changes were made by the Director of Military Prosecutions for cases for sexually based offences. We’ve done Bystander Intervention Training and we’re introducing a new workplace program called “Respect in the CAF.”
We also completed a survey with StatCan between April and June of 2016, so that we could better understand the prevalence and nature of sexual misconduct and have a baseline from which to measure our performance and progress. We’ve changed policies and introduced new programs. There are other related DND/CAF initiatives including a new agency on Bases and Wings that is integrating complaints and conflict resolution including sexual harassment. We had to first lay the groundwork and engage the institution and our members to increase understanding and awareness and then initiate our response with victim support being paramount to that.
Esprit de Corps: Were you shocked at the Statistics Canada survey results?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: We worked with StatCan to design the survey and create the questions. We didn’t ask questions about how many happy days people had at work. We really wanted to know, so we asked tough questions.
I was really disappointed that we still have the extent of the problem that we do. I joined in the 1970s so I am one of the women who was a trailblazer and went through integration. I had a different experience, mind you, in the Reserve Force. The Navy is quite different than the Air Force or Army. Each of us have different environmental perspectives. It was really revealing to us that the greatest prevalence was still people doing dumb things: the inappropriate jokes, the inappropriate touching without consent. We’ve been trying to tackle that for years.
But there were some positives in it as well. Even in the short time that we’ve been implementing Operation Honour and working on things like victim support and trying to regain the trust and confidence, we are making a difference. The number of folks who said they would trust their chain of command to take action if they made a report increased quite dramatically over what we’ve heard in the past.
More than anything, it provided us with a great baseline. I think the next survey that we’ll do in 2018 will be more revealing because it will show us what we’ve done, and the impact we’ve had. It will be disappointing and shocking if we haven’t made a difference. From my perspective, being a woman who’s been in the Forces as long as I have, I was just truly, really disappointed we still had some of the same issues that we have been trying to tackle and address.
Esprit de Corps: Do you have a mix of men and women on your team?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: I do, but it was more important to have a mixture of background and areas of expertise. I have a core team of 22 plus special advisors. As I say, it’s a core team. We also have an enabling team that represents all the agencies and the organizations that we work with. There’s an additional 30 people there.
While I have a small team of three people working on training and education, they’re connected to a much larger network of training authorities and agencies. What expertise we don’t have in our team, we access, both external to the Canadian Forces and internally as well. Because we aren’t experts in the Canadian Armed Forces, we are consulting with civilian experts and people who are doing this in other agencies and other organizations. We are also working very closely with the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre.
Esprit de Corps: Will this team change or expand in the future?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: It will. It has changed completely from the original group, which was brought in with that very specific and narrow mandate to respond to the Deschamps report. The team will change and morph as we now look into a more stable organization and as the needs change. I may not need the same expertise long term. We are working very closely with the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and we will both continue to change and evolve.
We’ve tapped into a lot of resources and expertise beyond what we had on our original team. We needed to define the requirements and develop the plan then build the team accordingly.
Esprit de Corps: Are there challenges you’ve overcome or are still working on?
RAdm Jennifer Bennett: Culture change: it doesn’t happen quickly. And the second challenge is measuring outcomes. It’s easy to demonstrate intent and to demonstrate action, but it’s the “so what?” factor we need to address. Everybody wants you to measure that. It’s a challenge in this because if the number of reports increases that’s a good thing because you’ve facilitated reporting, but people could say, now you’ve got more people who have come forward, so the perception is of a bigger problem.
For us, what we see as a success is that we have increased the confidence and trust in the system and people are now coming forward to make reports. We have a lot of victims with historic cases who did not come forward, and for the first time [they] feel that they will be heard. These are both former and serving Canadian Armed Forces members. We see that as a real positive step.
The other is that we have some very positive messages and findings in the way we’ve established the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, with a single military police liaison officer, so that victims only have to tell their story once. That’s made a huge difference. Establishing a rapport with a counselor or one military police officer has meant that, sometimes, it will take 17 phone calls or emails, but that person will eventually come forward, and we’ve found that’s a success.
There is a continued need for communication and engagement and we’re working on new ways to do that. Our greatest challenge remains how to measure success? It’s not something you can do a customer satisfaction survey for very easily. But the StatCan survey that we will conduct in a couple of years will do that.