Chain of Command be Damned

By Michael Nickerson

 Former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps. 

Former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps. 

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.”

 MGen Chris Whitecross 

MGen Chris Whitecross 

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.

Marie 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. 

Dark Days In Need of a White Knight

By Michael Nickerson 

 Former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier

Former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier

When Rick “Big Cod” Hillier talked about a “decade of darkness,” it was supposed to be a lament, not a prophecy. A military stretched beyond its means, morale in the gutter, an armed forces ignored, the then chief of the defence staff placed the sorry state of Canada’s military squarely at the feet of the federal Liberals, their cost cutting, and their indifference to the troops. But that was back in 2007, and with heads full of sugar plums and fairy tales, everyone thought it would get better. Rebuilt and reenergized. Go team!

Well, that was a silly notion, wasn’t it? Instead of rebuilding, the forces have regressed amid false promises, inept procurement, and budget cuts. Instead of reenergized morale, it’s about as robust as a sodden mechanical bunny running on dead batteries. Any coherent foreign policy for the armed forces to operate under has been subordinated to the whim of politics and polling numbers. Decade of Darkness –The Sequel: Bigger, Longer, and Lied To. Not exactly what you expected to see on the marque did you?

Well, gee whiz soldier, we can fix that! It’s an election year after all, and democracy will undoubtedly work its special magic. The will of the people will prevail, and all will be milk, honey, and some new kit for the forces. There might even be a fresh uniform or two for those cadets out there rationing their skivvies and timesharing their pants. Or that’s the idea, anyway, much as it was back when Hillier was winding up his military career and dreaming of fame and fortune on the lecture circuit.

A popular definition of insanity is when someone does the same thing over and over again yet, somehow, expects a different result. It's certainly a sign of stubbornness, perhaps even stupidity. So with that in mind, who might step up and fix this mess?

Stephen Harper? Wrong answer. See above. If you’re finding yourself swayed by a sudden round of promises to veterans to up compensation, hire new case workers (i.e. replace some of the ones they fired), treat reservists as something approximating the same species as regular force members, all while talking tough and bombing extremists, please take head in hand and shake vigorously. Harper has spent so much time cutting expenses and doling out tax breaks he’ll be lucky to have a roll of quarters left to cover a Band-Aid and pack of fire crackers. Not that his promises have ever had much substance to begin with. So do scratch that one off the list if a semblance of sanity is the goal.

Alright, who then? Glad you asked! Hmmm, yes sir, good question. And that’s where things become a bit of a sticky wicket, as they say. The alternatives aren’t so much limited, as nonexistent. For if the past eight years of political opposition can be summed up in one word, it would be cowardice; a fear of taking risks, openly speaking to power, or offering tangible alternatives instead of banal bromides fashioned more to avoid controversy than achieve change. So far it’s a game of chicken one and all outside the Harper Government™ has been losing badly.

 General (ret'd) Andrew Leslie, formerly the chief of transformation, is now trying his hand at politics as he campaigns as a Liberal candidate for Orleans. 

General (ret'd) Andrew Leslie, formerly the chief of transformation, is now trying his hand at politics as he campaigns as a Liberal candidate for Orleans. 

Many thought that would change once Andrew Leslie decided to take up federal politics as his second career. Bright, confident, candid, experienced, and not a little intimidating; the former chief of transformation seemed the quintessential White Knight for what ails the Canadian military and foreign service alike. Yet, it would be safe to say the retired general’s tenure so far has been characterized by little more than bad press and unnecessary controversy. A waste of insight and expertise, though the promise seems to be that he’ll be sprung on an eager electorate once an election is called.

 A Canadian CF-18 18 Hornet in Kuwait. 

A Canadian CF-18 18 Hornet in Kuwait. 

The problem, unfortunately, is that while everyone keeps their powder dry waiting for that call, serious issues have been and are unfolding with little useful comment, resistance, or policy alternatives. Canada’s current military campaign against ISIS/ISIL (choose your acronym) creeps ever forward and now troops have been deployed into Ukraine to provoke the Russians, the repercussions of which will last far beyond the next election, perhaps even past the next generation. The plight of veterans has changed not a whit, and tens of billions of dollars are needed just to keep the military at status quo, much less rebuild.

So if someone has a White Knight out there, for the sake of all that's decent and holy, let the crazy sod get on his horse and ride. Too many decisions are being made in a cowardly vacuum. It's criminal to wait. 

The Power of Boo!

By Michael Nickerson

Boo! Oh relax. I’m not a violent jihadist. Not even a passive one. Seriously, you can get up off the floor now. I won’t hurt you. No, I don’t want your wallet. Honest. Look, I know you’re scared but please keep your cell phone, I don’t want it; not your address book, your birth certificate, your passport, or your season hockey tickets. I was simply trying to make a point, so if you would just pay attention … stop rolling around with your belly in the air! My God, you’re worse than a puppy in a thunderstorm.

Does this sound like you? No? Well you must not be a Canadian. I’m sure you’ve heard of Canadians: timid creatures for the most part, scared of their own shadows, or at least women in face coverings who remind them of their shadows. And they wonder what lurks in the shadows, like perhaps Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or something just as foreign and sinister. Nothing good, that’s for certain, or as certain as a Canadian can be.

See, Canadians can also be a confused, irrational lot. Easily perplexed and led astray by the complexities of life and the world around them. Why, put a whoopee cushion on one of their chairs, and before you know it they’ll be hiding in the attic waiting for the authorities to give the all clear, or perhaps just CPR. Those cushions can be pretty frightening after all.

Not that all Canadians are prone to cardiac arrest at the sound of a fart or sight of an untrimmed beard. There is a subspecies with a bit more backbone, and Canadians are more than happy to send them off to who knows where to confront the shadows and threats to what they hold dear. They’re known as soldiers. Epic heroes, lauded and fawned over by the general herd, there to confront threats and risk their lives for, well, lots of things.

Let’s see, hmm. Ah yes, democracy! Freedom of speech! The liberty to do, well, things … just not to cover your face. Because that’s scary, and we just can’t have that. And curiously enough, having sent soldiers off to defend all these very important things (and die doing it, which actually is a pretty scary thing too, when you think about it), Canadians happily give all those important things up the second they have a fright.

An odd reaction when you consider the sacrifices in lives, blood, sweat, tears, and billions and billions of Canadian dollars to acquire and keep all those really important rights, which then get tossed out the moment someone goes Boo! But it’s the reason why people wonder about not just the courage of Canadians, but their intellect and sanity.

Now there is many a saying about the propensity of people to overreact: throwing out the baby with the bath water, cutting off your nose to spite your face, making a mountain out of a molehill, and the like. But such clichés make little sense to the average Canadian. If you suggest that it’s a great idea to burn your house down to rid yourself of three rodents and a pair of roaches, well they’ll nod knowingly and hand you a match and gas card to go do it for them, now there’s a good chap.

For out of all sense of proportion that the threat of terrorism presents, be it “violent jihadism” or “flagrant wearing of head coverings,” Canadians and their elected officials are ready to sign away all their hard-earned (well, earned by other people, though let’s not split hairs) rights to save them from an apparent apocalypse of, well, apocalyptic proportions.

But curb or revoke my right to drive? No way! Force me to register a firearm? Over my cold, dead body (which at times has been rather prophetic). Force me to inoculate my children, cross at the lights, eat less trans fats, or cut short my golf game just because there is a storm raging overhead? My good man, let’s be reasonable.

Well, being reasonable would mean acknowledging that all those things have killed or injured far more Canadians each and every year than terrorists have managed in the entire existence of Canada. Yet Canadians are poised to allow their rights, already eroded and abused, to be signed away in the name of safety from a threat that ranks somewhere around that of in-grown toenail infections. Make sense? Nope, but it’s damn scary.