Sexual Abuse in the Military: History repeats itself

By Scott Taylor

Last Thursday’s release of the long-awaited report on sexual attitudes in the Canadian Armed Forces was depicted as a bombshell revelation by the national media.

Headlines proclaimed that Canada’s military suffers a “sexualized culture” and statements that women in uniform “endure a toxic work environment” sent pundits, analysts and feminists to the pulpits to shake their fists at the perpetrators of this perpetual misogyny.

In response, the senior military brass were paraded in front of the cameras where they, once again, vowed to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward any and all sexual bias within the ranks.

For longtime observers of the Armed Forces, these latest revelations were not shocking, for the simple reason that we have heard them all before. This latest internal report was commissioned one year ago by chief of defence staff Gen. Tom Lawson, following a damning series of media reports in Maclean’s magazine and its French-language counterpart, L’Actualite.

Former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps

Former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps

These stories were based on interviews with victims who painted a picture of a military culture that condoned sexual abuse and ostracized those who suffered the abuse. To quell the raging media storm, Lawson commissioned former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps to conduct a sweeping internal inquiry into the allegations. Over the following 12 months, Deschamps and her investigators travelled across Canada and conducted interviews with more than 700 witnesses. Given that there are about 100,000 uniformed personnel in the regular Forces and the reserves, that has to be considered a very thorough cross-section of the Canadian military.

Deschamps’ conclusion was in lockstep with the Maclean’s and L’Actualite’s findings in 2014. “There is an undeniable problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the CAF which requires direct and sustained action,” Deschamps wrote, adding that the military brass, despite their protestations to the contrary, refused to admit, “the extent and pervasiveness of the problem of inappropriate sexual misconduct.”

She tabled a list of 10 recommendations for the Forces to adopt in order to address these shortcomings and to alter the existing culture of sexual harassment tolerance. While the military immediately agreed to accept two of Deschamps’ recommendations, and agreed “in principle” with the remaining eight, it steadfastly refused to accept the notion of creating a process of reporting sexual abuse that is independent of the chain of command.

Analysts were quick to seize upon this point and to note that several of our key allies, such as the United States, France and the Netherlands, have successfully implemented such independent oversight. What remains missing from the current debate is any mention of the fact that this whole clamour about the sexual climate in the Forces has been brought to the public spotlight before — not just one year ago in the Maclean’s-L’Actualite reports, but 17 years ago in the spring of 1998. Once again, it was Maclean’s magazine leading the charge, only at that juncture it took an unprecedented four consecutive front-covers feature exposes to force the political leadership of the day into announcing sweeping reforms.

The 1998 stories were eerily similar to the most recent revelations, in that victims of rape had also been victimized by a military chain of command intent on protecting careers and the reputation of the institution, at the expense of administering justice. By then, the public had already soured on the Canadian military after more than two years of public inquiry into a top-level attempted coverup of a murdered prisoner at the hands of Canadian paratroopers that became collectively known as the Somalia Scandal.

CDS General Tom Lawson has been scrutinized by the public as well as the government over his handling of the sexual abuse crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces.

CDS General Tom Lawson has been scrutinized by the public as well as the government over his handling of the sexual abuse crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Then-Liberal defence minister Art Eggleton had at first attempted to defuse the bombshell as a tempest in a teapot, but by the fourth weekly front cover body blow, the public clamour was too loud to ignore. In response to the outrage, Eggleton announced the appointment of Andre Marin as the first-ever ombudsman for the Forces. Marin was a keen young lawyer, and in the interest of full disclosure, I consider him a friend.

However, despite all the fanfare that accompanied the creation of the ombudsman’s office, the powers which Marin insisted he needed to effectively challenge the chain of command were never granted.

Now that we are back to Square 1, 17 years later, perhaps the solution is not to create another non-independent layer of oversight, but to simply revisit those powers Marin recommended but never received.