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Crisis of Leadership, Thirty Years in the Making: Sexual Violence in the Canadian Military

08 Dec 2021
By Charlotte Duval-Lantoine
Members of the Canadian contingent participate in a 5 kms walk at dawn to exercise and acclimate to the Malian hot weather at Camp Castor in Gao. Source: Marco Dormino

The crisis of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military has been growing since the 1990s. Leaders must understand their cultural responsibilities towards the profession if they want to succeed in this attempt at culture change.

The Canadian military has been weathering one of its most significant crises in thirty years. Deemed existential by Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre, this crisis erupted in late February 2021, when the media uncovered serious accusations of sexual improprieties levied against the senior leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). In response, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan appointed former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour to conduct a review and created a new position at the lieutenant general level to spearhead the culture change needed to properly address the scourge that is sexual violence in the ranks.

This year’s crisis is not new. Six years ago, a similar series of scandals hit the military and led to Operation HONOUR, a campaign plan to “eradicate sexual misconduct” in the military. Operation HONOUR was the military’s response to former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschampsreport, which identified an overly sexualised culture in the Canadian military that was “antagonistic” to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. She recommended a “comprehensive culture change.” The recent wave of scandals have showed that this change did not occur.

While military leaders accepted Deschamps’ recommendations “in principle,” six years later, they have yet to implement them. The Canadian Armed Forces’ inability to pursue change is not new. In 1998, the magazine Maclean’s published a series of media reports exposing sexual violence in the Canadian military. The chief of the defence staff at the time, General Maurice Baril, responded to the situation by saying, “those who cannot change are in the wrong uniform, and in the wrong profession.” And yet, twenty-three years after the first series of reports exposing sexual misconduct in the Canadian military, implementing a culture change remains an objective rather than a realised outcome.

At the heart of the issue is leaders struggling with the cultural obligations of leadership. As the stewards of the profession of arms, the responsibilities of service members and their leaders go beyond giving and following orders. Being a member of the profession of arms involves ensuring the well-being of subordinates, and “the integrity and reputation of the military profession.” Repeated scandals since at least the 1990s have continuously brought the integrity and the reputation of the profession  into question.

Attempts at increasing women’s participation in the military date back five decades. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the Canadian military to reach “full [gender] integration” by 1999. The order required the military to open all trades, including in combat environments (aside from submarines due to concern over mixed-gender quarters and a lack of privacy), to women without restrictions.

The Canadian military failed to reach full integration. In 1989, women represented 9.9 percent of the military. By 1999, the proportion barely rose by a full percent to 10.8 percent. The Maclean’s special issues on sexual violence in the military throughout the spring of 1998 suggested the few women serving were far from well-integrated. Internal studies, servicewomen’s testimonies, and a letter from the Canadian Human Rights Commissioner to the chief of the defence staff expressing disappointment in the outcome of the process confirmed these suggestions.

The history of gender integration shows that the issues the CAF are dealing with today are not isolated to the plight of servicewomen. The implementation period included itself in a tumultuous time for the Canadian military, the decade of darkness. Military leaders found themselves unable to cope adequately with drastic budget cuts, increased deployments, and a series of non-sexual violence-related scandals. Consequently, misconduct became rampant and was left unaddressed, and a collapse of trust in the chain of command ensued.

Leaders’ inability to deal with this difficult time led to them adopting behaviours inconsistent with the principles of effective leadership, and many leaders at all levels were engaged in systemic toxic behaviours. Those contributed to the series of scandals of the 1990s, most notably the Somalia Affair which led to sweeping reforms in 1998-2000, and the shortcomings of gender integration.

The consequences went beyond a less than satisfactory increase in the number of women. They had a real impact on service members. Morale was low, attrition was high, and the scandals kept coming.

The current crisis shows that the leadership issues that made the 1990s the decade of darkness remain present. In both the 1990s and during Operation HONOUR, leaders did not establish a strategy or a plan that they could monitor closely, did not create a clear and institutionalised apparatus of implementation, and did not get the support of an external monitoring body.

Promising the eradication of sexual misconduct within twenty-eight months by 2018, Operation HONOUR had its standing strategy, The Path to Dignity and Respect, published in November 2020. Throughout the 1990s, the military established no strategy or conceptual model to guide gender integration: responsibility for integration would rotate agencies approximately every eighteen months.

The military attributed the murder of a Somali teenager and the subsequent attempt at a cover up, as well as the continuous scandals of violence, to service members who lacked “moral fibre” and had consequently failed to live up to the standards life in uniform demanded of them. In response to the allegations of violence brought forward by Maclean’s, Chief of the Defence Staff Maurice Baril declared, “we have a problem in the leadership, but not all of it–a slice that we are trying to correct.” This assumption on how misconduct occurred in the ranks continued as Operation HONOUR was under way.

In front of the House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts on 29 January 2019, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff Lieutenant General Paul Wynnyk described the issue of sexual misconduct as, “dealing with a small proportion of people in uniform,” repeating the same “few bad apples” nuance.

Bad apples spoil the barrel. The repeated nature of scandals involving violence in the ranks in the Canadian military, which impact all service members in different ways depending on their rank, age, race and ethnicity, and gender, demonstrates how pervasive the issue has become.

In 2021, another crisis around sexual misconduct hit the Canadian Armed Forces. With investigations into accusations of sexual violence against a plethora of generals, the credibility and integrity of the most senior leaders has been questioned, as they had named Operation HONOUR and the elimination of sexual violence in the military as one of their priorities. It can no longer be the fault of a few malicious individuals. It has become engrained in the cultural fabric of the military.

Attitudes of leader matter, too. But giving orders is not sufficient to adequately guide the behaviour of subordinates and ensure the health of the institution. A more involved and open leadership is critical. Communicating with subordinates and getting their feedback should be part of the response. This will demand sustained efforts and a large number of resources from Canadian military leaders. But it is essential they grapple with the cultural responsibilities they have over the institutions and their subordinates if they want to succeed.

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine is a Manager and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Her book on toxic leadership and gender integration, The Ones We Let Down, will be published in the Spring of 2022 with McGill University Press.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.