Canada’s military, where sexual misconduct went to the top, looks for a new path

Several of Canada’s top military officers have been accused of sexual harassment, and the former top commander pleaded guilty this year to criminal charges related to accusations that he committed sexual misconduct when leading the nation’s armed forces.

About one-quarter of the women serving in the Canadian military said they had been sexually assaulted during their military careers, according to a government census. And the government has set aside nearly $800 million to settle class action lawsuits by current and former military members involving sexual misconduct.

The cascade of sexual abuse scandals has shaken confidence in the military in Canada, where Monday the government released an independent review by a former Supreme Court justice aimed at addressing what critics say is a pervasive and systemic problem that has persisted despite past promises of reform.

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It will be the fourth report to focus on sexual abuse in Canada’s military, where victims say that abuse permeates all levels of the forces and that they are frequently punished for speaking out.

The extent of the problem was laid out in a scathing 2015 report, which found that Canada’s military had “an underlying sexualized culture” that was hostile to women and lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and queer members.

In the report released Monday, Louise Arbor, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice who was also the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights and who conducted the review, found that attempts to reform the military following the earlier report had failed.

The military, she wrote, “was not ready to fully embrace the paradigm shift required to produce these changes.”

She added: “They now need to adapt to a new reality — the women warriors are here to stay. And they will stay on their terms, seeking the substantive equality to which they are entitled. Women should no longer feel like guests.”

Aside from its widespread nature, perhaps the most striking aspect of sexual abuse in Canada’s military is how it reaches into the highest levels.

Seven years ago, Gen. Jonathan Vance, shortly after taking over as the military’s top commander, unveiled a sweeping program to deal with chronic sexual assault and harassment and pledged to tackle an issue he called “a threat to this institution.”

But not long after retiring, he became ensnared in such a scandal himself. Kellie Brennan, a former army major, said in an interview with Global News, a Canadian broadcaster, that she had a sexual relationship with Vance over several years, including when she was under his command.

Brennan later testedified before a parliamentary committee that Vance had fathered two of her children.

In April, Vance, who had led troops in Canada’s last major combat mission, in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after being accused of trying to persuade Brennan to lie to investigators.

It didn’t end there.

Not long after he succeeded Vance as the military’s top leader, Adm. Art McDonald was suspended last year after the military police opened an investigation into unspecified accusations. The military did not reveal the results of the inquiry, but he was not reappointed to lead the military and he retired.

Several other senior officers also face accusations or are under investigation, including Vice Adm. Haydn Edmundson, who, as the head of human resources, was among those responsible for eliminating sexual misconduct in the military. He was charged last December with sexual assault and committing indecent acts. The case will be heard in a civilian criminal court, and Edmundson has denied wrongdoing.

Phillip Millar, a former infantry officer and lawyer who has represented both victims and officers accused of sexual harassment and assault, said he had long been frustrated by the military’s tendency to treat cases as isolated examples of wrongdoing.

Millar filed lawsuits on behalf of seven victims who accused a former petty officer of using his position as a medic to sexually assault women at recruiting centers. In three separate criminal trials, the man was convicted on 12 charges of sexual assault and 25 charges of breach of trust.

“What I want to know is what happened to the person who is in charge of him and who received the first or second complaint?” Millar said. “Why wasn’t that person fired?”

The lack of an institutional approach to the problem has bred mistrust among many Canadians, said Stéfanie von Hlatky, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

“This crisis has truly moved the needle on how Canadians perceive the military,” von Hlatky said. “There’s a sense of urgency that they need to restore trust, not just because they’re recovering from a crisis but because they have huge objectives when it comes to recruitment and retention.”

Arbor’s review, which runs over 400 pages, lays out 48 recommendations including the hiring of an external monitor to oversee their implementation and make regular public reports on the military’s progress.

The recommendations include turning over sexual assaults to the civilian criminal justice system for investigation and prosecution, something the government has already decided to do, and to consider providing undergraduate education to officer recruits through the regular university system rather than the elite military college in Kingston, Ontario and a junior military college in St. Jean, Quebec.

“The military colleges appear as institutions from a different era, with an outdated and problematic leadership model,” Arbor wrote. “The advantages of Canada’s considerable investment in military colleges are unclear.”

Other proposals include systems to review and increase the number of women and nonwhite men who are promoted and turning recruitment over to civilians to “increase the competence level of the recruiters.” She also suggests a number of options for ensuring that misconduct is tracked and considered in personnel evaluations.

Anita Anand, who was named defense minister late last year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a mandate to promote a top-to-bottom overhaul, told a news conference that she accepted all of Arbor’s recommendations.

“Apologies are most meaningful when they are coupled with action,” Anand, a former law professor, said. “Meaningful change will rest on political determination of the civilians who oversee the Canadian Armed Forces.”

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