Canada’s defence minister seemed to contradict his own senior military leadership on Monday in an interview outside the House of Commons, saying he doesn’t believe military culture is to blame for misogyny and sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
Harjit Sajjan was responding to a question from a reporter about his own experience within the ranks, just hours after the Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance released an update on the military’s efforts to combat sexual harassment and assault. The journalist asked the minister if there is anything in particular about Canada’s military culture that breeds such misconduct.
“It’s not the military culture per se that leads to it,” Sajjan replied, adding that he doesn’t know “how it has come to (be) like this. I don’t have an answer to that.”
Sajjan said he is “looking forward to the studies, and looking forward to the work that General Vance is doing on this to find out what we need to do.”
The minister’s statements seemed to fly in the face of the accepted wisdom surrounding the military’s admitted problem with assault, harassment and other forms of sexually-based bullying.
Last year, a scathing report from retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps outlined an entrenched “culture of misogyny” in the military. The progress report released by Vance on Monday – which was authored by the chief of military personnel – also refers repeatedly to military culture as a core problem, noting:
“That this problem is part of the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces could not come as a surprise to soldiers, seamen and aviators … changing an organization’s culture, though challenging, is possible.”
Vance launched the multi-phased Operation Honour last year to “eliminate” harmful sexual behaviour in the ranks. On Monday morning, he said his department has made progress in recent months, but lasting change will take time.
Vance said dozens of men and women have come forward to report misconduct, assault or inappropriate behaviour over the last five months through the newly created Sexual Misconduct Response Centre. Eight investigations have been launched as a direct result.
The progress outlined in the report released by the Canadian Forces Monday “represents a start,” Vance said.
“Although it’s still just a start … this report shows that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Vance said that changing the military is challenging, and acknowledged that efforts to cut down on the number of assaults and complaints have not always succeeded in the past.
“I am satisfied, however, that we have some innovative approaches this time.”
In April, the Canadian Forces will be sending out a survey, administered by Statistics Canada, to all members “to determine the nature and scope of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.” Vance said his department will also be improving its existing training curriculum, and tracking trends related to harmful sexual behaviour over the next six months.
“I made it clear that this could not and would not persist,” Vance said. “The consequences of not succeeding are just too dire.”
Monday’s report concludes that “the Canadian Armed Forces is making good progress in executing the Operation HONOUR mission, notwithstanding the daunting nature of institutional culture change on a subject as complex as harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.”
By the numbers
Officials said that the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre has received 247 calls or other contacts since it was launched. Not all calls came from Canadian Forces members, however.
NDP “pleased to see progress”
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison responded to the report Monday afternoon – before Sajjan made his comments outside the House of Commons – saying his party is “pleased to see progress” on the file and even more pleased to see the Canadian Forces recognizing sexual misconduct harms the overall effectiveness of Canada’s military.
Garrison also said, however, that Ottawa must re-commit to the recruitment goal set by the Canadian Human Rights Commission of 25 per cent female representation in the military. The figure currently stands at around 15 per cent.
“We are concerned that there are some long timelines, and no mention of resources for the strategy and the (Sexual Misconduct Response Centre),” Garrison noted.
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