New defence chief pledges to end misconduct

WATCH: Gen. Jonathan Vance took over as Chief of Defence Staff on Friday, inheriting some troubling problems — including revelations of how prevalent sexual harassment and misconduct are within the ranks. Vance said those things won’t be tolerated on his watch, but the media weren’t allowed to ask what changes he intends to make. Mike Le Couteur reports.

OTTAWA – The Canadian military’s new top commander has delivered a clear, tough message, saying bullies and abusers have no place within the ranks and, where they exist, they’ll be weeded out.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, a combat veteran of Afghanistan and the country’s former operations commander, was sworn in as the chief of defence staff Friday in a high-security ceremony, replacing Gen. Tom Lawson, who is retiring after almost three years in the high-profile post.

“Any form of harmful sexual behaviour has been and always will be absolutely contrary to good order and discipline,” Vance said in his inaugural address.

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“It is a threat to morale. It is a threat to operational readiness and a threat to this institution.”

The speech is just another indication of how deeply the military is seized with the findings of a special investigation into harassment and sexual assault within the ranks.

Vance said inappropriate behaviour of any kind will not be tolerated under his command and his first general order to the military will be to make that point explicitly clear.

“Leaders protect their own,” said the general, who noted that from his experience bullies and predators were “the most useless in combat.”

Former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, in a searing report released in April, said sexual misconduct is “endemic” in the Canadian military and that the leadership has tolerated abuse.

Vance says his first priority will be to take care of the troops, and the issue of harassment is at the top of the list.

“I do not like the idea that anybody — even a single person — would have to come to work anywhere in the Armed Forces, or even working with us, (with) that sick feeling in their stomach that they’re going to be attacked, degraded, or have their dignity stripped from them,” Vance said in an interview with The Canadian Press prior to his swearing-in.

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“I’m going to address that hard because I think it affects our morale. It is something I will lead very personally and very quickly.”

There is a lingering perception, both publicly and within the rank and file, that the military isn’t serious about the kind of reform that would stamp out what Deschamps described as a highly sexualized, macho culture. While Vance wasn’t specific about how he would deal with it, he committed himself to living up to the report.

“I honestly value the Deschamps recommendations and I will put a great deal of energy into meeting or exceeding the letter and the spirit of those recommendations,” he said.

Lawson, Vance’s predecessor, fed the perception of indifference with his tone-deaf public comments about the “biological wiring” of soldiers. And in memos he suggested some of Deschamps’ ideas could fall by the wayside.

The image of a detached military leadership is deep-rooted and not confined to headline-grabbing allegations of sexual misconduct. Both the Harper government and National Defence have faced repeated storms of criticism over suicides and the treatment of veterans — issues with the potential to haunt the Conservatives in the coming election.

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray applauded Vance’s speech, but said the new defence chief’s emphasis on the care of the ill and injured underlines Conservative failures.

“It is an indictment of this government. The only thing this government has done for the troops is exploit them for their photo opportunities,” she said, before rhyming off a list of service problems and undelivered equipment.

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After a dozen years of overseas conflict, Vance says it’s imperative he invest significant energy in the well-being of military members, from the time they enlist to the moment they become veterans.

In his remarks at the ceremony, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stressed the continuity in leadership, underlining that the Armed Forces always carry the responsibility to protect Canadian values and freedoms, even as threats change rapidly on the world scene.

“This ceremony is not really about change. It is about continuity of that command,” he said, paying tribute to Lawson, who received a standing ovation for his remarks and a sustained round of applause from the audience, which included all of the military senior leadership and members of the diplomatic community.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney echoed Vance’s determination to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks, calling the behaviour “unacceptable” and damaging to the morale of the very people who are tasked with defending Canada.

Vance “is up to the challenge” of fixing the problem, Kenney said.

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