Canadian military facing ‘crisis’ amid probes into top leaders: experts

Click to play video: 'New chief of the defence staff steps aside amid investigation'
New chief of the defence staff steps aside amid investigation
WATCH: Admiral Art McDonald, Canada's new top soldier, has stepped aside from his post. In January, McDonald took over the chief of the defence staff job from Gen. Jonathan Vance, and now, both men are at the centre of investigations. David Akin reports – Feb 25, 2021

The Canadian military is facing down what experts call an institutional “crisis” amid twin military police probes into both the current and former chiefs of defence staff.

In what appears to be an unprecedented situation, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) is investigating both Chief of Defence Staff Adm. Art McDonald, who stepped aside late Wednesday night, and former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, who is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates.

Click to play video: 'Military reacts to another top Canadian soldier under investigation'
Military reacts to another top Canadian soldier under investigation

It is not yet clear what military police are probing in relation to McDonald but both investigations come after a series of reports by Global News on the allegations against Vance.

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Now the military faces a reckoning that experts say has been a long time coming over repeated urgings to change a culture that former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps described as “hostile” and “endemic” in her landmark 2015 report on misconduct in the military.

“I believe that it is a crisis that’s being seen by the rest of us,” said Linna Tam-Seto, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.

“I believe based on the Deschamps report, which came out in 2015, it was well known that this type of misconduct was happening within the ranks, running from bottom to top. What we’re seeing now is that this type of behaviour is being shown through the top.”

David Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, described the situation facing the military as it grapples with the allegations as “uncharted territory.”

Click to play video: 'Canada’s chief of defence staff to step aside amid CFNIS investigation, defence minister says'
Canada’s chief of defence staff to step aside amid CFNIS investigation, defence minister says

“This is really, I think, a crisis for our military, no matter how the current investigations play out,” he said. “I think it’s tough to understate just how significant these types of allegations against two successive leaders of our military are.”

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Military and defence industry experts have emphasized in recent days the need for a thorough, independent probe into sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour in the military.

One of the leading think tanks on defence and security matters issued a statement Wednesday expressing “deep concerns” about the allegations and urging that any individuals who wish to come forward be able to do so without fear of reprisal.

Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who is chairman of the CDA Institute and former vice-chief of the defence staff, said he expects many will be unsettled by the allegations laid out, and that it is crucial for military members to know they can come forward and not face retaliation.

“‘The chief of defence staff is expected to be the role model example of ‘duty with honour,'” he said.

“I think it’s correct and right that folks would be shaken a little bit by having Gen. Vance and now Adm. McDonald in the light that’s been presented here through these allegations.”

Thibault added that both Vance and McDonald deserve due process as their investigations proceed.

“But clearly, to have our chiefs in this limelight, I think this is not only a surprise, but it’s disappointing,” he said.

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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement announcing the probe Wednesday night that he had been informed McDonald stepped back “voluntarily” and that he will not be commenting further.

Click to play video: 'O’Toole asks if government aware of other allegations against senior military officials after Chief of Defence Staff steps aside'
O’Toole asks if government aware of other allegations against senior military officials after Chief of Defence Staff steps aside

In a statement Thursday, the Department of National Defence said it will not be providing information on the investigation’s “contents, processes and possible outcomes.” It did say it takes “all allegations of misconduct seriously.”

McDonald was sworn in just last month following Vance’s retirement and in his inaugural address, apologized to military colleagues who have faced harassment and discrimination.

“I’m deeply sorry,” he said at the time. “I want you to know that I will do all that I can to support you, to stop these unacceptable acts from happening, and to put into practice our guiding principle: respect and the dignity of all persons. Creating a respectful environment is a responsibility that we all share.”

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McDonald told reporters he felt it was necessary that he apologize because he, too, was guilty of unintentionally perpetuating some of the issues within the force.

In one of his last tweets before stepping aside, McDonald on Wednesday thanked members of the Defence Women’s Advisory Organization for speaking with senior military leaders earlier in the week about the need for cultural change in the Canadian Armed Forces.

He described himself as “grateful” for the volunteer group’s contributions.

“You have a seat at the table and a voice that is heard,” he said. “We are in agreement; now, together we update our plan and take action.”

The meeting appears to have come after one of the women at the heart of the allegations against Vance shared her story publicly for the first time with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson.

IN HER WORDS: One of the women behind Vance allegations tells her story

In that interview, Maj. Kellie Brennan said there remain barriers to coming forward in the military and that sexual misconduct remains pervasive throughout its ranks.

Brennan said if the military is serious about creating cultural change, women need to be able to speak openly about their experiences and have a seat at the decision-making table.

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She said the only way to move forward is to confront the problems head-on.

“You unlock the door. There’s a locked door of secrets, and we’re all scared to open that door to tell the truth. Because the truth is ugly. The truth is complicated,” she said.

Cassandra Elliott, an advocate for survivors of sexual misconduct in the military with the group It’s Just 700, said the recent allegations have had an impact on the people she works with.

“With all these allegations coming out, a lot of our cases and a lot of the people we represent and help have been feeling especially demoralized and losing their, lack of faith and hope and stuff,” she said.

“It’s really rough on a lot of people hearing all of this.”

Elliott said she hopes to see concrete action come from the reckoning now facing the military.

“They have the opportunity now to take action and do something,” she said.

“There’s so much they can do. Just do something — stop talking. That’s my only advice.”

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Elliott specifically decried the lack of supports available to victims of sexual misconduct in the Forces.

While the military launched its Sexual Misconduct Response Centre in 2015 to better support members who have experienced or been affected by sexual misconduct, Elliott says far too many are still falling through the cracks.

“Had the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre been decentralized from Ottawa and had some sort of authority to at least be part of the investigation process,” she said, “I can’t help but feel that some of these people could have gotten the support they needed sooner.”

McDonald faced criticism on Feb. 11 over a photo he posted online that emphasized the need for diversity and culture change, yet showed eight white men sitting around a board-room table, with one white man and one white woman visible on a screen. 

The tweet went viral, and McDonald subsequently acknowledged the concerns raised about the tweet.

“We need to reflect Canada’s diversity at all levels. We must work to eliminate systemic racism (and) dismantle the barriers to career advancement that exist,” he said.

“We are there in mindset but know there is still a lot of work to do, and we are committed to doing it.”

Tam-Seto, whose research focuses on the experiences of female military members and well-being in the military, said many of Canada’s allies are in similar situations of confronting the vital need for cultural change within their ranks, but that all of those efforts remain a work in progress.

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“It’s a culture shift that needs to happen, something that’s been long identified in research and in statements that have been made in the past,” she said, citing the Deschamps report as one example.

“So it’s more than just issues around sexual misconduct. It’s power imbalance, it’s structure. It’s the dominant masculine culture that needs to be shifted.

Click to play video: 'What did the government know about allegations against Vance?'
What did the government know about allegations against Vance?

There are now multiple probes underway or promised into allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the military: military police have opened an investigation into McDonald and an investigation into Vance.

McDonald also promised an independent examination of the allegations against Vance shortly after Global News first reported them, though the details of that have yet to be confirmed.

The House of Commons defence committee is also conducting a study into the matter.

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Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who is a member of that committee, said he would also support something like a public inquiry into misconduct in the Canadian Forces if that was put forward, though added that it is vital the investigations underway so far are able to continue.

If that’s the route that the government decides that we need to go, if that’s the route that we have to go to ensure that the military members are not at all feel(ing) somewhat constrained because the chain of command, then that’s what we have to take as a next step,” he said.

— With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson, David Akin, Marc-Andre Cossette and Bryan Mullan.

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