As the Canadian military reckons with allegations of high-level sexual misconduct, one woman says she wants people to realize the problem isn’t just within the Canadian Forces.
She says it’s also within the military’s partner institution — the Department of National Defence — and that now is the time to speak out in the hopes of changing the system.
“I feel like now is the time for people to rise up and start talking about it, so that the next generation doesn’t have to have the same experiences as I did,” said Alexandra Auclair, a civil servant with the Department of National Defence and a former military member, in an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson.
Prior to becoming a bureaucrat, Auclair was a combat arms officer in the military and trained at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in 1997, where she says she was one of two women among 198 male trainees.
“I’m not ready to go into details on that but needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience,” Auclair said, adding she faced an environment that she says left her with the clear impression that women were not wanted. She also said the man in charge of the training — Capt. Brian Brooks — sometimes forced the two women to shower in the communal space with male trainees.
“I’m sure you can imagine: when you’re two women and so many men, there’s no good ending.”
Global News reached out to the Department of National Defence for comment.
A spokesperson said an investigation was launched.
“As we have said before, there is no place for misconduct in the CAF. This was as true in 1997 as it is today,” said the spokesperson.
“While we must respect privacy laws and cannot provide details regarding disciplinary actions taken against CAF members, we can confirm that – as a result of serious allegations of harassment at the Infantry School in 1997 – an investigation supported allegations of misconduct.”
The spokesperson said Brooks — now a major — had “no additional information to add.”
The Canadian military is grappling with twin military police probes into allegations against the current and former chiefs of the defence staff. Global News first reported on Feb. 2 that Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates, while Adm. Art McDonald stepped aside on Feb. 24 following news of a military police investigation into an allegation against him.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
The allegations have sparked an institutional crisis for the military and a national conversation about the culture of the military. Experts, including former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, have repeatedly flagged culture as a key factor in what she described in a landmark 2015 report as “endemic” sexual misconduct and a “hostile” working environment.
Auclair, now a civil servant at the Department of National Defence, says she has been struck by the experience of discussing how to fix the problem with senior defence and military leaders, some of whom she says were in those Gagetown showers.
Vance launched Operation Honour – the military’s formal initiative to root out sexual misconduct – in the wake of Deschamps’ damning 2015 report.
“Not a single one of them has ever admitted it, spoken to me about it, felt the need to apologize for it, despite having all these conversations about Op Honour,” Auclair said.
But, Auclair says, “Their cultural norms don’t go away when they take off the uniform.”
Auclair said roughly a third of the people in executive positions in the Department of National Defence are former military leaders, meaning both institutions have similar cultures.
She described a “rather unfortunate incident” she says she had with a senior leader in the department after they went for a drink after work in the winter of 2009.
“He put me into a corner, put his tongue down my neck, copped a feel,” she said. “Luckily I managed to push him away and leave.”
She attempted to report the alleged incident, despite some reservations stemming from the fact that the person was senior to her and able to influence her career.
But she got no support, she said, and was effectively told to drop it.
“The answer I got was … did I have DNA evidence? Did anybody witness this? If the answer was ‘no’ and you still need a job, it was his word against mine and so basically, shut your mouth and carry on,” she said.
“That was the last I heard of it again, so I dropped it. I let it go. And there is really nowhere to turn.”
Since Wednesday, Global News has reached out to the senior leader for comment but has received no response.
Auclair said she was concerned military police weren’t equipped to handle the alleged incident. She said her attempt to report was complicated by the fact she was a civilian rather than a military member at the time, and because it didn’t happen on military property.
“In theory, I should have gone to the civilian police,” she said.
“But the advice that I was given was just: be quiet. I had no case.”
Auclair says she has since received support from senior levels of the Department of National Defence.
Auclair previously worked at the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, which was set up following the Deschamps report which highlighted that there were no resources for those who experience sexual misconduct and want access to support outside the chain of command.
But the future of the centre is also part of the current conversation around the lack of support for people who want to report allegations but fear doing so within the military chain of command or to military police.
There have been calls for the government to expand the role of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, arguing it should be allowed to take reports of misconduct as well as offer support to survivors.
Ex-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne told the House of Commons defence committee studying the matter that he brought an allegation to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in 2018, which Sajjan then passed on to the Privy Council Office.
But Walbourne’s testimony that Sajjan refused to look at evidence he had brought to a March 1, 2018, meeting with the minister – coupled with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s admission that his office was aware Sajjan’s office had referred a complaint about Vance to the Privy Council Office – have raised questions about the government’s handling of the allegations and their decisions not to be more forthcoming when pressed for answers.
Sajjan said during a committee appearance on Friday that he did not allow Walbourne to show him any evidence or tell him the allegations because doing so would amount to “political interference” in an investigation.
Trudeau’s office had previously told Global News repeatedly that neither he nor the office knew of any allegations about Vance until Global News reported them on Feb. 2.
Global News reached out to Sajjan’s office asking whether they are open to or considering expanding the role of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre in light of those calls for an independent reporting mechanism.
“We need to ensure that any individual feels safe telling of their experiences. We will do absolutely everything in our power to make the changes that need to be made to eliminate sexual misconduct from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence,” said Floriane Bonneville, a spokesperson for Sajjan.
“As for the creation of an independent oversight body, as the Minister has stated, everything’s on the table.”
She added there will be a “thorough and deep independent review” of misconduct allegations, but that the details are still being worked out.
“We continue to work towards establishing the terms of reference,” she said.
“Details will be announced once finalized.”
Auclair said the time to act is now, and that the way her complaint was handled left a mark.
“It’s a betrayal, but also you lose all trust in leadership. I already didn’t have very much to begin with, but you lose all trust in leadership,” she said.
“We have folks who were in uniform and took them off who are leading us. It’s time to look at this as a complete defence team, not just the military.”