Members of the military often hesitate coming forward with their stories of sexual misconduct because doing so can lead to a “compounding problem” of alienation, says the senior female officer who recently quit in disgust.
In an exclusive interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor said women have fought for decades to be accepted in the military, and continue to fight many of the same battles as their predecessors.
But for many, Taylor says coming forward about sexual misconduct is a choice that could ‘alienate’ them — and that sometimes does more harm than good.
“We in the military and particularly in the army, we value being part of a team so much. It is absolutely what we strive to be, and when you’re part of a good team there’s nothing better,” she said.
“But the problem that I realized — that I really took a long time to realize — is that we do not want to be alienated from that team by identifying ourselves or revealing ourselves as a victim or an ‘Other,’” Taylor added.
“Because in so doing, we separate ourselves, we alienate ourselves, and we feel alienated by the group. And the consequences of being alienated by the group are greater than the consequences in some cases of whatever inappropriate sexual behaviour we are dealing with.”
The challenge is one Taylor says she knows well.
Over the course of her 25-year career, Taylor says she has experienced roughly a dozen incidents that she believes would have been reportable — inappropriate behaviour from training instructors, or a superior who significantly outranked her who she says pressured her to come up to his hotel room, then turned on pornography in front of her.
“I’ve told my story many times. But I have never shared the fact that I too have struggled with this behaviour,” she said.
“Because in so doing, I feel that I risk the reputation of the team and risk alienating myself from the team. And so it’s a really compounding problem when we feel like we cannot report because of the impact that will have on our acceptance in the team.”
Taylor formally requested her release from the military on International Women’s Day.
She told Global News the decision came as a last resort after seeing the response from some senior military leaders to the recent allegations of misconduct against some of the top brass.
Taylor, one of the most senior women in the military who sources say was a rising star on the leadership track,, said there is a “seething undercurrent of rage” swelling among women in the military over the sense that senior leadership is waiting for the problem to blow over.
And in the aftermath of twin military police probes being announced into both the current and former chiefs of the defence staff in the wake of Global News reporting, people that she talked to within the military seemed caught in a state of shock, she said
“What I heard from people was disbelief that this could happen, and also a suggestion that this is just a few people,” she said in the interview.
“At the same time that I was hearing that, I was hearing this undercurrent and feeling this undercurrent of seething rage from within the women and other victims in the organization around the shock and surprise.
“For people who live in this organization, this type of behaviour is no surprise.”
Taylor has been a trailblazer over the course of her 25-year career, as the first woman to lead an infantry company in combat while serving in the Afghan War.
She was also the domestic operations officer for Joint Task Force 2 — the military’s elite special forces unit — as well as its acting operations officer.
Taylor is resigning from her role amid what experts call an institutional “crisis” for the military and says she is speaking out now to put a spotlight on a “sickening” problem that she says senior leaders are still hoping will go away quietly.
“This sounds like a lot of people were saying: it’s not that bad, it’s a one-off — if we bunker down, maybe it will go away. Was that the impression that you got?” asked Stephenson.
“It was. It absolutely was, and I don’t believe that it was unique in what I was hearing. I was getting feedback from a lot of women across the Forces that that was the conversation that was happening — and not just women, certainly men, too,” Taylor said.
“That for me was the indicator that we really don’t understand this problem.”
Experts have repeatedly raised red flags over the years about the military’s culture, which former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps described as “hostile” and “toxic” in her landmark 2015 report documenting the extent of misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
That culture is set to come under the spotlight as part of the study launched on Thursday by the House of Commons status of women committee, which studies gender equality.
The first meeting will take place on Tuesday, and it is the latest in multiple probes launched into the problem including a study by the defence committee, two military police probes, and a promised independent examination.
That third-party probe has yet to be detailed more than a month after it was first promised.
Taylor said the failure to act has a cost.
“I felt that perhaps I might be able to add to some of the momentum here by signaling my disappointment, and forcing people to recognize the cost of failing to address this issue — and I am not alone,” she said.
“There are an awful lot of people who are working in their own ways to try to bring light to this issue, but to me, I felt that the most powerful thing that I could do in uniform was to leave it.”
Taylor said the choice was not an easy one to make, but that she is hopeful it will spur change.
“It’s very hard because I love this organization. I love the people in this organization,” she said.
“I have had wonderful experiences in this organization. And, yes, I am grateful for that and yet simultaneously disgusted that we have got this so wrong.”
The changes need to address the core of the issue, which Taylor said is cultural.
That means changing how the military trains its members, how it holds people accountable, and also changing the way people are mentored through the military, which she says will “create the kind of teams that are going to make us a stronger institution.”
“That’s what I hope to see as a result of this very painful time.”