The role of power dynamics in intimate relationships — and the potential for abuse of power as a result — is a key gap in military sexual misconduct training, the country’s acting top soldier acknowledged.
Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre told the House of Commons standing committee on the status of women on Tuesday that while military members get annual sexual misconduct training, that is not enough and there are key gaps in how leaders and members are warned about the potential for abuse of power in sexual relations.
“Some of the gaps are becoming apparent such as power dynamics and understanding the use and abuse of power in a hierarchy like our own,” said Eyre. “The current circumstances have shaken us and I believe that the Armed Forces is at an inflection point that we have to seize as an opportunity to come out better.”
Eyre took on the role of acting chief of the defence staff last month after Adm. Art McDonald stepped aside over a military police investigation. That probe came just weeks after Global News first reported that former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates.
Eyre was one of several witnesses called to testify as part of the committee’s first meeting into military culture amid what experts call an institutional crisis for the Canadian Forces.
The committee is focusing specifically on what needs to change in order to create a better military culture. The committee is also reviewing the impact of Operation Honour, which was launched in 2015 by Vance in the wake of the damning Deschamps report documenting “endemic” sexual misconduct in the military.
Among the witnesses was Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who faced questions similar to those put to him at the defence committee, which is also studying the issue of misconduct allegations in the military.
Sajjan made several references to the need to eliminate “toxic masculinity” in the military, which experts have cited as among the most crucial elements for an overhaul of Canadian Forces culture.
“Trust has been broken and it’s going to take some serious work to rebuild,” he said, noting as well that the training to prevent misconduct needs to begin when members first join the military and continue throughout their careers.
“We will eliminate the culture of toxic masculinity.”
Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, who is set to become the first female vice-chief of the defence staff, noted that the military’s hierarchical structure and focus on obeying senior ranks will need to be part of conversations on how to eliminate misconduct stemming from power imbalances.
“It’s a little bit of a knife’s edge to walk along,” she said, noting a clear chain of command structure is essential for keeping people safe during activities like combat.
Opposition members of the committee focused on Sajjan’s personal handling of the allegation brought to him in 2018 about Vance, which he has said he refused to look at.
Sajjan was asked several times about why he never followed up with the Privy Council Office after his staff passed an allegation against Vance to the office in 2018.
He did so in order to avoid “political interference,” Sajjan said.
NDP MP Lindsay Mathyssen said during the committee that complaints can be probed without names or specific details, and asked Sajjan whose responsibility it was to ensure that the PCO did not drop the matter.
Sajjan said the matter was taken seriously when his office referred it to the PCO.
“This is one of the reasons we immediately took it extremely seriously to say, ‘Sorry, there is no confidentiality when you’re talking about a chief of the defence staff,'” Sajjan responded. “It has to be reported to the appropriate authorities.”
Mathyssen tried to ask a follow-up question several times as Sajjan continued to restate his points, appearing to speak over her attempts to ask further questions and arguing that he understood “the point somebody is trying to make here.”
He said he wanted to make it clear he took the matter seriously.
He then faced questions from Conservative MP Jag Sahota and appeared to speak over her twice as she said she had other questions to ask him, prompting the committee chair Marilyn Gladu to tell Sajjan to let Sahota ask her questions. Gladu made similar comments twice more as she tried to tell Sajjan his time was up during a response to a question from a different MP shortly later.
Some members of the committee expressed concerns that they did not feel Sajjan was listening to them.
Conservative MP Nelly Shin said during committee that Sajjan did not appear willing to take any responsibility for ensuring there is change in the Canadian Forces.
“If you keep repeating the same points — and I’m just sensing you’re still not owning up to this — then how do you expect the culture to shift?” she asked.
Sajjan said he and the government take the need for change seriously.
“When the ministers of Justin Trudeau’s government are challenged by women about their actions and responsibilities, they don’t listen,” Mathyssen said in a statement shared with Global News.
“We are undertaking this study to look into the hostile culture towards women in the Armed Forces that allows sexual harassment and violence to perpetuate. Today’s testimony proved that this culture extends to the Prime Minister’s government.”
Global News reached out to Sajjan’s office asking about what appeared to be several incidents of talking over female MPs who were trying to press him for answers. As committees are held via videoconference due to the pandemic, there are frequently delays and pauses in the transmission and audio quality.
Because of that, it can be difficult to assess whether a witness was hearing committee members on a delay or deliberately speaking over them.
“That characterization is inaccurate. Minister Sajjan has always respected all Committee members and has treated every Member of Parliament the same way,” said Todd Lane, director of communications for Sajjan.
“At the Standing Committee on the Status of Women Committee today, as with all Committee appearances, the Minister answered questions posed to him as completely as possible. Today, he attempted to answer the questions that were posed.”
Sahota said there were too many questions left unanswered.
“We are disappointed that the Minister Sajjan continues to refuse responsibility and disregard the need for urgent action to address the allegations of sexual misconduct faced by women in the Canadian Armed Forces,” she said in a statement to Global News.
“Canada’s Conservatives will continue to call on the Liberal government to take definitive action to protect our women and men in uniform from the threat of harassment and sexual misconduct.”
It has now been more than one month since defence officials promised an independent examination of high-level sexual misconduct allegations in the Canadian Forces.
No details on that plan have yet been announced.