After years of advocating for cultural change to fix the systemic issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military, advocates say they are burning out and “at the edge.”
It comes as the House of Commons Status of Women committee probing misconduct in the Canadian Forces heard that the allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the military are a “national embarrassment” and that efforts to address the issue so far have failed to focus on survivors.
“It should not be up to us to keep sending the same message year after year,” said Christine Wood, a former air force reservist and chief of strategic engagement for the advocacy group It’s Just 700. “It really is not courage. It just has to be.”
“I say this acknowledging the people I know who have fought the hardest for so many years are burning out,” Wood added during her testimony. She described some who have written themselves emails outlining the reasons not to take their own lives.
“They are at the edge.”
The powerful testimony comes as the Canadian military faces a reckoning over sexual misconduct within its ranks, including military police probes into allegations against both the current and former chiefs of the defence staff. Global News first reported on the allegations against Gen. Jonathan Vance on Feb. 2.
Since then, the government has repeatedly promised an independent review in the matter and vowed to change the system to create an independent reporting structure to handle allegations of misconduct.
But two months later, there are no details.
Both Wood and Julie Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate and educator, emphasized to the committee that the approach to tackling sexual violence and sexual misconduct in the military to date has not put enough priority on what those who experience it actually want and need when it comes to support.
Lalonde has spoken publicly since 2014 about the hostility she says she encountered when leading training about sexual violence and sexual misconduct for cadets at the Royal Military College of Canada.
She told the committee there is an “elitism” at the school, which trains future military leaders, and that no conversation about sexual misconduct and sexual violence in the military is complete without talking about the role of power dynamics in the problem.
“There are power dynamics at play that are just not being called out,” she said.
Lalonde said policies in place now, such as mandating reporting of sexual misconduct, ignore the fact that not everyone who experiences it wants a formal investigation or wants to immediately report it.
Some, she noted, might want to wait until they are in a location where they know they can get support services, or might want to be able to confront the perpetrator directly rather than file a formal complaint.
Lalonde said policies and decisions around how to address sexual misconduct and sexual violence must make survivors the priority, and cited concerns raised last month by navy Lt. Heather Macdonald in an interview with Global News.
“I really think it’s important for us to address that we have a woman who’s come forward because someone leaked her story to the CBC,” Lalonde said.
“I think that’s a clear example of: survivors own their stories, and nobody should be able to take that away from them.”
IN HER WORDS: The woman behind McDonald allegation tells her story
Macdonald is the navy combat systems engineer who is at the heart of a sexual misconduct investigation involving Adm. Art McDonald, the chief of the defence staff who has stepped aside temporarily pending a military police investigation.
She told Global News that she had decided to speak out publicly after someone in “a trusted position” leaked details of her case without her consent last month in what she described as an attempt to “steal the due process” she and McDonald both deserve.
“I would say that what bothered me the most about how this kind of came out was the detailed leak that happened that led to Adm. McDonald stepping aside,” said Macdonald.
“If we don’t have due process, then all we have are witch hunts,” she added. “That doesn’t change the culture. It just makes it unfriendly for everyone.”
The committee also heard from Stéphanie Raymond, a former master corporal in the military who has spoken openly about her own decade-long experience in the courts after reporting sexual misconduct.
The former warrant officer charged with sexually assaulting her pleaded guilty last month.
In her testimony, Raymond stressed the need for an independent reporting mechanism outside the chain of command — a demand that has been growing louder over recent years amid concerns the changes implemented in the wake of the landmark 2015 Deschamps report do not go far enough.
“The creation of an independent body will be critical,” she said, citing the risks of career reprisals to those who come forward to report allegations within the military chain of command.
“As soon as the person is higher in rank, they’ll be more protected than a simple soldier or new recruit.”
Raymond also emphasized the need for all members of the military to be invested in fixing the problem.
She said it’s not just an issue for the women serving — men have a role to play, too.
“I think that everyone has to feel that they are affected and involved,” she said.
“Men often don’t feel they are in any way impacted by this – that it’s a women’s issue,” she added. “We do have a major issue where few people actually want to get their feet wet.”
Wood offered a similar sentiment: “Going forward, men need to be a part of the conversation.”