The former head of officer cadet training at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) says he witnessed first-hand multiple cases where sexual misconduct involving cadets was not taken as seriously as it should have been by two successive leaders at the school, which trains future military leaders.
Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov was in charge of officer cadet training in 2014 and 2015, and told Global News he feels ashamed at how allegations of sexual misconduct were handled under the leadership of then-Brig.-Gen. Al Meinzinger and his successor as commandant, then-Brig.-Gen. Sean Friday.
“I regret having gone there because it was the end of my career. And I feel shame because a lot of things happened there that demonstrate the failures of leadership right now that are endemic in the Canadian Forces,” Popov said in an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson.
“The things that I saw there have set the conditions for the problems we’re seeing now, specifically with sexual misconduct in the Forces.”
Friday is currently posted to U.S. Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Fla., while Meinzinger is now commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force and holds the rank of lieutenant general.
Both denied any allegations they failed to properly handle sexual misconduct under their watch in statements to Global News.
Popov was medically released from service in 2018, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says was caused by “the abusive and toxic nature of the RMC leadership environment” under Friday’s command.
He says he witnessed multiple incidents where he believes both Friday and Meinzinger could have taken more fulsome action to punish those responsible for alleged sexual misconduct, but did not do so.
“I saw sexual misconduct being covered up. I saw the commandant of RMC, Brig.-Gen. Friday, admonish myself and other officers for putting things in writing in case there might be an access to information request,” he said.
“I saw evidence of sexual misconduct being ignored because it may make the institution look bad.”
The cases Popov alleges were mishandled by his superiors occurred in 2014 and 2015 while he was director of cadets and commanding officer of the Royal Military College’s military training wing.
Popov said in 2015, a male officer cadet stole underwear from a female officer cadet’s room. That individual, Popov said, was arrested by military police but was allowed to remain in the officer cadet program, while he says Friday suggested the female cadet use a different stairwell to avoid running into the male officer cadet.
“In effect, punishing the victim — restricting her movement for being brave enough to report,” Popov said, adding Friday blocked him from fully removing the male officer cadet from the program and told him not to put information about the case in writing.
Russell Williams, the disgraced former colonel who had served nearby at CFB Trenton, had been convicted and sentenced for murder five years earlier in a case where court records showed he had also stolen underwear and broken into women’s homes.
In that context, a male officer cadet stealing underwear from a female officer cadet should have been treated as a serious red flag to military leaders, Popov said.
Popov described another incident that occurred in July 2015, when RMC was hosting a group of female sea cadets, youth between the ages of 12 and 18.
Popov says male officer cadets yelled sexually violent obscenities at several female sea cadets. He said Friday punished him for trying to reprimand officer cadets in the barracks where the incident occurred, and telling them there would be an investigation.
“I had the members of that barrack block formed up on the parade square and I addressed it, and I read the transcript of what had been said,” he told Global News.
“I said basically that, if you stand by and let this happen you are as guilty as the perpetrators … sometime after that, Gen. Friday heard that I did that and viewed that as improper, improper conduct. I was admonished and some career administration was taken against me, which effectively ended my career.”
Global News obtained a copy of the reprimand issued to Popov after the incident, and signed by Friday.
In it, Popov is described as having been “unable to adapt his leadership style to the needs of the Royal Military College of Canada and has not followed through on adhering to direction regarding culture/climate and interpersonal conflict.”
“One incident in particular, when extreme profane language was used in addressing a large contingent of cadets, is one example where lack of adherence to culture/climate direction was evident,” the reprimand stated.
Popov said he read out the same words used by the male officer cadets and made it clear their conduct was unacceptable. He has acknowledged he swore when admonishing the cadets, explaining that he was mortified and incensed by what had been reported to him.
The situation warranted “shock and awe” to drive home that there is zero tolerance for that kind of behaviour by future military leaders, Popov said.
Friday, he said, disagreed.
That demonstrates the fundamental problem behind the military’s sexual misconduct crisis, Popov said — senior leaders don’t take the behaviour seriously enough, and pass that attitude down to their recruits.
“Protecting the institution was, to Gen. Friday, more important than protecting individuals, than doing the right thing and taking actions,” said Popov.
“I was told on multiple occasions by Gen. Friday: don’t write things down, don’t email me things, don’t make reports, because there might be an access to information request and we might have questions about military justice. Don’t put things in writing.”
Popov ultimately filed a grievance over his treatment and subsequent removal from the posting of head of training at the Royal Military College, and won. That claim did not examine Friday’s handling of the incidents but rather looked at Popov’s assertion that he was denied “procedural fairness” in how he was removed from his position.
In a statement to Global News, the Department of National Defence defended Friday’s handling of allegations under his leadership.
“All alleged incidents of sexual misconduct were acted upon appropriately and in accordance with applicable DND/CAF policies, including immediate support to any victims,” a spokesperson said.
But the department did not answer specific questions around how or if the officer cadets were disciplined.
“Popov’s address to the RMC Cadets on the parade square was investigated based on allegations of inappropriate language he used in the address,” the spokesperson said when asked why Popov was investigated.
When asked about the process of the investigation into the officer cadets and who was interviewed as part of that, the department told Global News to file an access to information request for that information.
They would not say whether any disciplinary measures were taken against the male officer cadets, or whether any of them are still serving in the Canadian Forces, saying the matters are covered by the Privacy Act.
The spokesperson said Friday handled matters with “the utmost care and respect for existing policies and the rule of law,” and would not provide details when asked about specifics of the allegation that Friday allowed a male cadet who stole underwear from a female cadet to remain in the program.
“As these matters are covered by the Privacy Act, we are not in a position to comment further on this matter,” the spokesperson said.
Friday also provided a statement.
“During my time as Commandant of RMC, we did our utmost to ensure that our future CAF leaders could thrive in a healthy and safe learning environment,” he said, adding he made Operation Honour and policies supporting the mission to root out misconduct “one of the College’s highest priorities.”
“I recognize — as does the entire institution — that we can and must do more going forward. I will continue to work towards improving our approach to misconduct, and to listen and learn from victims with empathy and commitment to take action.”
Popov was also critical of the way Meinzinger handled a high-profile incident in which male officer cadets allegedly sexually harassed an educator who had come to do training on preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault in October 2014.
Julie S. Lalonde shared her experience publicly in 2015 and again during testimony before a parliamentary committee in April as MPs sought to probe the cultural problems in the military.
Lalonde said she filed a complaint after being sexually harassed while teaching bystander training to several cohorts of Royal Military College cadets in October 2014. That her worst experience was with the third years demonstrated a cultural problem at the college, she said during April committee testimony.
“If the first years were unruly, you could argue that we pulled from a bad pool,” she told the committee on April 8, 2021.
“Third year means they’ve been indoctrinated to believe this is appropriate behaviour.”
Popov believes Meinzinger “sat on” the incident for months and took no action until the matter became public in 2015. The lack of a more aggressive response by Meinzinger to condemn the behaviour left Popov uncomfortable, he said
“I was so new at the job, I took my lead from Gen. Meinzinger, but I will tell you that it didn’t feel right.”
Meinzinger defended his handling of the incident in a statement to Global News.
“Throughout my tenure as the Commandant of the Royal Military College, I championed work to address sexual harassment and misconduct, as a priority. Incidents were investigated and the appropriate actions taken, to hold all members of the college or employees to account in accordance with CAF policies,” he said.
“Any suggestion that I did not address the handling of sexual misconduct with the utmost attention and action, is simply not true.”
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence defended the handling of the matter and denied Popov’s claim that Meinzinger did not take action until the training incident became public, saying it was addressed “months before.”
The spokesperson said a formal investigation was launched at the time and “internal action was taken to provide additional remedial training to the class in question.”
However, the spokesperson said “the individuals in question could not be identified by senior staff attendees.”
According to Lalonde’s April 8 testimony, senior officers did not stay in the room for the bystander training she tried to provide.
“In the four sessions that I led, none of the senior officers stayed in the room,” she testified.
Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, told Global News in an interview that while he hasn’t been briefed on the details of Popov’s allegations, reviews done into the culture and training environment at RMC in 2017 identified key problems.
“The commandant is currently in the process of implementing the recommendations that came out of those reviews, and the next commandant who I’ve recently announced is going to carry on and continue to make Royal Military College a better place,” Eyre said.
“We have to continually improve what we deliver in terms of the leaders that we produce for this institution,” he added. “RMC faces challenges like every other post-secondary education out there. But what is different here is the purported values that we put out there — truth, duty, valour.
“When we don’t live up to those, the say-do gap causes a much greater sense of betrayal.”
Former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance ordered that 2017 review after allegations of sexual misconduct and suicides at the school. Vance is now facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates.
He denies any allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
The Royal Military College of Canada and the Royal Military College Saint-Jean both have documented problems with sexual misconduct.
Sixty-eight per cent of students at both colleges — which are the training grounds for future military leaders — have either seen or been the victim of unwanted sexual behaviour during their time at the schools, Statistics Canada data released in 2020 shows.
Those unwanted behaviours most commonly included “sexual jokes, inappropriate discussions about sex life and inappropriate sexual comments about appearance or body.”
Female students were also six times more likely to experience unwanted whistles or catcalls than males.
The report found six times as many women as men were sexually assaulted while students at the military colleges — 28 per cent versus 4.4 per cent — and that 15 per cent of women at the schools had been sexually assaulted in the last 12 months.
Over the last three-and-a-half months, the culture and training of those colleges has increasingly come under heavy scrutiny following allegations first reported by Global News on Feb. 2 of high-level sexual misconduct allegations against top military brass.
Witnesses testifying as part of the studies launched by two parliamentary committees in the wake of Global News reporting have repeatedly pointed to the culture of the military and the lack of consequences for sexual misconduct.
In particular, they have highlighted the need to train better leaders and for foundational change in how the Royal Military College training programs educate future leaders.
Leah West, who served as an armoured officer in the Canadian Forces and is now an assistant professor focusing on national security law at Carleton University, called the colleges a “breeding ground” for toxic behaviour during testimony on May 11.
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, the newly-named head of professional conduct for the military, was blunt in her own assessment of the problem.
“That training is not actually achieving the aim of reducing misconduct in any type of way,” she said during testimony at the same committee meeting.
Popov said the treatment he saw at the Royal Military College was more stressful than his time commanding a combat team in Afghanistan because of “the weight of the institution and the complete lack of leadership.”
“It was the most stressful posting I ever had, and it finished me.”