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The West Block — Episode 36, Season 10

Click to play video: 'The West Block: May 30' The West Block: May 30
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – May 30, 2020 – May 30, 2021

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 36, Season 10

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of Defence Staff

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Royal Military College, the institution that forges Canada’s military officers, but beyond the pomp and ceremony, allegations of a toxic culture of silence and cover-ups.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: “Truthful, but not the whole truth. Choose to be valour. Don’t get caught.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Is RMC at the heart of the sexual misconduct problem in the Canadian forces?

And with Operation Honour shut down, what comes next for the military? An interview with Canada’s acting Chief of the Defence Staff Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre.

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It’s Sunday, May 30th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Set against the edge of Lake Ontario in Kingston, Royal Military College, or RMC, cuts and imposing figure. This is Canada’s west point, the training ground for generations of military officers. But as our investigation into military sexual misconduct has unfolded, RMC has come up again and again as part of the problem.

Leah West, Carleton University: “RMC is the breeding ground, unfortunately based on my experiences, of toxic culture that permeates the forces.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Today, for the first time, we’ll hear from a man, speaking about military sexual misconduct. A former senior officer, recognized for his battlefield command in Afghanistan, a man who says he witnessed inaction, denial and cover-ups at RMC and that when he tried to act, he was silenced and reprimanded by the brass.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military: “The truth is what they want it to be.”

Mercedes Stephenson: RMC’s former director of cadets retired Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Popov, shares his story and sense of betrayal. An experience he found more painful than serving in Afghanistan. Here is that interview.

Mark, thank you so much for sitting down with us today.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Thank you for the opportunity.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’re here in Kingston, we’re at Fort Henry. Royal Military College is behind us. You spent some time there.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: I did, yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Tell me what you were doing at Royal Military College and what that time was like?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: I was posted there in May of 2014 to be the director of cadets, the commanding officer of the military training wing and also the dean of students as sort of a three hats, one job, so basically, the commanding officer for the 1,200 undergraduate officer cadets attending RMC as part of the regular officer training plan.

Mercedes Stephenson: After your time at RMC, when you look behind you and see Royal Military College, what’s the feeling you get?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Regret and shame.

Mercedes Stephenson: Why regret and shame?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Well 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 in leadership right now that are endemic in the Canadian Armed Forces. And RMC being a foundational experience for the cohort of junior officers, the things that I saw there have set the conditions for the problems we’re seeing now, specifically with sexual misconduct in the forces.

Mercedes Stephenson: What kinds of things did you see when you were at RMC?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Well, I saw sexual misconduct being covered up. I saw the commandant of RMC, Brigadier-General Friday admonish myself and other officers for putting things in writing in case there might be an access to information request. I saw evidence of sexual misconduct being ignored because it may make the institution look bad. I saw overall, a lack of leadership and action. The appearance of activity, but no real will to address misconduct at the military college.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you give me an example of one of those incidents that you witnessed and was covered up?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Well in July of 2015, the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, which is a military sponsored youth program, holds a summer camp at RMC. So you’ve got a lot of young people between the ages of 12 and 19, occupying the accommodations and doing training and at the same time, RMC officer cadets which are subordinate officers in the forces, they are sworn in as Canadian Armed Forces members, are there doing second language training and other activities. And one night, a group of the RMC officer cadets, who were under my command, said some pretty terrible things, sexually harassed a group of young ladies from the Sea Cadet program on the parade square. So when I found out about that, I immediately ordered my staff to take some steps to confine, you know, the occupants of that building where the harassment had come from, because they were screaming out the windows at these young ladies, and start an investigation. And Gen. Friday stopped that from happening because he said it looked like group punishment and we need to look at options. And the options that he chose was really to do nothing, so the message that it sent was that this kind of action, this kind of conduct is okay. So subsequently, I had the members of that barrack block formed up on the parade square and I addressed them and I read the transcript of what had been said, which the duty officer had been passing by and heard and he written it down, read the transcript of what was said and, you know, I said basically that, you know, if you stand by and let this happen, you are as guilty as the perpetrators. And so then, you know, sometime after that, Gen. Friday had heard that I had done that and viewed that as improper—improper conduct and I was admonished and some career administration was taken against me, which effectively ended my career or any hope of advancement or promotion.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mark, do you know what these young cadets yelled at the young ladies that were on the parade square at these young women?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: I do, but I’m not going to repeat it because it’s too vile. It essentially offered sexual violence and violent sexual assault, made completely demeaning comments to them, stuff that should never be said to anyone.

Mercedes Stephenson: And when you tried to act on it, when you tried to hold people accountable, to discipline them, Gen. Friday, instead of disciplining them, punished you.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

Mercedes Stephenson: So this—this is your experience. Do you think this is what happens to men in the Canadian Armed Forces who tried to stand up when they saw sexual misconduct and say something or do something about it?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Yes, because we have a situation where Gen. Friday’s view was protecting the institution at all costs, protect the old boys’ club. As a protégé of General Lawson, Mr. oh men are wired differently from women, so the old boys’ is okay. Boys will be boys. Well that—that’s the school. So, protecting the institution was to Gen. Friday, more important than protecting individuals, than doing the right things and taking actions. I was told on multiple occasions by Gen. Friday, don’t write things down. Don’t—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.

Mercedes Stephenson: Global News reached to the Department of National Defence for comment. It said all alleged incidents of sexual misconduct at RMC were acted upon appropriately, including providing immediate support to victims. The Department went further and said RMC is one of the first organizations in the Canadian Armed Forces to have an in-depth program for sexual assault prevention and response. They said they were used to help develop the Canadian Armed Forces wide policies that were developed for victim support, allegation, investigation, bystander training and many other elements of RMC’s comprehensive program to combat against this reprehensible behaviour. The Department also said, “We have no indication to suggest that Brig.-Gen. Friday handled matters with anything but the utmost care and respect for existing policies and the rule of law.” The Department also said Lt.-Gen. Popov’s address on the parade square was investigated based on allegations he used in appropriate language to reprimand the officer cadets. Popov acknowledges he swore when admonishing the cadets, explaining he was mortified and incensed by what had been reported to him.

After the break, more of my exclusive interview with Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov.

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[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Our in-depth look into allegations about sexual misconduct being ignored and covered up at Royal Military College continues.

I asked Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov what else he witnessed during his time at RMC.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Well in September 2015, a female officer cadet woke with a male in her room, and he stole pieces of her underwear and then fled the scene. She recognized him. He was arrested by the military police and put into custody. Judge advocate general reviewed and required that he be released from custody. I wanted to remove this individual from the program, remove him from the barracks, remove him from the site of his victim and that was stopped by Gen. Friday. Gen. Friday’s response was to have her use a different set of stairs than him so in affect, punishing the victim, restricting her movement for being brave enough to report. And Gen. Friday was more concerned about, again, I was admonished for writing this report in email because it might be ATI’d, access to information, and he was more concerned that the victim’s boyfriend might take action against the perpetrator than in protecting the victim. What kind of message does that send?

Mercedes Stephenson: We talk about women in the Canadian Armed Forces a lot being affected by sexual misconduct. I’ve talked to other men. You’re the first man that I’ve sat down with on camera. It’s not just hurting women.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: This is not a women issue, this is the leadership issue. This is a failure of the institution issue. This is how we select people to occupy these senior jobs and we don’t hold them to account. How is that senior leaders are being called to account for egregious personal misconduct yet the actions that I’ve demonstrated here that Gen. Friday took have done institutional harm to a cohort of young officers. How many young women out there are saying to myself—to themselves, nothing will be done if I report? Nothing will be done. The chain of command doesn’t care. The old boys’ club will stay intact. This is a leadership issue.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mark you served at RMC under more than one commandant. You also served under Lieutenant-General Meinzinger, who is the head of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The top general, running all of Canada’s air force personnel, services, aircraft, you name it—powerful guy. What was he like when he was here as the commandant?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Gen. Meinzinger’s primary focus was protecting the institution and making sure RMC looked good. He enjoyed his time as commandant of RMC, reliving his fourth year glory days as a hockey player, but with a one-star general’s uniform on. Not a lot of leadership. I’ll go back to the Julie Lalonde situation, where, you know, she indicated she had been sexually harassed during a sexual harassment briefing she was giving by RMC cadets. No comments from Gen. Meinzinger’s office. No investigation ordered. Everything clammed up. This was sat on for months until the media kept bringing the issue up and then finally, grudgingly, there was a word salad grudging semi-apology issued by Gen. Meinzinger’s office, but there was no action taken within RMC and internal to address this. 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.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mark, how did Gen. Meinzinger treat victims of sexual misconduct and sexual assault during his time as commandant of RMC?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Under Gen. Meinzinger at RMC, the victims of sexual misconduct, sexual assault were—were—were treated as something just to be ignored, really. I’ll give you an example. In 2015, there were a number of—of—of victims of sexual assault at RMC who were slated to graduate and a couple of them were undergoing medical psychological treatment for the trauma they had endured, so therefore were not technically, from a medical standpoint, medically fit. So therefore, not eligible to be promoted, which translated into after four years at RMC, they would not be permitted to graduate because they had been raped. Gen. Meinzinger was fine with this. He was—he—his view was well there’s nothing I can do, it’s the system. It was only until some very strenuous lobbying on—by the academic wing and the principal and the professors and deans and me and other staff that Gen. Meinzinger decided to try and take some action.

Mercedes Stephenson: How does what happens here affect the military in terms to systemic sexual misconduct?

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Well this tells the perpetrators who’ve gotten away with it that they can get away with it, that they will be protected, that the senior leadership is not interested in pursuing it and they’re free to do what they want. The underwear thief is still out there somewhere, probably serving in uniform having got away with it. Think about that. So it enables this kind of conduct of those who would be perpetrators, and for those who would be victims, it says what you say doesn’t matter because no action will be taken. It’s all talk, no action. And what it says to those who would take action in the mid-level leadership range that the senior leadership does not support you, is not interested, so why bother?

Mercedes Stephenson: Mark, thank you for sitting down with us. I know this is a very painful subject for you to talk about.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Absolutely.

Mercedes Stephenson: But we think it’s an important one, and we appreciate you sharing your time and your experiences with us and with our viewers.

Retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, former director of cadets, Royal Military College: Thank you. The truth needs to come out. People need to know what’s happening.

Mercedes Stephenson: The Department of National Defence is standing by Lt.-Gen. Meinzinger and Maj.-Gen. Friday. Maj.-Gen. Friday provided a statement. It reads in part, 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. 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. The Department said the incident involving alleged sexual harassment experienced by women’s rights advocate, Julie Lalonde, was addressed months before it made headlines, with apologies provided and formal investigations undertaken. Remedial training was also provided to the class in question. The Department said it could not find evidence that Meinzinger initially did not intervene when several sexual assault victims at RMC were deemed not medically fit to graduate due to treatment they were receiving. In a statement, Lt.-Gen. Meinzinger said, “Throughout my tenure as commandant of 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. Any suggestions that I did not address the handling of sexual misconduct with the utmost attention and action, is simply not true.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, acting Chief of the Defence Staff Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre joins me to continue this conversation on sexual misconduct in the Canadian military.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Survivors of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces continue to speak out. Not only women, but also men and those who say they tried to step up and stop the wrong from happening but were silenced.

When Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Art McDonald had to step aside under police investigation for alleged sexual assault, General Wayne Eyre unexpectedly found himself in the job. Gen. Eyre ended Operation Honour, but has committed the forces to a new path. What does that look like?

Acting Chief of the Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre joins me now. Lt.-Gen., we just heard from the former director of cadets at RMC, retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov. He’s detailed a lot of the problems that he sees as starting at RMC. He’s made allegations of cover-ups, of sexual misconduct, of victims not being treated correctly. You’re the chief of the defence staff and you’re also a graduate of Royal Military College. Do you believe that the culture at RMC is part of the problem?

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff: So Mercedes, I’m not privy to the—I haven’t been briefed on the details of that yet. But I will say, four years ago, there were a number of reviews done of the Royal Military College and 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 we continue to make Royal Military College a better place, as we have to continually improve what we deliver in terms of the leaders that we produce through this institution. You know, I will say that, you know, RMC is not—faces challenges like every other post-secondary institution 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. You know, all that being said, RMC have produced great leaders for this country: doctors, lawyers, engineers, astronauts, current sitting parliamentarians, and it continues to produce great leaders. I’ve seen RMC graduates do fantastic things on operations, leading our troops in combat, putting themselves at risk, serving their country seamlessly. But there is work to do. There’s work to do across our entire institution.

Mercedes Stephenson: I had to wonder, when these allegations first came out, how you felt. I’ve known you professionally for a long time, and when you had to step in as the chief of the defence staff, as the allegations against General Vance who had already retired came out against then-Admiral McDonald, they’ve continued to come out. We’ve continued to watch senior leaders have to step aside. What has this been like for you, as someone who is giving your life to this institution?

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff: Well, Mercedes, to be completely frank, it hurts. It—it’s a deep pain. It’s an assault on the professional identity of one—I’m part of that…and it’s a sense of guilt as well, because I’m part of that senior leader cohort that the generation, including the generations that have gone before us, that have not collectively fixed this institution enough. And that really hurts. But with that, it—with that sense of discomfort, it’s also a motivation—motivation to make this place—make this institution better each and every day. Yeah, I don’t know how long I’m going to be in this job, but I will tell you that every day, I’m going to strive to make it better. And that’s what I expect out of every leader in this organization.

Mercedes Stephenson: Does it concern you that you’ve had more and more senior leaders having to step aside? In the case of, you know, Major-General Fortin, an allegation that dates back to 1989 so it kind of seems like the doors are open on absolutely everything now. Does that start to have an operational or a security effect on the Canadian Armed Forces if you keep having top generals who have to step out of their role?

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff: Well, we have many challenges right now. If you take a look at the security environment writ large, the world is becoming a much more dangerous place, as we have a confluence of many stresses. And so, addressing this culture challenge, addressing this issue within our institution so that we can focus on the defence of Canada, is an absolute imperative. Now what we’re seeing now, is a reconciliation of our past. And the real tragedy is we have complainants who have carried the pain of what has happened in the past for decades and so helping them, supporting them to achieve closure is absolutely—has to be at the top of the list in—in helping us get through this.

Mercedes Stephenson: How do you do that? I know you made the decision to shut down Operation Honour. A lot of the victims felt that it had basically been poisoned. How do you go forward and create this new and different institution? And how do you do that as someone who’s in the very difficult position of being an acting chief of the defence staff versus the permanently appointed one?

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff: First of all, we can’t watch the failure. And so I’ve asked the team here to take a—a listen, learn, act approach. Let’s listen to experts. Let’s listen to survivors and victims. Let’s listen to our people at the grassroots level so that we don’t devise solutions that are Ottawa-centric. Let’s learn. Let’s learn from experts. Let’s learn from the various reports that have been put out there whose recommendations we have failed to completely implement. And then when we act, let’s take a—build a deliberate comprehensive plan to truly change our culture. Let’s not do this superficially, let’s make it who we are.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you feel the military police are capable of investigating this? Do you think the military justice system is up to this?

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff: I have faith in the military justice system and I have faith in the—in the military police. The military police—the military police are amongst the tenth largest police forces in the country. And like every other police force out there, they are learning, they are evolving as we deal with the very complex social situations. And they need to continue to evolve. They need to continue to—to learn like every other aspect of this organization. We need to be a learning organization.

Mercedes Stephenson: Lt.-Gen. Eyre, that’s all the time we have for today, but thank you so much for joining us.

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff: Well thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: That is all the time we have for today. But before I go, I want to give a shout out to our very own Peter Wugalter, who over 40 years of television production experience under his belt, has been recognized, receiving the RTDNA Canada Prairie Region Lifetime Achievement Award.  What a deserving recipient, let me tell you. Congratulations Peter. From the whole West Block team, thank you for all of your hard work. And on that note, for The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. I’ll see you right back here, next week.

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