Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau‘s brand as a “feminist” came under fire on Thursday night within minutes of the start of the only English-language federal election debate as the crosshairs narrowed in on his handling of the military sexual misconduct crisis.
Debate host Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, put Trudeau in the spotlight when she asked him to square his claims to be a feminist with the fact that “on your watch, sexual misconduct in Canada’s armed forces continues to run rampant.”
“Tell me, why are you allowing these unacceptable conditions to continue?“
Trudeau responded by defending the fact his government has followed the processes in place but did not answer why — eight months after Global News broke the first of multiple high-level allegations against senior leaders — there is still little in the way of concrete systemic changes.
“We recognize that there are systems and institutions that need to change across the country,” Trudeau said, calling the problem “unacceptable.”
“It’s unsatisfactory to have to say we are relying on process on this. We want to just be able to have easy answers. This is not an issue with easy answers — we have to fall back on process.”
The Canadian military is in the midst of what experts have deemed an institutional “crisis” over sexual misconduct among its senior ranks.
While the problem is longstanding and was extensively documented in the landmark 2015 report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, the Liberal government chose not to act on her core recommendation for an independent reporting system.
Six years later, Global News reported on Feb. 2, 2021, that now-retired Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing two allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which prompted a military police investigation and a criminal charge of obstruction of justice this summer.
Vance denies any inappropriate behaviour.
Trudeau has said he supports implementing an independent reporting system for military sexual misconduct and in April, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan appointed former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to lead an external review tasked with identifying best practices to do so.
But her final report isn’t due until spring 2022, and Trudeau has not said what a timeline will look like for implementing a system, or whether he would direct the military to hand over sexual assault cases to civilian authorities if re-elected.
The latter was a recommendation from a review of the military justice system that wrapped up in June.
Led by former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish, that review warned sexual misconduct remains as “rampant” and “destructive” in the Canadian Forces in 2021 as it was in 2015 when Deschamps issued her landmark report. Fish also urged that sexual assault cases be removed from military jurisdiction pending major reforms to put in place a declaration of victims’ rights.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told Global News last month he would order the military to hand those cases over if elected as prime minister, while Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has promised a range of reviews to probe the scope of the problem and pledged to create an independent reporting system.
A Global News analysis in May revealed less than one quarter of the investigators probing sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces are women — far fewer than the number in major civilian forces.