Her comment comes after Maj. Gen. Peter Dawe, who wrote a positive reference letter for a sex offender, had been tasked with working on a number of reviews related to sexual misconduct within the forces.
Dawe was then removed from the role late Tuesday night.
“You said, Mercedes, that it seems as if the leadership just doesn’t get it. And I think that’s true. I think the reality is, there is a systemic problem with the treatment of women, the treatment of sexual harassment, in the Canadian Armed Forces,” Freeland said, responding to a question from Global News’ Mercedes Stephenson.
“It is clear that there is a toxic culture there and it is clear to our government, as the prime minister said, that that needs to change and it will.”
Dawe was directed to leave his post “immediately” in early May, following reports that he wrote a character reference for another service member who had been convicted of six criminal counts, including sexual assault.
When he returned to work, however, Dawe was tasked with compiling and scrutinizing materials from multiple sexual misconduct reviews.
In a statement late on Tuesday, Lt.-Gen Frances Allen, vice-chief of the defence staff, said Dawe “will be undertaking the important task of engaging with that community to better understand how he can contribute to meaningful culture change.”
The change came after Allen had discussions with members of the survivor community, she said.
“This is not in keeping with our commitment to transparency. I recognize and apologize for the harm this has caused. The release of this news should have been handled by us with greater care and consideration,” Allen wrote in the statement.
The reviews Dawe had been tasked with compiling included a June report from former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish, which found that sexual misconduct remains as “rampant” and “destructive” in 2021 as it was in 2015, and another from former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.
Arbour’s review is aimed at providing advice to the government on creating an independent reporting system.
Survivors of military sexual misconduct also spoke out in the wake of the decision. Annalise Schamuhn, who was sexually assaulted by the man Dawe had written a reference letter for, said she was “really glad that the survivor community had been heard.”
“That is validating,” Schamuhn said.
“But at the same time, it’s still disappointing that the original decision was made.”
When she first heard that Dawe had been tasked with working on sexual harassment files, Schamuhn said she immediately worried about its impact on survivors.
“My first thought was to all of the people who would lose even more hope in the system, that would be so devastated by this decision,” she said.
Colten Skibinsky, a former military member and survivor of sexual assault, was also confused by the decision to put Dawe in such a role.
“It shocked us, and we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it,” he said, speaking on behalf of It’s Not Just 700, a support group set up to help current and former military members traumatized by sexual misconduct while serving in uniform.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “stunned and dismayed” when he saw media reports about Dawe’s new role.
“It is obvious that, despite the work that the military has done, despite the work that we’ve done, the military still doesn’t get that survivors need to be at the centre and the unique priority of everything in regards to sexual misconduct and harassment in the military,” he said, speaking to reporters on Wednesday.
“This is, again, a reminder of just how much work there is to do.”
The Canadian military is in the grips of an institutional crisis over its handling of sexual misconduct and, in particular, the conduct of its senior leaders — some of whom now face allegations of misconduct.
On Feb. 2, the issue burst into the spotlight after Global News reported on allegations against now-retired general Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff. Vance has denied the allegations.
In the weeks that followed, military police have opened investigations into Vance as well as Adm. Art McDonald, Vance’s successor as chief of defence staff. Vance was subsequently charged with one count of obstruction of justice on July 15.
Multiple women have also spoken out publicly, sharing allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
The allegations also led to the launch of two studies by parliamentary committees.
–with files from Global News’ Mercedes Stephenson, Marc-Andre Cossette, and Saba Aziz