While many in the Canadian Armed Forces consider them “untouchable,” Canada’s military colleges are “institutions from a different era” that need overhauling, according to the author of a scathing new report about the military’s culture.
In her highly-anticipated report released on Monday, former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour said RMC Kingston and RMC Saint-Jean should be subject to review.
“The military colleges appear as institutions from a different era, with an outdated and problematic leadership model. There are legitimate reasons to question the wisdom of maintaining the existence of these military colleges, as they currently exist,” Arbour said in her 403-page report.
“There is a real risk that the perpetuation of a discriminatory culture at the colleges will slow the momentum for culture change the CAF has embarked upon. There is enough evidence that military colleges are not delivering on their mandate that I believe alternatives must be explored with an open mind.”
Canada’s military needs reform, and it won’t come without looking at the colleges, but the process of reimagining them will be a monumental task that requires will and determination, experts say.
Arbour’s report, which describes the military as an institution that is fundamentally out of sync with the values of Canadian society, came after Global News’ series of exclusive reports into allegations of sexual misconduct against senior leaders in the Canadian Forces.
Those revelations and the courage of survivors and victims who spoke out spurred a political and societal reckoning that is underway.
Arbour’s report made 48 recommendations, which the government said it has already begun action on 17 of them.
“While I have listed 17 of Madame Arbour’s recommendations that are in progress or which will be acted on immediately, this is just the beginning of our response. We will act quickly to analyze, review and plan our responses to each and every one of Madame Arbour’s recommendations,” National Defence Minister Anita Anand said on Monday.
“The time for action is now and together we will deliver reforms that stand the test of time to strengthen, grow and improve this crucial institution.”
But a recommendation on the military colleges and their future has Arbour “very concerned.”
“The continued prevalence of sexual misconduct at the military colleges is well documented, and I think it’s harder to address these issues there than in a civilian environment,” she said during a news conference on Monday.
“While I was not in a position to examine in detail the quality of the academic stream, the military leadership in physical training at these colleges is problematic and does not, in my view, justify the continuation of this model as an undergraduate university environment. I think (their) future should be fully considered with broad-based consultation.”
Many female cadets subject to ‘hostile environment and mistreatment’
In her report, Arbour documents several cases of sexual misconduct at the colleges.
Through interviews, she said she was told almost every female cadet has either experienced one or more incidents of sexual misconduct “or worse,” including persisting discriminatory comments and attitudes.
Arbour also cited a 2020 Statistics Canada report that found 68 per cent of students at RMC Kingston and RMC Saint-Jean have either seen or been the victim of unwanted sexual behaviour during their time at the schools.
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.
“Reporting incidents of sexual misconduct also means that they will be drawn into a time-consuming, emotionally-draining and unpleasant administrative and/or disciplinary process, which they often choose to avoid except in the worst of cases. The consequences for the perpetrator were often considered inadequate or unlikely to change male behaviour,” Arbour said in her report.
“While the CAF has taken steps to address these cultural and systemic failures, the current situation is still highly problematic.”
In addition to calling for a review of the schools, Arbour said the military’s chief of professional conduct and culture should engage with the college’s authorities in the interim to address the “long-standing culture concerns unique to the military college environment, including the continuing misogynistic and discriminatory environment and the ongoing incidence of sexual misconduct.”
Megan MacKenzie, professor and Simons chair in international law and human security at Simon Fraser University, told Global News that Arbour’s recommendation about the military colleges is “very significant.”
“Arbour was very clear that in order to have cultural change, we have to pay attention to who we’re recruiting, how we’re training them, and what kind of probation system they’re under,” she said.
“Regardless of how the department of defence and the Canadian defence forces decide to move forward or not on that recommendation … her assessment was that … the culture in these institutions is a big problem.”
How difficult of a task will it be to reform the colleges?
Reforming Canada’s military colleges needs dedication and will, said retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, who was in charge of officer cadet training in 2014 and 2015 at the colleges.
“It will be monumentally difficult to do from an attitude perspective, and there will be institutional momentum and foot-dragging at every turn if there was to be a wholesale revamp,” he said.
To start, officials need to look at giving the colleges a clearer mandate, Popov added.
“Is it a civilian university that emphasizes granting degrees to the candidates where they wear a uniform to class? Or is it a training establishment that trains potential junior officers to lead the daughters and sons of Canada in the most lethal and demanding circumstances in the world?” he asked.
“It can’t be more of the same, or a tweak here or a pull there, or another glossy brochure, or a Canadian Forces general instruction … with many theoretical recommendations and lots of verbiage, but no action.”
Bringing change to the military colleges will be a “Herculean task,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to require a lot of resources, and it’s going to take a lot of creativity into figuring out what is the best way to educate Canada’s future officers,” she said.
“I’m not expecting to see anything happening within the next couple of years on that front.”
In her report, Arbour suggests an externally-led review look at whether it would be advantageous for officer cadets to complete an undergraduate degree at a civilian university first, before attending military college for a year of professional military education and related training. Currently, cadets are spending four years at a military college for their education.
Arbour also suggested looking at international military college systems, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, for ideas on how to remodel the system.
When it comes to Canada’s military colleges, they must be brought into the modern era, said Popov.
“I’m not advocating immediately for a closure and burn of the military college system, but I think it really needs to be looked at,” he said.
“What does the Department of National Defence want it to provide? Then revamp as necessary … in accordance with some of the other recommendations to streamline that piece and make our military colleges more relevant to the demands of the forces today.”