What veterans think about the future of Canada’s military: ‘There’s still value’

Click to play video: 'Canadian military should ‘get their act together,’ says advocate'
Canadian military should ‘get their act together,’ says advocate
WATCH: Canadian military should “get their act together,” says advocate – Nov 11, 2022

On Remembrance Day, Canadians honour veterans who died in the line of duty. But as the country dedicates a moment of silence to the people who served Canada during wartime, current veterans are dealing with mental health issues, misconduct, and long waits for disability benefits from the federal government.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is also facing multiple crises, from criticisms for its handling of sexual misconduct and abuse of power within its ranks to a recruitment shortage. The CAF is currently in need of at least 7,600 more members, said the CAF in an email to Global News.

Despite the barriers veterans continue to face, some told Global News there is still value in joining the CAF, adding that the military need to start listening to members, veterans and survivors on how to implement systematic changes in order to tackle the crisis effectively.

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Dawn McIlmoyle, a veteran who is also a military sexual trauma and domestic violence advocate, said she thinks the way veterans are treated has contributed to people’s unwillingness to join the military.

“If you’re a WWI or WWII veteran, great, they will throw poppies at you. If you’re a modern-day veteran, there’s no respect anymore,” said McIlmoyle.

McIlmoyle said veterans have to “run around” and go through hoops to get the physical or mental health assistance they need after they’re “broken from being in the military.”

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There’s also the ongoing issue with disability benefits. With a current average wait time of 43 weeks, several veterans are of the opinion that Veteran Affairs Canada’s (VAC) handling of disability benefits has failed them and made them feel forgotten by the federal government, Global News previously reported. There have been growing calls for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay to be fired or resign.

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The Canadian military is also having an identity crisis post-Afghanistan, according to Megan Mackenzie, the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University.

“As a nation, we have to have a public conversation,” she told Global News. “Given climate change, given the different kinds of security threats we face, how do we want our national defence forces to operate? Where do we want to spend our money as a nation in terms of security priorities?”

What can be done

Catherine McLellan, who joined the CAF in June 1999 and was released in June 2020, says “there is still value” in the CAF, but the institution needs to be able to brand itself in a different way that aligns with modern-day values.

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“The military is having a staffing crisis because the military hasn’t quite left the 1950s in terms of the way they see people,” said McLellan.

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“It’s 2022 — women want to have careers and their husbands are content to be the supporting spouse. People have different family compositions; people want to have children and have a work-life balance.”

McLellan said she thinks the culture in the military, which doesn’t see individuals as a whole, has driven many members away and contributed to its recruitment problem. In her case, McLellan left the military because she felt like the system could no longer support her family as she carries out her duties.

“If they could market themselves as, ‘Hey, you can help out your neighbours in a time of crisis’ … a lot of people that would be keen to join the military,” said McLellan. “How many times has the Canadian military responded in different parts of the country? They even responded to COVID-19 by backing up nursing home staff when there was a shortage of medical personnel.”

Click to play video: 'The military’s mindset ‘hasn’t quite left the 1950s,’ says Canadian veteran'
The military’s mindset ‘hasn’t quite left the 1950s,’ says Canadian veteran

McIlmoyle, on the other hand, says she was grateful for the skills she learned in the military that helped her become a resilient person.

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“I’ve been thrown so many curveballs and roadblocks in life,” said McIlmoyle, who said she was sexually assaulted while serving in 1992 and left the military in 1993. Her story was published by Maclean’s in 1998 in an article titled Rape in the military, in which she recounted the incident as one of 13 survivors who alleged that they experienced sexual assault in the Canadian military.

“If I didn’t have the training I had in the military, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome and adapt to those situations,” she said. “Joining the military, as horrible as it was for me — and I only did 23 months — it taught me so much.”

Help veterans 'find a purpose again'

McIlmoyle suggests the CAF invite veterans who are survivors of sexual assault to teach active members about military sexual trauma by sharing their stories “so that these mistakes won’t be continually made.”

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In February 2021, Global News first reported on allegations that Gen. Jonathan Vance, former chief of the defence staff, had been in involved in inappropriate behaviour with female subordinates, including sexual misconduct. This then led to sexual misconduct allegations surfacing against other senior military members, and the CAF has been criticized of its handling of them.

This past May, a report diving into the culture of the CAF was released. The report, conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, stated that the leaders of the CAF are “incapable” of recognizing the “deficient” parts of a culture in the military, allowing sexual misconduct and abuse of power to become ingrained in the system.

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In October, Defence Minister Anita Anand appointed Jocelyne Therrien as the external monitor to oversee the military’s implementation of efforts to address sexual misconduct following the Arbour report.

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In a statement to Global News, the CAF stated that the institution has accepted and begun implementing 17 of the 48 recommendations from the Arbour report, and is “working to analyze and provide the path forward for the remaining recommendations.”

The Department of National Defence (DND) has also allocated $236.2 million in funding over the next five years to eliminate sexual misconduct and gender-based violence in the military and support survivors, according to the statement.

Although McIlmoyle says she acknowledges that “there may be a lot going on behind closed doors” to address sexual misconduct, survivors aren’t aware of it.

She says inviting survivors back as educators would also give them meaning, since many lost their careers due to being assaulted in the military and have been struggling to “find a purpose again.”

“We never gave up our desire to serve,” said McIlmoyle. “We serve in a different way now by finding each other and empowering each other to get through every obstacle.”

According to Mackenzie, the sexual misconduct crisis and the military culture crisis cannot be disconnected from the recruitment crisis.

“I think that Canadians have been watching what’s going on in the defence forces and many, especially young people, realize this is not the job that they want… as they realize or decide that that’s not the kind of culture they want (in the workplace),” she said.

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The Canadian military to remain in crisis if it doesn’t implement changes, expert says

Mackenzie says the first solution to addressing sexual misconduct in the military is accountability.

“Solving the problem requires a clear signal to service members that perpetrators are going to be held accountable,” she said.

McIlmoyle said if Canada can “get their act together” and tackle the problem of sexual misconduct in the military, “other countries will follow.”

“We don’t just have to be like the best fighting force ever. We can be the force that, you know, brings unity and equality in the right way,” she said.

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