Canadian Forces targeting ‘military culture’ in new plan to root out sexual misconduct

Canadian Forces leaders are putting “military culture” in their crosshairs in the latest effort to root out sexual misconduct in the military’s ranks.

In a new 73-page document released Wednesday morning, outgoing Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said “cultural change” is essential for both the current and long-term viability of the military and the ability of all its members to do their work well.

“Ultimately, our goal is to foster a culture in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” he said in a message included in the report that stressed the values and ethics of the military.

“To achieve our goal, we must cultivate a command climate across the institution where sexual misconduct is never minimized, ignored or excused. This is how we build a safer work environment and ensure trust in each other and in the chain of command.”

The plan is being billed as the successor to Operation Honour, launched after a damning report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in 2015 found rampant sexual misconduct and harassment through the military, and a lack of avenues for victims seeking accountability.

But the new plan acknowledges that Operation Honour was not enough to get the job done when it comes to rooting out sexual misconduct within the military, and that a new approach is needed to get long-term results that will tackle the deep systemic challenges at the heart of military culture.

Among those are a climate perceived as “permissive” of sexual misconduct, traditional concepts of masculinity and the behaviour expected of a “male warrior,” a male-dominated workforce and a climate that “can be hostile and, at times, predatory towards women and LGBTQ2 persons.”

The new plan also promises to step up efforts to support victims and hold perpetrators to account.

Julie S. Lalonde, an longtime advocate for the need to combat sexual misconduct and toxic masculinity specifically in the military, tweeted following the release of the plan.

Lalonde said after years of sharing her experiences of sexual misconduct at the Royal Military College as part of the push for change, she feels “personally and professionally vindicated” to see masculinity named as one of the key issues that must be fixed to change military culture.

Lt.-Gen. M.N. Rouleau, vice-chief of defence staff, said the military’s initial response to the Deschamps report was “a little bit clumsy in some cases” as the force tried to react.

“I think it’s fair to say that, you know, we were reactive. We were a bit back-footed, having taken our eye off of the inappropriate sexual behaviour file from the 90s,” he said in an interview with Global News.

“We’re never going to take our eye off this ball now. The intent here behind the strategy is to embed this in the DNA of who we are so that we drive this bad part of our culture out and normalize towards what society expects now, which is zero tolerance for this sort of thing.”

The plan’s release comes just weeks after data released by Statistics Canada showed there is a sexual misconduct problem at the country’s two military colleges.

That survey found 68 per cent of students at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., and the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., had either seen or been the victim of unwanted sexual behaviour during their time at the schools.

The data mirrored findings from another Statistics Canada study released last month on the number of post-secondary students in Canada who have witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, pegging that number at 71 per cent, with women most likely to be impacted.

The federal government last year reached a deal worth $900 million to compensate the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces.

With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson.

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