‘The military is not going to solve this on its own’: Eyes turn to Ottawa as sexual misconduct crisis continues to rock the Canadian Armed Forces – Toronto Star

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 6, 2021.

By Jacques GallantPolitical Reporter

Sun., Oct. 10, 20215 min. read

Article was updated 11 hrs ago

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said military leaders “still don’t get it” when it comes to fighting sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, his comment prompted a pointed response:

So what are you going to do about it?

After all, critics noted, the long-running crisis is as much the government’s problem as it is the military’s, given that the Forces are under civilian control.

“If the military ‘doesn’t get it,’ who’s responsible for that?” asked NDP MP Randall Garrison, his party’s defence critic in the last Parliament.

“The prime minister and the minister of national defence are clearly responsible for making sure they get it and are taking the appropriate actions,” Garrison said.

“They have not done this. Otherwise, the same things would not be happening over and over and over again.”

Experts say that for much of its history, leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces have been allowed to mostly do as they please, which helps to explain the failure to tackle the systemic problem of sexual misconduct.

“The military is not going to solve this on its own. There needs to be this external oversight,” said Maya Eichler, Canada research chair in social innovation and community engagement at Mount Saint Vincent University, who specializes in military sexual misconduct.

While the Liberal government has been under fire for months over its handling of the file, Eichler pointed out that “there’s actually a tradition of relatively weak civilian direction of the military” in Canada — and she says it’s something that finally needs to change.

Trudeau made the “don’t get it” comment to reporters on Wednesday after reports that Canada’s acting chief of the defence staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre, had assigned Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe to help with the CAF’s response to independent reviews of sexual misconduct in the military.

Dawe had been on leave as head of special forces since May, after CBC News reported that in 2017 he had written a positive character reference for a soldier found guilty of sexual assault.

The decision to put Dawe into the new role — and the lack of transparency around that decision — prompted outrage from survivors of military sexual violence and criticism from experts. Dawe was removed from the position within a day of his appointment being revealed.

“This shows they simply still don’t get it,” Trudeau said of the military leadership’s actions in light of criticism that the CAF has a culture that tolerates sexual misconduct.

But Trudeau is one of the few people in the country who could actually do something about that, points out Stephen Saideman, Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University, who researches civilian control of the military in democracies.

Saideman noted that the prime minister has the power to get rid of the chief of the defence staff, who serves at the pleasure of the government.

But while it might be simple for Trudeau to dismiss Eyre, Saideman doesn’t believe it would be the appropriate response.

“The case right now is that something bad happens and the civilians blame the generals. That’s not oversight,” he said.

“What civilian oversight should look like is the minister of national defence should be responsible for everything that goes on within the military and within the Department of National Defence — and that means if he or she doesn’t know something, he or she asks about it.”

Critics and opposition parties have been urging Trudeau to remove Harjit Sajjan as defence minister when he shuffles his cabinet later this month. Sajjan has been repeatedly called out for failing to take a more active role in dealing with sexual misconduct in the military, and was even censured by the House of Commons in June over his handling of the file.

While a minister of defence can’t be involved in every military personnel decision, Saideman said they should be involved in the management of senior officers, by vetting the individuals who the chief of the defence staff assigns to major positions.

The other component of civilian oversight should see the minister take an active role in policy implementation, Saideman said.

For example, under the leadership of former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, the CAF did not implement all the recommendations of a landmark 2015 review of sexual misconduct in the military by Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice.

Vance, who retired this past January, is under military police investigation following allegations of inappropriate behaviour. He was recently charged with a criminal count of obstruction of justice.

The problem, Saideman says, was that the Trudeau government delegated the crafting of its response to the Deschamps report to the military’s top officer. “There was ample opportunity from 2015 to 2020 for them to say, ‘No, Vance, this is wrong. Do it the other way’ — and they never did.”

External oversight and what it should look like is part of the mandate of an ongoing independent review into sexual misconduct in the military by retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour that was launched by the government earlier this year. Arbour has been asked to deliver her final report by next spring.

Saideman said there’s no need to wait.

“The minister of national defence should do their job without having a retired Supreme Court justice telling them to do their job,” he said.

Eichler would like to see a national public conversation on what Canadians want civilian oversight of their military to look like.

As an example of better oversight, she suggested that the chief of the defence staff could also report directly to Parliament, and appear on a regular basis in public before the standing committee on national defence to discuss culture change efforts.

“That to me is the minimum,” she said. “That just helps bring these issues out into the limelight, rather than always coming out when something goes wrong. We need to go beyond the reactive mode that the military is in.”


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