External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces

Marie Deschamps, External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. External Review Authority. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. 27 March 2015. “One of the key findings of the External Review Authority (the ERA) is that there is an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Cultural change is therefore key. It is not enough to simply revise policies or to repeat the mantra of “zero tolerance”. Leaders must acknowledge that sexual misconduct is a real and serious problem for the organization, one that requires their own direct and sustained attention.”

The mandate of the ERA [External Review Authority] was to examine CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] policies, procedures and programs in relation to sexual harassment and sexual assault, including the effectiveness with which these policies are currently being implemented. To carry out this mandate, the ERA conducted a series of confidential interviews with reserve and regular members, from all ranks and environments (Naval, Land, and Air Force, and training), from July to December, 2014. The ERA also interviewed individuals whose work in the CAF relates, in various ways, to the investigation or prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault, or to providing support to victims of such prohibited conduct. These individuals included Commanding Officers, harassment advisors, workplace relation advisors, military police, investigators from the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, representatives of the Judge Advocate General, chaplains, physicians, nurses, social workers, and representatives of support groups, as well as several military researchers. The ERA also met with two civilian organizations, one operating in the law enforcement sector and one commercial corporation, and reviewed information concerning the practices of a number of other armed forces, to examine “best practices” in addressing inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace.

The ERA’s consultations were conducted through focus groups, face-to-face interviews and telephone interviews, and were held at various locations, including two naval bases, three land bases, two air bases, two training bases, two military colleges, and on several reserve units sites. In addition, CAF members were informed about the Review on the CAF website and through widely broadcast emails, and were invited to contact the ERA directly through a dedicated, confidential email address. The ERA made itself available to meet with individuals both on and off-base in order to ensure confidentiality and to maximize the participation of interested individuals. Ultimately, over 700 individuals contributed to the Review….

[T]he ERA’s consultations revealed a sexualized environment in the CAF, particularly among recruits and non- commissioned members, characterized by the frequent use of swear words and highly degrading expressions that reference women’s bodies, sexual jokes, innuendos, discriminatory comments with respect to the abilities of women, and unwelcome sexual touching. Cumulatively, such conduct creates an environment that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and is conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

Although the most common complaints to the ERA related to this hostile, sexualized environment, the ERA also heard reports of quid pro quo sexual harassment. Some participants further reported instances of sexual assault, including instances of dubious relationships between lower rank women and higher rank men, and date rape. At the most serious extreme, these reports of sexual violence highlighted the use of sex to enforce power relationships and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit.

The ERA found that members appear to become inured to this sexualized culture as they move up the ranks. For example, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), both men and women, appear to be generally desensitized to the sexualized culture. Officers tend to excuse incidents of inappropriate conduct on the basis that the CAF is merely a reflection of civilian society. There is also a strong perception that senior NCOs are responsible for imposing a culture where no one speaks up and which functions to deter victims from reporting sexual misconduct.

As a result of these attitudes, there is a broadly held perception in the lower ranks that those in the chain of command either condone inappropriate sexual conduct, or are willing to turn a blind-eye to such incidents.

Comprehensive cultural change is therefore required, and such change cannot occur without the proactive engagement of senior leaders in the CAF. Senior leaders— particularly those with general oversight responsibilities—need to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the armed forces, clearly state that such misconduct is unacceptable, and adopt a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the sexualized environment and to better integrate women into the military, including by appointing more women to positions of senior leadership.

It was readily apparent throughout the consultations that a large percentage of incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault are not reported. First and foremost, interviewees stated that fear of negative repercussions for career progression, including being removed from the unit, is one of the most important reasons why members do not report such incidents. Victims expressed concern about not being believed, being stigmatized as weak, labeled as a trouble-maker, subjected to retaliation by peers and supervisors, or diagnosed as unfit for work. There is also a strong perception that the complaint process lacks confidentiality. Underlying all of these concerns is a deep mistrust that the chain of command will take such complaints seriously. Members are less likely to be willing to report incidents of sexual harassment and assault in a context in which there is a general perception that it is permissible to objectify women’s bodies, make unwelcome and hurtful jokes about sexual interactions with female members, and cast aspersions on the capabilities of female members. That such conduct is generally ignored, or even condoned, by the chain of command prevents many victims from reporting incidents of inappropriate conduct.

The ERA heard repeatedly from participants that the only way to increase the frequency of reporting is to create a reporting mechanism outside of the chain of command. Indeed, a number of other military organizations—for example in the United States, Australia and France—have created independent offices to receive reports of sexual misconduct, as well as to provide victim support, conduct training, and track data. Most of these offices allow victims to decide whether or not they wish their complaint to trigger a formal complaint and investigation process. Regardless of which path they choose, however, victims are offered treatment and support.

As has been modeled in other countries, and is demanded internally by many of the CAF’s own members, the ERA recommends creating a center for accountability for sexual assault and harassment, independent from the CAF, with responsibility for receiving complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as responsibility for prevention, victim support, data collection, training, and monitoring of case outcomes. Complaint processes should allow victims to choose whether or not they wish their complaint to trigger a formal investigation, but in either case should entitle the victim to receive treatment and support services….

Members of the CAF receive mandatory training at  regular intervals, including on prohibited sexual conduct. As a practical matter, however, this training does not seem to have any significant impact. A large number of participants reported that the classes are not taken seriously: harassment training is laughed at, the course is too theoretical, and training on harassment gets lost among the other topics covered. Power-point training is dubbed “death by power-point”, and training on-line is severely criticized. A number of interviewees also expressed scepticism about unit-led training: there is a common view that in many cases the trainers were themselves complicit in the prohibited conduct. Participants reported that COs are insufficiently trained and that they are unable to appropriately define, assess and address sexual harassment.

Overall, the ERA found that the training currently being provided is failing to inform members about appropriate conduct, or to inculcate an ethical culture in the CAF. Rather, current training lacks credibility and further perpetuates the view that the CAF does not take sexual harassment and assault seriously.

[I]mproving the integration of women, including in positions of senior leadership, is necessary to cultural reform. While the broader question of whether women are adequately represented in the CAF falls outside of the mandate of this Review, there is an undeniable link between the existence of a hostile organizational culture that is disrespectful and demeaning to women, and the poor integration of women into the organization. Increasing the representation of  women in the CAF, including in the highest positions of senior leadership, is therefore key to changing the culture of the organization….

[A] significant majority of lower rank women who participated in the Review reported being exposed to frequent and demeaning sexualized language. As one interviewee put it, ‘all women have experienced to a certain extent how men do not want them in the military.’ Another participant put it more bluntly, referring to the frequency with which women experience inappropriate sexual conduct in the CAF: ‘There is not a female who has not had a problem.’…

Interviewees reported regularly being told of orders to ‘stop being pussies’ and to ‘leave your purses at home.’…

[Many men in the CAF] perceived the treatment of women in the military to be similar to what they would experience in broader Canadian society…. In particular, most men did not view sexual language as harassing, and thought that attempts to ‘police ‘ language would be ‘ridiculous’; as one male participant stated, ‘girls that come to the Army know what to expect.’…

Additional information:

Bruce Campion-Smith and Alex Boutilier, Canada’s military suffers ‘sexualized culture,’ report says. The Toronto Star, 30 April 2015. “The problems exist even though concerns about inappropriate sexual conduct have been a focus within the forces for two decades and [even though there have been] repeated studies on harassment.”

The Toronto Star Editorial, Clean up misogynistic behaviour at Royal Military College. The Toronto Star, 31 May 2015. “When Julie Lalonde was asked to give seminars at Kingston’s Royal Military College about the law on sexual consent in Canada, she might have expected a respectful audience. After all, the sexual assault prevention educator was speaking to the crème de la crème of students on their way to becoming leaders in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Instead, she says she was met with whistles, cat-calls, laughter and disrespect. So aggressive was the behaviour of some cadets that she asked for an escort to her car when she left. “The things I heard at the Royal Military College of Canada scared me,” she said, “to think that people had those kinds of attitudes about women, about sexual violence, about their role as bystanders.”

Lalonde’s experience highlights a number of sexual assault complaints the college has recently had to deal with. And that’s bad news for the Canadian military, because RMC is run by the Defence Department and provides a university education and military training for young officer cadets.

It’s clear the prestigious school must act quickly and effectively to stamp out misogynistic tendencies that could continue to poison the Canadian Armed Forces as the college’s graduates work their way up the ranks.”