Jason Kenney pledges independent agency to handle sexual misconduct in military after scathing report

The Ottawa Citizen reported last week that Defence Minister Jason Kenney promised to create an independent body to deal with sexual misconduct in the military after questions about the Chief of Defence Staff’s commitment to dealing with the problem.

Kenney reportedly made the pledge in the House of Commons on May 13th, nearly two weeks after a retired Supreme Court judge said an independent centre was “essential” for eliminating what she had identified as a “hostile” sexual environment in the Canadian Forces.

The commitment came after NDP defence critic Jack Harris asked Kenney in question period if he would “guarantee that the Canadian Armed Forces establish an independent body to handle sexual misconduct.”

“Yes,” the defence minister replied.

Kenney did not provide further details, including a timeline for when such a body will be established. He later told the Commons defence committee that the Conservative government is also preparing to introduce legislation that would establish a victims’ bill of rights for military personnel.

Senior military leaders had wavered on the idea of an independent centre. In March, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson appointed the Canadian Forces’ top female officer, Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, to study how the Australian, French and U.S. militaries handled sexual misconduct in their own ranks.

But Lawson also called the idea of an independent centre “unique” and “complex” during a press conference earlier this month, and suggested it was something “anyone within the chain of command would at first be concerned with.” Whitecross repeatedly referred to a “centralized capability.”

Then CBC reported Lawson had issued a directive to senior commanders in February in which he said the military planned to ignore retired Supreme Court judge Marie Deschamps’ call for an independent centre. Instead, it would establish a mechanism inside National Defence, reporting to Lawson.

The report prompted a strong response from opposition parties. NDP leader Tom Mulcair said he was “very concerned about Gen. Lawson’s attitude toward Justice Deschamps’ report.” Both he and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau called on the military to commit to establishing an independent centre.

Shortly before Kenney promised an independent centre in question period, Lawson had taken the unusual step of issuing a press release in which he said it was “false” to suggest he had ordered military commanders to ignore Deschamps’ recommendations. He said the Canadian Forces recognizes the “seriousness” of sexual harassment and assault in the military, and that it will “take strong steps to initiate positive change.” “While we are ultimately uncertain which model will be the best fit for Canada, and therefore how we will implement this recommendation,” Lawson said, “we fully recognize the need to have a centre which is independent of undue influence from the chain of command.”

Kenney told reporters after the Commons defence committee meeting that he had full confidence that the military sees sexual misconduct as a serious issue, and is acting to address it. “I’ve been minister of defence for two and a half months, and in that time, every senior military commander that I’ve met says that this is a serious problem,” he said. “These are professionals, people of honour and integrity. They know there are some bad apples and the system has been broken and needs to be fixed.”

But Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray was wary, saying she wasn’t convinced that the Conservative government and senior military commanders are truly committed to taking action. “It was so important that when the Deschamps report was tabled, that there be a positive clear and unequivocal support for the recommendations,” she said. “And what we saw was a lot of floundering, conflicting messages, and a deafening silence from the prime minister and minister.”

During her year-long investigation into military sexual misconduct, Deschamps interviewed hundreds of full- and part-time military personnel, as well as commanding officers, military police, chaplains, nurses and social workers. Many interviews were on a confidential basis. The interviews pointed to what Deschamps described as a “hostile sexualized environment” in the military, particularly among recruits and the junior ranks, which included everything from swearing and sexual innuendo to “dubious relationships” between low-ranking women and high-ranking men.

It also included rape. “At the most extreme, these reports of sexual violence highlighted the use of sex to enforce power relationships,” Deschamps’ report reads, “and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit.” The military’s leadership came under particularly harsh criticism. Deschamps found military personnel “became inured to this sexualized culture as they move up the ranks,” with officers turning a blind eye to inappropriate conduct and senior non-commissioned officers “imposing a culture where no one speaks up.” Deschamps said it is “readily apparent” that a large percentage of incidents involving sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are not reported. Victims were worried they would hurt their careers, not be believed, or even face retaliation from peers and supervisors. “Underlying all these concerns is a deep mistrust that the chain of command will take such complaints seriously,” the report says, adding, “Comprehensive cultural change is therefore required, and such change cannot occur without the proactive engagement of senior leaders.”

Deschamps made 10 recommendations. The majority related to the establishment of an independent centre outside the military that would be responsible for receiving reports of inappropriate sexual misconduct, as well as prevention, coordination and monitoring of training, victim support, monitoring of accountability, and research, and to act as a central authority for the collection of data.

The CRCVC strongly supports an independent centre for reporting, prevention, victim support and research. We believe this will allow many more victims to come forward and seek supports without the fear of reprisal from their superior officers. The military must provide an environment for victims to safely report harassment and violence without the fear of negative repercussions to one’s career.  In other countries around the world such as Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, military justice is handled by civilian authorities. France, Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium have erased their military courts so that the military chain of command cannot influence justice. We hope Canada will follow these international examples in responding to the endemic problem of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, to bring independence, impartiality and increased trustworthiness in the eyes of victims.

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

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