Federal leaders united on need to fight military sex misconduct, but differ on how

OTTAWA — Federal leaders were united in their commitment to fight sexual misconduct in Canada’s military — but divided on the right approach — as the issue made a rare appearance on the campaign trail Wednesday after months of allegations, parliamentary hearings and promises of action.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh were asked during separate campaign events if they would commit to creating an independent watchdog to fight inappropriate and criminal sexual behaviour in the ranks.

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Many victims’ advocates and experts have argued since the first allegations in February of misconduct against some of the Canadian Armed Forces’ top officers that independent oversight and accountability are critical to addressing the problem.

Trudeau at an event in Halifax would not commit to creating an independent body to monitor the military and hold it to account, and he instead promised that a re-elected Liberal government would act on the recommendations of retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.

The Liberal leader as prime minister tapped Arbour in April to conduct a year-long review of the military’s approach to preventing and punishing sexual crimes and behaviour following months of outrage over the conduct of its top commanders.

The Liberals also appointed Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, one of the military’s highest-ranking female officers, to lead the Canadian Armed Forces’ culture-change efforts, which included tackling hate and discrimination in the ranks.

"It has gone on for too long and all the different efforts over the years have improved, but not nearly enough, which is why we needed the top experts to say: ‘This is what we'll do,’" Trudeau said.

"And we commit, absolutely, to following full-heartedly on the recommendations that Gen. Carignan, but especially justice Arbour, have put forward to end discrimination within the military once and for all."

Some have criticized the Liberals for launching another review after Arbour’s former Supreme Court benchmate Marie Deschamps in 2015 called for an independent centre to monitor the military’s handling of cases and hold it accountable.

Neither Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, who were in power when Deschamps released the results of her review, which found a heavily sexualized culture in the military, nor the Trudeau government acted upon the recommendation.

While he did not mention the Deschamps report, O’Toole on Wednesday did commit to creating an independent watchdog for the military, which his party’s platform says would see Canada’s military ombudsman’s office report to Parliament rather than the defence minister, as is currently the case.

"We will have an independent process," O’Toole said. "We will put a freeze in place in terms of promotions and other things to send a real signal that we will clean up the mess and we will restore that trust and faith that is important for an institution as important as our military."

O’Toole went on to attack the Liberals, who found themselves under fire earlier this year following revelations then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne raised an allegation of sexual misconduct involving chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in March 2018.

While the government said it acted appropriately by sending the allegation to senior civil servants to investigate, and that the investigation was stymied by the ombudsman’s refusal to provide further information, others such as O’Toole have accused the Liberals of a cover-up.

Vance has denied any wrongdoing. He was charged in July with one count of obstruction of justice and his case is back in court on Friday.

Singh promised to implement Deschamps’s recommendation even as he accused the Liberals of having let down women in uniform by launching another — in his view, unnecessary — review.

"We need to have an independent process," he said. "That was a major concern raised by Justice Deschamps. … And despite knowing that, to this day, after six years of having this report, six years of being in power, Mr. Trudeau has not done that."

The Green Party has also said it would implement Deschamps’s recommendation.

The issue of sexual misconduct in the military had made only a few brief appearances on the campaign trail prior to Wednesday, and received only a short mention during the English-language debate. That was despite having dominated headlines and causing upheaval in the military since February.

That lack of attention had Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute worried about a repeat of past cycles, where allegations of military sexual misconduct have caused upheaval and promises of action, before the focus shifts and the issue isn’t addressed.

"I have seen these patterns," said Duval-Lantoine, who studies gender in the military. "So obviously I'm worried about these patterns repeating. I know that right now, there's still quite a bit of momentum within the institution. But that will wane down at some point because culture changes is difficult."

Experts are divided over each of the parties' promises. Some believe implementation of Deschamps’s recommendation is long overdue. Others feel Arbour’s review will offer a better roadmap to addressing the problem. And some say the best approach is making the ombudsman’s office independent.

Yet most share Duval-Lantoine’s concern over whether the next government — no matter the stripe — will have the political will or interest in truly addressing sexual misconduct in the military.

"I'm totally frustrated, totally frustrated," Walbourne said in an interview. "We know what needs to be done. People have talked about it ad nauseum. But that's all we do. We talk and there's a big uproar in the media, it gets on the national level: ‘Oh my, it’s shocking.’ And then it goes away."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021.

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