Editorial: Hasten change in armed forces

Obedience to lawful orders is the foundation of military discipline. When that discipline falters, so does the effectiveness of an army, navy or air force. That is one good reason why the sexualized culture of the Canadian Armed Forces must change sooner rather than later.

Another good reason is that people sworn to defend Canadian values should be living those values.

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Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff, said Monday military police have launched eight investigations arising from calls and emails to the sexual-misconduct response centre at the Department of National Defence. As he says, it’s a beginning.

In 2014, following many complaints from members of the armed forces, retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps was asked to conduct an external review of sexual misconduct and harassment in the armed forces. Her report, released in April 2015, found that the Canadian military was ridden with a misogynistic and sexualized culture, and that harassment and abuse were overlooked and under-reported.

The issue gained prominence in the mid-1990s with the introduction of women into combat roles, and has resurfaced regularly with publicized reports of abusive behaviour and assault.

Deschamps was told “there is not a female who has not had a problem” since joining the military, and yet most were afraid to complain for fear of repercussions, including being hampered in their careers or removed from their units. Reports have been received of abuse ranging from sexual jokes to inappropriate touching to sexual assault, with a chain of command largely blind to the issue. She said the military needs to make a huge cultural shift.

Last summer, Vance initiated a wide-ranging effort to eliminate abuse, harassment and assault within the ranks. In true military fashion, he set out tasks, timelines and objectives.

One of the initiatives was the formation of the sexual-misconduct response centre. The priority of the centre is to provide support and guidance to members of the military who have encountered or witnessed harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Vance’s report said the centre received 204 phone calls, emails and texts between September and December — 53 involved allegations of sexual offences and another 32 related to claims of sexual harassment.

Vance says the report “shows we are moving in the right direction to ensure a professional environment of respect and dignity for every Canadian Armed Forces member.”

He committed to releasing more data, in future reports, that track not only reports to the crisis-response centre, but how those allegations — and potential criminal cases — are dealt with by the system. National Defence is also partnering with Statistics Canada this spring for a survey “designed to determine the nature and scope of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour,” the report said.

Moving in the right direction is good, depending on the pace, and gathering more data could be helpful, but the issue should not get bogged down in analysis and studies.

“As my first order to the Canadian Armed Forces, everybody must continue to work together to eliminate this harmful behaviour,” Vance said when he became chief of defence last June.

“It must stop now.”

There are not 50 shades of grey in this issue. It is not terribly complicated. While changing attitudes can take time, everyone in the military, from the newest recruit to the most experienced general, should be able to grasp the concept that sexual assault and harassment constitute dishonourable conduct.

And if that concept is a little too subtle, they should at least be able to follow a general’s order.

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