The federal election campaign is officially underway and as parties hit the road, questions remain about whether the next government will prioritize urgently needed systemic changes to address the military sexual misconduct crisis that has sparked a national conversation over the past seven months.
Experts have called the reckoning an institutional “crisis” for the Canadian Forces amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against high-level leaders.
Allied militaries in the U.S. and the U.K. have also seen their cultures thrust into the spotlight, with the focus on sexual misconduct and discrimination against women as well as LGBTQ members.
Yet while the extent of the problem is clear, the path to fixing it is not.
For months, the Canadian government has pledged action but offered little in the way of timelines for concrete changes. It has now been more than six months since Global News first reported on allegations against now-retired Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, which he denies.
Here’s what you need to know about the issue and what the parties have promised.
What is the problem
Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces is not new.
The problem dates back decades, though the landmark report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in 2015 documented the extent of the issue in a way that hadn’t been done before.
In her report, Deschamps described sexual misconduct as “endemic” throughout the military and said it was the result of a culture that is “toxic” to women and LGBTQ members. She pointed specifically at the military’s chain of command structure, where allegations are frequently swept under the rug by superiors and where the power imbalances in the military system created an environment ripe for abuse of power.
Deschamps urged the creation of an independent reporting system for military sexual misconduct and said that was the best way forward in a system where complainants described frequently facing retaliation or ostracization for reporting allegations against peers or superiors.
In the immediate aftermath of her report, the military launched Operation Honour — the official name for its mission to root out sexual misconduct — but the Liberal government elected shortly afterwards did not implement the core recommendation from her findings.
What is the solution?
Operation Honour ended earlier this year in the midst of high-profile parliamentary committee studies probing sexual misconduct in the military and the program’s impact at addressing the problem.
Those studies were launched following exclusive reporting by Global News on Feb. 2 that Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates, which he has denied.
Witnesses who testified in the spring said the program had “aged like rotten milk” amid multiple allegations and military police investigations into senior military leaders, while others highlighted the need to end the “double standard’ in behaviour for men and women in the ranks.
A report issued by one of the committees probing the matter echoed Deschamps’ urgings for an independent system for handling sexual misconduct allegations.
What have the leaders said?
The crisis has largely centred around the question of whether the military has shown it cannot be trusted to handle sexual misconduct cases within its ranks, particularly those involving leaders.
For the major party leaders, the answer to that has been clear: no.
But the extent to which they propose to fix the problem varies.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has faced questions about his government’s response to the problem over the last seven months, with significant scrutiny on his Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, over the pace of reforms. In particular, much of that has focused on the lack of a timeline for implementing an independent sexual misconduct reporting system for the military.
While Trudeau has said he supports this, his government has offered no timeline for action and has instead said they plan to wait for the recommendations from the external review being led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who was tasked with crafting a plan in April.
Her review, however, is not expected to wrap up until next year even as advocates and survivors warn they can’t wait that long for action.
In the interim, the government has appointed Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan to a newly appointed role as head of military culture and vowed to change what Deschamps described as the “endemic” culture of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
The government has also released a progress tracker laying out timelines for a number of promises.
But while they have said they accept the findings of a June review of the military justice system which recommended sexual assault cases be removed from military jurisdiction, they have offered no plan to do so yet other than saying a governance committee will be appointed for those conversations this fall.
In contrast, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said he would order the military to hand over sexual assault cases to civilian authorities on his first day in office if elected as prime minister.
His platform contains few specifics about a broader plan though, but says the party would “immediately implement” the recommendations of the Deschamps report and establish an independent oversight mechanism for sexual harassment and assault in the military.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has also vowed to require that sexual misconduct investigations are “done by investigators outside the chain of command” and pledged to open a public inquiry into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces if elected as prime minister.
His party platform says a Conservative government would bar commanders from being able to access the medical files of their subordinates and make the military ombudsman accountable to Parliament rather than to the minister of national defence as is currently the case.
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