Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is launching an independent, external review into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.
The review will centre around providing recommendations to set up an independent reporting system so that military members can share allegations of sexual misconduct outside of the military chain of command — a key request by victims and survivors who say they have for too long faced reprisals for coming forward.
While that review is being done, the military will also create a new internal organization led by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan as the new chief of professional conduct and culture.
“I’m truly sorry,” said Sajjan to members of the military who have experienced misconduct.
“We have heard you, we have listened, and we are taking action.”
Arbour is the former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, and from 1996 to 1999 was the United Nations’ chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia.
“She is the reason that rape is a war crime,” said Anita Vandenbeld, parliamentary secretary to Sajjan, of Arbour’s previous work prosecuting war criminals.
“That is exactly the lens through which we want her to look at this.”
Arbour said she while some elements of her mandate are reminiscent of what her predecessor former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps did in her landmark 2015 report into military sexual misconduct, Arbour’s mandate also goes beyond that to look at all of the factors behind misconduct.
“I really believe sometimes it needs more than one,” she told Global News. “The first effort, sometimes opens the door. And maybe — six years later — this might be the opportunity to actually put it right.”
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The announcement comes nearly three months after Global News first reported Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour. In the weeks since, military police have opened probes into Vance as well as Adm. Art McDonald, Vance’s successor as chief of the defence staff. Multiple women have also spoken out publicly to share allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate conduct. McDonald declined to comment, citing legal advice and the investigation that remains underway.
But the allegations have rocked the Canadian military, kicking off what experts describe as an institutional “crisis” for the force as it reckons with the need to change a culture that former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps called “hostile” and “endemic” in 2015.
Deschamps led the landmark report into sexual misconduct in the military that sparked the creation of Operation Honour, the military’s formal initiative to root out sexual misconduct. But in the years since, she said there has not been buy-in from those in senior ranks to truly change.
“I have the impression that very little has changed,” she said during testimony to the House of Commons defence committee at the end of February 2021.
She told Global News in a statement on Thursday that she believes Arbour will be able to look at a different range of factors related to sexual misconduct than Deschamps was able to in 2015.
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“I welcome the appointment of Madame Arbour,” Deschamps said.
“From what I read, her mandate appears to be broader than the one I was given. As such, this would not be a mere repetition of what I did.”
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Sajjan said the problem of sexual misconduct in the military is urgent and that Arbour will be instructed to provide an interim report on her findings in order to speed up results.
The final report will be made public, he said, but the timeline for that is not yet clear.
“Over the coming months, Madame Arbour will provide concrete recommendations on how the DND/CAF can set up an independent, external reporting system for Defence Team members that meets the needs of those who have been affected by misconduct, free from any influence of the Chain of the Command,” said a press release announcing the measures.
The review will also look at “the policies, procedures, programs, practices, and culture” within the military, and recommend how best to create “lasting culture change.”
The review will also look at the military justice system, which has been a frequent point of criticism by victims and survivors who say it does not treat sexual misconduct seriously and too often allows those facing charges to plead down to lesser offences.
“What we are hoping that we can work with Madame Arbour to develop is an understanding of why that culture persists, how it is allowed to persist,” said Jody Thomas, deputy minister of the Department of National Defence.
Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, added that the military will “have to welcome scrutiny with humility.”
“There is no silver bullet for culture change,” he said. “It’s about the policies we create, the standards we enforce, and how we treat those who have been harmed.”
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Sajjan, however, faced repeated questions over why he is launching another review given that the Deschamps report made a clear recommendation for the creation of an independent reporting system.
The government did not implement that recommendation in the six years since.
“We thought we were going down a path that was creating better change,” said Sajjan, noting that appears not to have been the case.
“It clearly has not worked,” Sajjan added.
“As she feels that she has interim recommendations, regardless whether it’s a month from now, two months from now, three months from now, that she can bring those recommendations forward and they will be acted upon immediately,” he said of Arbour’s work.
“We need to be able to measures our results. That’s what today is about.”
Two parliamentary committees studying the matter of military sexual misconduct have heard damning testimony about the government’s handling of a 2018 allegation made against Vance and which the then-military ombudsman says he shared with Sajjan.
Throughout, the committees have also heard repeated testimony raising questions about whether military police can be trusted to conduct the probes into allegations against individuals at the very top of the military chain of command.
Global News reported on Wednesday that members of a private Facebook group for military police have been mocking Maj. Kellie Brennan, one of the women at the heart of allegations against Vance.
Military police say they are looking into the posts.
Global News also reported on Wednesday that documents obtained through access to information laws and verified with the Department of National Defence show the recommendation to conclude a military police investigation into Vance was made on the day he was sworn in as chief of the defence staff.
The investigation was not formally concluded until four days after Vance took over command.
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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was minister of veterans affairs in the former Conservative government that appointed Vance while that military police investigation was still technically open.
He has repeatedly said the Liberals failed women in the military by not fully investigating the 2018 allegation against Vance, but faced questions during a press conference on Thursday morning about whether the Conservatives share responsibility in failing women in light of the timing of the probe end.
“No,” said O’Toole.
“When I heard a rumour, I made sure that that was investigated immediately. When Mr. Trudeau’s minister and chief of staff were made aware of direct allegations from a victim, they covered it up.”
O’Toole did not address the fact that the records show the investigation was not formally closed until after Vance was sworn in on July 17, 2015.
More to come.