When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that military leaders “still don’t get it” when it comes to combating sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, his comment prompted a direct response:
So what are you going to do about it?
After all, critics noted, the long-standing crisis is as much a problem for the government as it is for the military, since the Forces are under civilian control.
“If the army ‘doesn’t get it’, who is responsible for that?” asked NDP MP Randall Garrison, critical of his party’s defense in the last Parliament.
“The prime minister and the minister of national defense are clearly responsible for making sure they get it and that they are taking the appropriate action,” Garrison said.
“They have not done this. Otherwise, the same things would not be happening over and over again. ”
Experts say that for much of their history, Canadian Armed Forces leaders have been allowed to do primarily what they please, which helps explain the inability to address the systemic problem of sexual misconduct.
“The army is not going to solve this on its own. There has to be this outside oversight, ”said Maya Eichler, Canada’s research chair in social innovation and community engagement at Mount Saint Vincent University, who specializes in military sexual misconduct.
While the Liberal government has been criticized for months for its handling of the dossier, Eichler noted that “there actually is a tradition of relatively weak civilian leadership of the military” in Canada, and she says that is something that must ultimately change.
Trudeau made the “I don’t get it” comment to reporters Wednesday after reports that Canada’s acting chief of defense staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre, had assigned the major general. Peter Dawe to assist with CAF’s response to independent reviews of sexual misconduct in the military.
Dawe had been on leave as chief of special forces since May, after CBC News reported that in 2017 he had written a positive character reference for a soldier convicted of sexual assault.
The decision to put Dawe in the new role, and the lack of transparency surrounding that decision, sparked outrage from survivors of military sexual violence and criticism from experts. Dawe was removed from office a day after his appointment was revealed.
“This shows that they still don’t get it,” Trudeau said of the military leadership’s actions in light of criticism that CAF has a culture that tolerates sexual misconduct.
But Trudeau is one of the few people in the country who could really do something about it, says Stephen Saideman, Paterson’s chairman of international affairs at Carleton University, who researches civilian control of the military in democracies.
Saideman noted that the prime minister has the power to get rid of the defense chief of staff, who serves at the government’s pleasure.
But while it might be easy for Trudeau to fire Eyre, Saideman doesn’t think it’s the right answer.
“The case right now is that something bad happens and the civilians blame the generals. That is not supervision, ”he said.
“What civil oversight should look like is that the minister of national defense should be responsible for everything that happens within the military and within the Department of National Defense, and that means that if he or she doesn’t know something, ask about it. ”
Critics and opposition parties have been urging Trudeau to remove Harjit Sajjan as defense minister when he reshuffles his cabinet later this month. Sajjan has been repeatedly accused of failing to take a more active role in dealing with sexual misconduct in the military, and was even censured by the House of Commons in June for his handling of the archive.
While a defense minister cannot participate in all decisions of military personnel, Saideman said he should participate in the management of senior officers, examining the people the chief of defense staff assigns to top positions.
The other component of civil oversight should see the minister take an active role in policy implementation, Saideman said.
For example, under the leadership of former Chief of Defense Staff Jonathan Vance, the CAF did not implement all the recommendations in a 2015 landmark review of sexual misconduct in the military by Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court judge.
Vance, who retired in January, is under investigation by military police following allegations of inappropriate behavior. He was recently charged with a criminal charge of obstruction of justice.
The problem, Saideman says, was that the Trudeau administration delegated the writing of its response to the Deschamps report to the senior army officer. “There was a great opportunity from 2015 to 2020 for them to say, ‘No, Vance, this is wrong. Do it backwards, ‘and they never did. ”
The external oversight and what it should look like is part of the mandate of an ongoing independent review of sexual misconduct in the military by retired Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbor that was launched by the government earlier this year. Arbor has been asked to deliver its final report by next spring.
Saideman said there is no need to wait.
“The national defense minister must do their job without being told by a retired Supreme Court judge to do their job,” he said.
Eichler would like to see a national public conversation about what Canadians want civilian oversight of their military to look like.
As an example of better oversight, he suggested that the chief of defense staff could also report directly to Parliament and regularly appear in public before the standing committee on national defense to discuss culture change efforts.
“That to me is the bare minimum,” he said. “That just helps to expose these issues, rather than always coming to the fore when something goes wrong. We need to go beyond the reactive mode that the military is in. “
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