When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said military leaders “still do not understand it” when it comes to fighting sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, his comment received a pointed response:
So what do you want to do about it?
After all, critics noted that the protracted crisis is as much a problem for the government as it is for the military, as the forces are under civilian control.
“If the military ‘does not understand it,’ who is responsible for it?” asked NDP MP Randall Garrison, his party’s defense critic in the last parliament.
“The Prime Minister and the Secretary of Defense are clearly responsible for making sure they get it and take the necessary action,” Garrison said.
“They have not done this. Otherwise, the same things would not happen again and again and again. ”
Experts say that leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces for much of its history have for the most part been allowed to do as they please, which helps explain the lack of solution to the systemic problem of sexual misconduct.
“The military is not going to solve this alone. There must be this external oversight, ”said Maya Eichler, Canadian 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 under fire for several months over its handling of the case, Eichler pointed out that “there is actually a tradition of relatively weak civilian direction of the military” in Canada – and she says it is something that should finally changes.
Trudeau made the “do not understand it” comment to reporters on Wednesday after reports that Canada’s acting chief of defense staff, General Wayne Eyre, had awarded Major General. Peter Dawe for helping the CAF respond to independent reports 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 to a soldier found guilty of sexual assault.
The decision to put Dawe in the new role – and the lack of transparency surrounding that decision – created outrage from survivors of military sexual violence and criticism from experts. Dawe was removed from the post within a day after his appointment was revealed.
“This shows that they simply still do not understand it,” Trudeau said of the military leadership’s actions in light of criticism that the CAF has a culture that tolerates sexual misconduct.
But Trudeau is one of the few people in the country who could actually do anything about it, points out Stephen Saideman, Paterson 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 chief of the defense staff who serves for the benefit of the government.
But while it may be easy for Trudeau to fire Eyre, Saideman does not believe that would be the right answer.
“The thing right now is that something bad is happening and the civilians are blaming the generals. It is not supervision, “he said.
“What civilian supervision should look like is that the Minister of National Defense must be responsible for everything that goes on within the military and within the National Ministry of Defense – and that means that if he or she does not know anything, he or she asks or she about it. ”
Critics and opposition parties have called on Trudeau to remove Harjit Sajjan as defense minister when he mixes up his cabinet later this month. Sajjan has been repeatedly urged not to have taken a more active role in dealing with sexual offenses in the military and was even censored by the House of Commons in June over his handling of the case.
Although a Secretary of Defense may not be involved in any decision on military personnel, Saideman said they should be involved in the leadership of senior officers by examining the individuals to whom the Chief of Defense Staff assigns major positions.
The second component of civilian oversight should see the minister take an active role in implementing the policy, Saideman said.
For example, CAF under the leadership of former Chief of Defense Staff Jonathan Vance has not implemented all the recommendations of a 2015 landmark review of sexual misconduct in the military by Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice.
Vance, who withdrew in January, is under military police investigation into allegations of misconduct. He was recently charged with a criminal offense for obstruction of justice.
The problem, Saideman says, was that the Trudeau government delegated the preparation of its response to the Deschamps report to the military chief of staff. “There was ample opportunity for them from 2015 to 2020 to say, ‘No, Vance, that’s wrong. Do it the other way ‘- and they never did. ”
External oversight, and what it should look like, is part of the mandate for an ongoing independent review of sexual misconduct in the military by retired Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbor, launched by the government earlier this year. Arbor has been asked to submit its final report by next spring.
Saideman said there is no need to wait.
“The Secretary of Defense should do their job without having a retired Supreme Court justice telling them to do their job,” he said.
Eichler would like to see a national public conversation about how Canadians want civilian oversight of their military to look like.
As an example of better oversight, she suggested that the Chief of Defense Staff could also report directly to Parliament and meet regularly in public before the Standing Committee on National Defense to discuss cultural change efforts.
“It’s for me the minimum,” she said. “It just helps to bring these issues to the forefront rather than always coming up when something goes wrong. We have to go beyond the reactive state that the military is in. “
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