Kathryn Marshall: To the women who allege sexual misconduct in the military, Trudeau offers only platitudes

For all the women serving in the Forces, the past few weeks must have felt like a slap in the face

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This year has already been disastrous for Canadian institutions. First, it was Rideau Hall that came crashing down in a bullying and toxic workplace scandal. Now, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is engrossed in a scandal that involves sexual misconduct at the highest levels.

What these two scandals have in common is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s terrible judgment, the Prime Minster’s Office’s (PMO) abyssal vetting process and the government failing to take action on a plethora of issues that it pays much lip service to.

The CAF meltdown, like the Rideau Hall implosion, is completely unprecedented. It all started a few weeks ago, when it was reported that the previous chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who retired in January, was the subject of allegations of inappropriate conduct with two of his female subordinates. He denied the allegations.

But then one of the women, Maj. Kellie Brennan, bravely came forward to the media with a bombshell story that illustrates just how rampant sexual violence and harassment is in the CAF, and how it all gets swept under the rug. She talked about inappropriate behaviour, being passed over for promotions and being stonewalled into silence. Disturbingly, she described an incident in which she was raped by another member of the military in a violent assault.

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By this time, the alarm siren was probably going full tilt over at the PMO. And then it got a whole lot worse. Vance’s replacement, Admiral Art McDonald, who had only assumed the role this year, suddenly stepped down. As it turns out, he too was under investigation for inappropriate conduct with a female subordinate.

Luckily for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, he already had some talking points that he had used just a few days earlier to handle the Vance scandal. About McDonald’s exit, he said: “As I have stated, I take all allegations of misconduct seriously and continue to take strong action on any allegation of misconduct that is brought forward.”

Evidently not. According to media reports, a former military ombudsman made Sajjan aware of the concerns surrounding Vance in 2018. In response, the Privy Council Office (PCO) stated that, “No information was provided to PCO which would have enabled further action to have been taken.” Notably, that isn’t a denial. It is simply bureaucratic speak for “we had some knowledge but didn’t do anything.” Infer from it what you will.

And what about McDonald? He was appointed as chief of defence staff with a mandate to reform the culture at the CAF. At his swearing in, he even apologized to military members who had ever felt discriminated against or harassed. It resulted in lots of splashy headlines, but seems wholly insincere now.

The question must now be asked: did the government have information about McDonald, as well, that it also chose not to act on before he was appointed? The entire purpose of the vetting process is to find out about a person’s history, to ensure that person is suitable for the role. If the PMO knew about the allegations of inappropriate conduct involving Vance and McDonald, then Canadians have a right to know.

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For all the women serving in the Forces, the past few weeks have undoubtedly been horrific for morale and must have felt like a slap in the face. To them, Trudeau offered only his standard platitudes, talking calmly about how every person deserves a safe work environment.

Mr. Prime Minister: we are talking about a woman who said she was raped in the military; spare us your platitudes and finally take some action.

In 2015, an external review was undertaken into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the CAF. Known as the Deschamps report, it recommended that the CAF have an external entity conduct investigations into complaints of sexual misconduct. This recommendation has never been implemented. But it should, as there is an inherent problem with the CAF policing itself, especially given the fact that members of the highest ranks are alleged to have committed sexual misconduct.

Vance assumed the role of chief of defence staff in 2015. Could he have been part of the opposition to having a third party conduct investigations into harassment taking place within our Armed Forces?

If one thing is clear, it’s that this is far from over. Mercedes Stephenson from Global News, who broke this story, said her inbox has been flooded with emails from women who want to share their own stories of sexism, harassment and assault in the Forces. I am sure their stories will be told, too. And Trudeau better have more than just words for them.

National Post

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