Sexual Violence by Military Leaders: The Canadian Leadership Crisis

Content Warning: This blog contains content related to sexual violence and sexual assault.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is steeped in a culture of sexual misconduct. CAF leadership has allowed an environment of sexual misconduct to fester for decades, stretching from military colleges through every branch of the military.

Photo: United States Army / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Thirteen top commanders have been accused and charged with sexual harassment and assault since the crisis gained widespread public attention in February 2021. Following its failure to address both the culture of sexual assault and harassment as well as fulfil their responsibility to hold perpetrators accountable, the Canadian Armed Forces faces a leadership crisis; a crisis unprecedented among NATO countries.

Experts Commissioned to Compile Recommendations

In an attempt to address the longstanding problem, branches of the Canadian Government have produced reports including numerous recommendations on sexual misconduct in the Armed forces – yet little has changed. In 2015, the Honourable Marie Deschamps of the External Review Authority authored the report External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces, commonly known as the Deschamps Report (Government of Canada, March 2015). Experts were shocked when a senior military official announced in a 2021 parliamentary committee that all ten recommendations had been implemented; in particular, Deschamps recommended a central data collection effort, a so-called “centre for accountability,” be formed – such a centre does not exist (Toronto Star, April 2021). The Deschamps Report was followed by the 2019 report Sexual Harassment and Violence in The Canadian Armed Forces, which contains eight additional recommendations. This report was followed by yet another report in 2022, led by former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, which resulted in 48 recommendations (Government of Canada, June 2022). Until the Government and Armed Forces implements the dozens of recommendations put forth in the last several reports, a culture of sexual misconduct and impunity will likely remain embedded within the Canadian Armed Forces.

One of Arbour’s recommendations is to remove the military’s power to investigate cases of sexual misconduct. Instead, she suggests, transferring power to civilian courts. Prior to 1998, members of the CAF were able to file complaints and rely on the civilian justice system. Post-1998, however, members of the Armed Forces were required to use the military justice system to lodge complaints of sexual harassment and/or assault; this is problematic for two reasons. First, as stated in the 2019 report, civilian courts and civilian judges are better trained and have more experience than military courts in dealing with sexual crimes (Government of Canada, May 2019). Secondly, the Armed Forces has proven it is unable to reliably, ethically, and efficiently handle allegations of sexual crimes. Military courts lack transparency, and the Armed Forces has not provided any evidence it can be trusted to handle such cases, as for example, the case brought against Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson.

Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, formerly head of military human resources, a position with the power to advise on administering consequences to those accused of sexual misconduct, was charged with sexual assault and indecent acts in 2021 (CBC, December 2021). Former military member Stéphanie Viau was 19-years old when then lieutenant commander Edmundson exposed his genitals to her while deployed. In a separate assault he forcibly undressed and raped her. A culture of silence, lack of support from the chain of command, and fear of reprisals stopped Viau from reporting the assault at the time; however, she wasn’t the only one Edmundson targeted. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, others reported incidents about Edmundson, yet none were properly followed up or investigated (CBC, March 2021).

Prior to charges laid against Vice-Admiral Edmundson, Retired General Jonathan Vance, former Chief of the Defence Staff, was the first in a series of leaders who recently faced allegations, spurring national attention and a class action lawsuit. Vance faced two counts of sexual misconduct and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for continuously attempting to persuade a subordinate he had a sexual relationship with to make false statements. Vance faces additional charges of misconduct involving multiple women in the Armed Forces.

Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, was terminated in November 2021 following sexual misconduct allegations and an investigation by military police. Despite reports that he pushed a male crew member’s face into a junior female crew member’s breasts during a military exercise, Admiral McDonald publicly campaigned for his job back and argued he should be able to take command of the Armed Forces (CBC, October 2021).

Lieutenant-General Trevor Cadieu, who was supposed to be appointed Commander of the Canadian Army in Fall 2021, instead retired amidst an investigation over two sexual assault allegations. Cadieu was charged with two counts of sexual assault in spring 2022.

A culture of sexual misconduct – and impunity – is nothing new to the CAF. From the experiences of the first female infantry officer, Sandra Perron (Macleans, 2017) to a journalist investigation in 1998 (Macleans, 1998), both the CAF and the public has long been aware of the pervasive nature of military sexual violence and impunity. Moreover, accusations made by Indigenous personnel, personnel of colour, or queer personnel are less likely to be taken seriously or investigated.

While top leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces are in the spotlight for their misconduct, the culture doesn’t stop at the top. At least 19,000 women in, or retired from, the Canadian Armed Forces have disclosed instances of sexual harassment or assault by fellow members of the Canadian Armed Forces. In 2019, a CAD$900 million (approximately 6.9 billion Norwegian Kroner) class-action lawsuit was filed, including 19,000 claims of military sexual harassment. As part of the class-action’s settlement, Defence Minister Anita Anand, together with General Wayne Eyre and the Deputy Defence Minister offered apologies to survivors of military sexual harassment in 2021.

Wide-spread reforms are needed within CAF, including transparent implementation of the recommendations put forth in all reports. Simply dismissing top military leaders and dealing with sexual misconduct on an individual level will not solve the systemic problem of an environment conducive to sexual harassment and impunity. The CAF must not only signal its commitment to addressing the Armed Forces’ culture of impunity, but actually commit to changing it. The Canadian Armed Forces is weaker, both at home and abroad, without comprehensive structural changes.


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