Urgent Culture & Procedural Changes Needed for Addressing and Preventing Sexual Assault and Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces

On May 28, 2021, CFUW National President wrote to the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, about concerns for the safety of civilian and military employees of the Canadian Armed Forces & Department of National Defence as a result of systemic sexual misconduct and gender-based violence.

“Re: Urgent Culture & Procedural Changes Needed for Addressing and Preventing Sexual Assault and Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces

Dear Minister Sajjan,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW), a self- funded, non-partisan organization that works to improve the status of women by promoting human rights, public education, social justice and peace in Canada and abroad. One of our foremost issues is working to eradicate violence against women and gender-based violence.

Our organization is deeply dismayed over the lack of action to remedy the systemic problem of sexual harassment and assault of civilian and military employees in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). The most recent allegations of sexual violence in the CAF have again highlighted the urgent need for culture and procedural changes to the way the military handles sexual misconduct within its ranks – an issue that has been repeatedly raised by survivors for decades.

In its 2019 report, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence concluded that there are significant gaps in the CAF’s approach to understanding, responding to, and preventing sexual misconduct. In a 2016 survey, Statistics Canada found that 27.3% of women and 3.8% of men in the Regular Force have been victims of sexual assault at least once since joining the CAF. As the Federal Government launches its second external review into sexual misconduct in six years, survivors have expressed exhaustion and frustration that their longstanding recommendations to address sexual violence have not been fully implemented or simply ignored.

CFUW agrees with the recommendations of survivors, advocates, the 2015 “Deschamps Report”, and the 2019 Senate Committee report that an independent reporting mechanism be established immediately to review and address allegations of sexual misconduct in the CAF. Testimonials from survivors made to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women described how the military justice system fails to hold perpetrators accountable by “pleading down” misconduct to lesser administrative offences. An external process for bringing forward allegations of harassment and violence outside of the military chain of command is crucial to ensuring that victims be taken seriously. Additionally, CFUW stands in solidarity with survivors who have called for the establishment of a national online peer support program and greater supports for in-patient psychiatric care when necessary. As more and more survivors are coming forward, a safety net that focuses on holding perpetrators accountable, seeking justice for survivors, and provides trauma-informed care is increasingly necessary.

There are moral and operational justifications to rooting out sexual misconduct in the CAF. First, fostering a safe, dignified, and respectful environment for all employees demonstrates a strong commitment to human rights and decency which allows for the full and effective participation of marginalized groups. Second, operational effectiveness relies on trusting leaders, teambuilding, and other positive management skills which are all called into question when sexual violence is perpetrated. Leaders who perpetrate sexual misconduct hinder the trust of their subordinates by exhibiting patterns of dehumanization and power abuse and are more likely to dehumanize and abuse those under their command in other instances. Working to end patterns of sexual harassment and assault in the CAF will ultimately benefit the institution’s operational effectiveness by increasing trust and accountability and will create safer spacers for women and other marginalized groups.

If Canada seeks to take a “feminist approach” to the military by increasing the number of women in the CAF, substantive steps must be taken to enact a broader culture change to ensure their safety from sexual misconduct. Simply increasing women’s participation in the military is not enough to change a culture that does not treat men and women equally – in fact, it puts women in harm’s way.

CFUW urges you to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual misconduct by fully implementing the recommendations of the Deschamps Report and the 2019 Senate Committee Report which provide a framework of safety, justice, and accountability in the CAF.”

Click here to read the full letter.

On July 12, Minister Sajjan responded to our concerns with an invitation to a Ministerial consultation with other stakeholders for a discussion on the Ministry’s current initiatives on culture change in the CAF.