On May 30, 2022, Louise Arbour, a former Supreme Court Justice and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered her powerful report, the Independent External Comprehensive Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
In her report, Arbour sheds light on the causes for the continued presence of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). She writes,
“Firmly entrenched in its historical way of life, the military has failed to keep pace with the values and expectations of a pluralistic Canadian society, increasingly sophisticated about the imperatives of the rule of law. Operating as a totally self-regulated, self-administered organization, entirely reliant on deference to hierarchy, it has failed to align with the ever-changing, progressive society we live in.”
Describing the Canadian military as espousing “the glorification of masculinity as the only acceptable operational standard for CAF members,” Arbour further notes, “When thinking about culture change in response to the sexual misconduct crisis, the CAF leadership seems to have been incapable of examining which aspects of its culture have been the most deficient. In none of the initiatives it has launched, is there a single reflection on whether its insular, hierarchical structures may have facilitated the abuse of power that characterizes most sexual misconduct.”
Arbour’s recommendations call for a sweeping change in how the Canadian military addresses sexual misconduct.
As she noted in a press conference releasing the report, “I see no basis for the Canadian armed forces to retain any jurisdiction over sexual offences and that jurisdiction should be vested exclusively with civilian authorities.” Her recommendations include:
- permanently transferring all sexual assault investigations to the civilian criminal legal system, instead of having them investigated by military prosecutors and the military legal system.
- transferring sexual harassment complaints to the federal Human Rights Tribunal, and stripping the Canadian Armed Forces of its ability to object to any complaint related to sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of sex that is brought forward to the Tribunal.
- updated definitions of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.
- an end to training military officers at the Royal Military Colleges in Kingston and St. Jean, which breed a “culture of misconduct” and maintain a “continued prevalence of sexual misconduct.”
Investigations into military sexual assault in Canada are not new.
At least six top military officials are currently facing investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service for sexual assault, sexual misconduct, indecent acts, and/or obstruction of justice.
In 2016, seven former members of the Canadian Armed Forces initiated class action lawsuits (commonly referred to as the “Heyder and Beattie Class Actions”) against the Government of Canada alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct in connection with their military service and employment with the Department of National Defence. In 2015, an External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces was undertaken, and a key finding was that “there is an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”
In 2021, retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps who led the 2015 external review, criticized the Canadian Armed Forces for not having done more to address sexual misconduct and for letting her recommendations gather dust for six years.
Even further back, dating back to 1998, women who were sexually assaulted in the Canadian Forces were speaking out. For example, 19-year Dawn Thomson reported being raped in her sleep, while another man watched on. A media investigation into Dawn’s sexual assault and a number of other similar incidents found that women in the Canadian Forces “are often little more than game for sexual predators,” and further found “a systematic mishandling of sexual assault cases: investigations were perfunctory, the victims were not believed and often they—not the perpetrators—were punished by senior officers who either looked the other way or actively tried to impede investigations.”
A recent academic study of sexual assault trials conducted by the Canadian military over the past twenty years reveals some disturbing trends. Since 2015, only one soldier has been convicted of sexually assaulting a female member of the Canadian Armed Forces by Canada’s military legal system. The military legal system also has a substantially different acquittal and conviction rate than civilian criminal courts, which are already so dismal. This horrific culture of impunity and military sexual assault is pervasive around the world. In the US military, for example, approximately 38% of female and 4% of male military personnel have experienced military sexual trauma, and, in 2018, one in four active-duty women officers were sexually harassed – the majority by someone in their chain of command.
In 2018, 20,500 service members in total were sexually assaulted or raped, representing an almost 40% jump in two years. Only a small minority of victims chose to report the violence and most of them faced retaliation, including one-third of victims being discharged after reporting. Further, despite a 23% increase in sexual assault reports since 2015, convictions have plummeted by almost 80% in the same timeframe.
The prevalence of military sexual assault parallels the misogyny embedded within the RCMP in terms of its treatment of women police officers and women employed by the RCMP.
“Broken Dreams, Broken Lives: The Devastating Effects of Sexual Harassment On Women in the RCMP” was authored by former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache in 2020 after a class-action settlement that saw more than 3,000 RCMP women officers file claims for compensation for sexual harassment within the RCMP.
In his review, Bastarache found that the sexual harassment of women RCMP officers cannot be seen as a problem attributed to a few individual “bad apples.” In his wide-ranging and scathing report, Bastarache stressed “For more than 30 years there have been calls to fix sexual harassment in the RCMP. Internal and external reports have been delivered both to the RCMP and the Government of Canada outlining a toxic work environment for women and LGBTQ2S+ persons employed by the RCMP. It is well past time for the Government of Canada to take meaningful and radical action to address these issues.”
Similar to Arbour’s depiction of military culture, Bastarache notes “the traditional, paramilitary, male-dominated culture of the RCMP has given rise to too many incidents of harassment, bullying and an apparent refusal to acknowledge the realities of a diverse society and workforce.”
Finally, it is crucial to remember that this violent sexual assault within the Canadian military exists alongside and as an extension of sexual assault, gendered violence, and rape by the military as a key instrument of empire, colonialism, war, white supremacy, and domination.
Conflict-related sexual violence is defined by the United Nations as “incidents or patterns of sexual violence, that is rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity against women, men or children.”
As a decolonial, intersectional, and anti-racist feminist organization, we don’t believe that feminist equity for some can come at the expense of life and freedom for others. Revoking the license to rape within the ranks of the military is simply not enough when the military maintains a license to kill. We remember those like Shidane Abukar Arone, a sixteen-year Somalia teenager who was beaten and tortured to death by Canadian soldiers in Somalia. Arone’s last words were reported to be “Canada! Canada! Canada!”
We echo the words of Lucas Edmond: “It will be fundamentally impossible to solve a culture issue in an institutional environment that pays people to commit and morally justify heinous acts of violence abroad. The violence people are trained to conduct in conflict zones permeates internally, creating victims within the CAF’s own ranks.”
Elizabeth Mesok of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Basel similarly writes, “By collapsing military sexual violence within a broader campaign for military women’s equality, rape is conceptualized as a violent action against women, rather than an act of gendered and militarized violence endemic to a hyperaggressive military culture.”
Militarism reproduces and enforces gender-based violence because militarism is itself ideologically rooted in masculinist and patriarchal violence to dominate, dehumanize, and subjugate.
The Center for Women’s Leadership at Rutger’s University describes “Militarism as an ideology creates a culture of fear and supports the use of aggression, violence, and military interventions for settling disputes and enforcing economic and political interests. Militarism privileges violent forms of masculinity, which often has grave consequences for the safety and security of women, children, men, and society as a whole … A culture of militarism is built over time through the construction of the “enemy,” the indoctrination of children, and the creation of myths about the nation as well as “the other”. As a result, militarism is linked to nationalism. Feminist theory and action provide means of both analyzing and opposing militarism and its links to violence against women. It enables an analysis of the power relations that buttress militarism and exposes the ways in which male violence is constructed as a legitimate form of control. In addition to providing analytical tools for deconstructing militarism, feminism also challenges normative views of peace. For feminists, peace is the absence of all violence, including all forms of gender-based violence.”