Who Defends Defence? or ... Who Defends the Forces?
by Col (ret) George Petrolekas
General Hillier used to say that the Canadian Forces’ relationship with its public was based on a giant reservoir of goodwill – that one could not draw on it without refilling it, or better yet, to not be placed in a position where you had to draw on that goodwill in the first place.
Unfortunately, the last few months have seen the Canadian Forces draw on that goodwill with little done to replace it or vigorously defend the institution when it needed defending the most.
Three recent events should have been responded to with greater vigour, in my humble opinion. The first being the utter belief by some, within hours of Sgt Doiron’s friendly fire death, of the initial Kurdish assertion that Canadians were the authors of their own tragedy. The second was the almost complete rollover and submission to every assertion made in Justice Marie Deschamps’ report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces. And the third being the reaction to a CBC story which asserted that the CDS’s initiating directive for the Whitecross study was somehow to ignore the Deschamps recommendations.
In the Kurdish version of events, and in the assertion that the CF would ignore the Deschamps recommendations, nothing could be further from the truth.
It says much of how the Canadian Forces have become the new whipping post, or in turn that the automatic inclination of many is to believe the assertion of a local Kurdish “general” who placed blame on Canadians for having supposedly shown up to a position unannounced, at night, and having used the wrong passwords and code words.
First of all, media surely recognizes that the first information is almost always wrong. The fact that first reports blaming Canadians emerged within mere hours of the event should have reflexively triggered doubt on the part of many. Instead, the Kurdish assertion was repeated with such frequency that it began to be coloured with a patina of truth to the point where major media outlets dispatched reporters to the scene to abet the Kurdish version.
Of course our media should report countervailing accounts, but they should also question them as vigorously as the CAF response was, in equal measure.
But this is not about the media – in a democracy we should desire and expect our media to question government and its institutions – it is about how tepidly the CAF responded.
In the case of the friendly fire incident, there were certainly alliance politics at play, and without doubt the Forces responded in a correct and mature fashion to say “let’s wait and see what the investigations reveal”. But in doing so, for close to two months, some of the most egregious assertions went unchallenged. For instance, that this was some kind of rogue mission, or that the visit to the Kurdish front line was unplanned.
In another perplexing aspect, the time the investigation took was never explained in comparison to the time investigations take here at home, be they coroner’s or police investigations; why should the Forces investigation into a death be any different?
Surely, the information that it was a planned visit was known early on, and should have been more vigorously stated than it was. This way, the confused public would be informed that the investigation would rest on what went wrong rather than calling the entire mission and the actions of our soldiers into question for over two months.
Response to the Deschamps report is also of concern. There is no doubt that parts of the institution failed the female members of the service on more than one occasion and at many levels – from its lowest level of workplace conditions to more serious and disturbing accounts of misconduct and sexual assault.
However Justice Deschamps took a series of anecdotal accounts and painted the entire Armed Forces with a wide brush as being misogynistic. And these words have been repeated, without challenge, every time the report is referred to.
There is no question that significant problems exist, but is it rampant and viral, affecting the entire culture, or are individual cases sprinkled throughout the entire organization? That clarification makes an important difference to those who have neither abetted, engaged in, or suffered from such abuse – and I think the vast majority of CF members fall into this category, but the report did not provide this critical distinction.
It is difficult to argue against a former Supreme Court justice, especially when she delivered a report that the Canadian Forces itself commissioned. Though Deschamps revealed disturbing instances of abuse, leadership failures, and reluctance by some to address complaints (or worse, by minimizing them), the methodology of the report, as some academics and writers have pointed out, did not provide a statistical basis to understanding the scope of the issue and how broad it is.
The most definitive study of its kind, conducted by RAND, employing some 41 researchers and using a statistical base of some 500,000 U.S. service members was able to point out that there were significant differences between services, and also in components of the Armed Forces, in other words between the Reserve and Active Duty components. It also pointed out that issues of reporting were not simply based on institutional culture. The Deschamps report did point out alternative reporting systems in the United States and Australia, and the importance of creating a system that is independent of the chain of command as a means of breaking down reporting barriers and eliminating fears of professional and social retaliation or even punishments that have occurred.
That suggestion was taken to mean that the entire sequence of reporting, victim assistance, gathering of evidence leading to disciplinary or more serious criminal charges would be removed from the military entirely. In fact, the U.S. example cited by Deschamps doesn’t do that at all, military police still collect evidence needed for a prosecution and military judges try the most serious offences. Not surprisingly, this led to an erroneous report on CBC that the CDS’s initiating directive to MGen Whitecross and its assumption that the “existing investigative and judicial authorities would not change” was proof that the CAF would ignore the Deschamps report recommendations. That was not the case at all.
A reporting mechanism is wholly different than a police-based criminal investigative process and also apart from the final step which is the judicial authority – in other words, the prosecutorial and judicial trial and punishment system.
In plain English, the CDS’s statement meant that the CAF would not form an entirely new police force or replace its military justice system, which has military judges acting in their capacity as Federal Court justices hearing evidence from both a prosecutor and the defence prior to passing judgement. The reporting system on the other hand, would change, creating a system that would permit reporting of a full range of workplace offences and gender bias, up to and including any form of assault, completely outside the chain of command.
What is common in all three events, is that the CAF was unable to defend itself and unable to publically explain its positions in a coherent fashion.
Others were driving the narrative, and official responses were simply “it isn’t true” – without taking the time, or making the effort to explain specifics.
This is about much more than institutional defence, it is about engaging with the public, to whom the CAF and the Government of Canada are ultimately responsible.
By not communicating in the frank and timely manner that used to be a strength of the CF, the organization is drawing on that bank of goodwill, without ultimately replenishing it.
George Petrolekas is a Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the Board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO, and has been an advisor to senior NATO commanders.