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Military leaders must move fast to address ‘sexualized culture’

by David Bercuson

The Globe and Mail
May 4, 2015

Last Thursday, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued the a report on the state of women and LGBTQ members of the Canadian Armed Forces and found much to complain about. Based on interviews and discussions with some 700 CAF personnel, Ms. Deschamps declared that the Canadian Armed Forces harbor a “sexualized culture” that turns a blind eye in cases of misbehavior towards women and gays that ranges from inappropriate language to sexual assault.

The investigation’s methodology can be criticized for skewing its own results. Between the regular forces and the reserves there are some 100,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces of whom some 10,000 are women. Some are fighter pilots or belong to front line combat units, most serve in ancillary services or at sea. So the Deschamps commission listened to some 7 per cent of the total of women who serve. It is hard to see how Ms. Deschamps can claim that “there is not a female who has not had a problem” without hearing from the other 9,300.

How widespread is the problem? Even with the evidence presented by the report, it is hard to know. Anecdotal evidence of harassment has circulated for years and a number of cases have been unearthed that have brought courts martial. Officially, then, neither the Canadian Armed Forces nor the government condones such misbehavior and the military, through the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson and other high ranking officers have promised to root out such misogynistic behavior.

The Deschamp report raises three key questions that the military and the government must address without delay. First, to what extent does the evidence uncovered by the report reveal a widespread pattern of behavior rooted in a machismo Canadian military (especially army) culture? In other words just how widespread is the problem? If it is as widespread as Ms. Deschamps claims, it is only a matter of time before the CAF is rocked by a scandal at least as major as the Somalia Affair of the mid-1990s, something that Canada’s military can ill afford.

The Somalia Affair threw up a wall of distrust between Canadians and their military (mostly the army) which cast the army as a bunch of hooligans who did not represent the values or behavior of Canadian generally. It showed that while Canada had evolved to become a rights-based, tolerant and educated society, the army in particular had gone the other way. Some high ranking military officials and the then Liberal government knew that a deeply demoralized, even despised military, would lead to a deep undermining of Canada’s ability to defend itself or its allies. A decade of reform followed – forced by the government – which has greatly changed the face of the Canadian military. But perhaps those changes did not go far enough in regard to women and the LGBTQ community.

The second key question is this: If the problem is widespread what can be done about it? The answer is not easy because armies exist to prepare for and fight wars and wars involve breaking things and killing people. The army wants aggressive warriors, at least at the front end where the bloody business goes on, and historically, the manliness of these people is rewarded. Manliness and sensitivity to the rights of women and gays is hard to reconcile.

Finally, if the problem is widespread, the military runs the risk of alienating itself from Canadian citizens. The result will be fewer volunteers, less willingness to spend money on defence, less support among Canadians, less tolerance towards the military generally. In a liberal democratic country, such consequences are major dangers to national security.

And what if the report exaggerates the problem of misogynistic behavior in the military? The report’s results and recommendations still warrant immediate and effective action. Canadians would not tolerate 700 cases of sexual harassment from the employees of any major private corporation or government agency. There is no place for sexual or gender discrimination in modern Canada. Not only is it morally wrong, but it is an anchor on the development of society. The western world was once content to utilize the 50 per cent of the population that is male to run its governments, corporations and its military. For the last forty or so years, the other 50 per cent – women and sexual minorities – have forced their way into the big tent and we are all better off for it. There is no turning back now, for female heart surgeons or combat infantry.

 

 


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