Unlearning and Reflection: Educating Culture in the Canadian Armed Forces


Image credit: Corporal Marco Tijam, Forces armées canadiennes


by Marshall Gerbrandt
August 2023


Table of Contents


Members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are inculcated with the institution’s history and culture from basic training until they leave. This includes espoused values, ethos and principles alongside those in use. Socialization occurs in formal and informal settings. However, a disconnect exists when espoused values speak to an inclusive environment but are contradicted by past and present actions and experience. It is in this space, the place between espoused and experienced values, that longstanding systemic issues related to sexual misconduct, discrimination and exclusionary practices continue to occur. Recent scandals and external reports such as those by Deschamps,1 Arbour2 and the ministerial report focused on racism3 reinforce a need for the CAF to undertake institutional cultural reforms. Yet, previous efforts to address culture and attempts to incorporate under-represented groups (i.e., women, LGBTQIA2S+ and Indigenous peoples) were ineffective.4 This signals a need to move beyond check-in-the-box pedagogy and look towards a praxis that fosters learning and unlearning. Individual change will not occur via online learning completed in isolation or through simple transmission of facts and definitions. Instead, I suggest change is more likely to occur when the institution approaches its members as adult learners.

In contrast to providing occupational training, education focused on institutional culture is a more difficult endeavour. In Canadian Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve,5 a publication that articulates the Canadian military’s values and beliefs, an institutional culture evolution seeks to achieve an environment of mutual respect, dignity and inclusion of all, while also emphasizing the role of leaders. Institutional approaches to learning struggle to address the less tangible, such as an individual’s beliefs and attitudes when they run counter to its espoused values. Often these learning efforts are conducted in isolation (e.g., GBA+ asynchronous online training), made available with limited capacity (e.g., Respect in the CAF) or delivered among a series of annual briefs that need to be explored again the following year. The CAF does not adopt a one-and-done approach to occupational health and safety, flight safety6 or lessons learned. Does the relatively infrequent nature of conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion suggest culture is easier to change?

The importance of leadership and education is noted throughout Trusted to Serve, but how one ought to approach changing an individual’s beliefs and attitudes is absent. Adopting the position that culture change can be explored as an adult-learning problem, this paper seeks to examine how members learn formally about the institution’s espoused culture and suggests ways to move beyond traditional approaches focused on one-way transmission of information without – or with limited – opportunities for individual reflection and deeper learning. This paper will draw attention to two necessary ingredients to achieve the CAF’s stated goals. To do so, the military will have to approach its members as adult learners, which entails: (1) unlearning, i.e., the need to recognize the CAF’s role as an agent of past and present harm in a way comparable to learning about unit or branch history; and (2) reflection and the importance of positionality. To provide context for the proposed approach to learning, an overview of CAF education and training in general followed by recent efforts to address culture and conduct is provided. 

Acknowledging the importance of one’s position or standpoint, I recognize that my privilege – beyond rank – shapes what I have and continue to see and experience, which is able, white, male and one which conforms to institutional norms. Retiring as an artillery major, for much of my career I thought my experience was the experience. Of course, I thought this. From my vantage point, I was able to see myself in my superiors, subordinates and peers. This also meant that they likely understood my experience and concerns and took this into account when making decisions, but what about the concerns of those whose experience differed? Alongside the Deschamps report, which re-highlighted longstanding systemic issues related to sexual misconduct, discrimination and exclusionary practices, I progressed in rank, age and life and started to recognize how others experienced the military. Why is this important and how is it relevant? I recognize my experience does not compare to those who were and are excluded based upon diverse identities and systemic inequities. I also acknowledge the importance of understanding these issues as foundational to achieving the goal of an inclusive institution. Further, this acknowledgment of positionality contributes to the process of culture change simply by causing members to acknowledge who they are and how that contributes to their individual experience.


A Learning Organization

When an individual joins the CAF and attends basic training until they leave or retire, they participate in formal and informal training and education. Understandably, military members need to acquire a variety of knowledge and skills to do their jobs. The CAF provides this through education, training and experience. Trusted to Serve speaks to the need for institution-wide culture change. It also reinforces the institution’s belief that leaders are integral to modernizing it. This raises questions about how these future CAF leaders are educated. It is also important to note that the people leading and institutionalizing culture change are often those who participated in and benefited from the existing structure. Trusted to Serve speaks to the military as a continuous-learning organization and identifies a need to socialize its membership with its institutional ethos. However, it recognizes that professional military education alone is not sufficient and that “[e]ffective socialization of the ethos requires leaders to have frank and open discussions.”7 This raises the question as to whether current educational efforts really differ from their predecessors beyond updated content. Acknowledging that culture change requires members to learn about and engage with their institution’s ethos, this section briefly describes training and education in the CAF and identifies how existing systems may be problematic to achieving this aim.


Professional Development System

The CAF considers itself a continuous-learning organization with an established professional development system. The Canadian Forces Professional Development System (CFPDS) is rooted in doctrine and policy. At its foundation, the CFPDS consists of three parts. There is a professional body of knowledge that is made up of: (1) core knowledge, the military art or science of employing and supporting ships, jets and tanks; (2) supporting knowledge, which allows the organization to conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict; and (3) specialized knowledge, focused on those occupations required by the military but regulated by external professional associations such as doctors. Embedded in these knowledge types are war fighting skills which enable CAF members to operate across the full spectrum of military operations (i.e., from peacekeeping to war between nations) and leadership competencies. These competencies are developed within a leader development framework and represent the skills necessary to lead various sized groups and potentially the institution.8 These ideas, and their associated doctrines and policies, represent the foundation upon which the four pillars of CAF professional development are based.

Education is “the provision of a body of knowledge and intellectual skill sets, upon which judgement among competing facts, information and ideas can be critically examined, assessed and interpreted.” In contrast, training is “the provision of specific skills, knowledge and attitudes required to perform assigned tasks and duties.”9 Training normally has a narrow focus. It ensures individual students learn the necessary skills to perform assigned duties while education provides a broader skill set conducive to more abstract problems. While the CFPDS is well-suited to develop and measure occupational competencies, it may be insufficient to measure changes in individual attitudes and beliefs. This raises questions about which pedagogical approaches are best suited to the ideas that underpin CAF values and ethos. Using the institution’s own definitions, I suggest this form of learning must occur through education rather than training. This is not to diminish the importance of training or the complexity of tasks it can entail. Rather, it recognizes that instruction and conversations around an institution’s ethos and values are much more abstract. Moving towards an inclusive mindset does not necessarily lend itself to a right and wrong binary.


Culture and Conduct Education

Education and training related to conduct and culture in the CAF ranges from mandatory online offerings to voluntary in-person sessions. Drawing upon my own experiences as both teacher and student, I will look at three such offerings: (1) Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+), an asynchronous online course; (2) Respect in the CAF (RitCAF), a one-day in-person workshop; and (3) Conversations on Defence Ethics (CODE), a half-day in-person or online small-group session. This is not meant to be an extensive analysis of each course. Instead, my aim is to look at how these courses engage adult learners and contribute to learning. To achieve this, I will draw upon Knowles’ assumptions about adult learners and Garrison et al.’s Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework.


Adult Learner Assumptions

In differentiating the instruction of adults from children, Malcolm Knowles put forward six assumptions about the adult learner.10 They are:

  • Self-concept: Adults need to know why they ought to learn something;
  • Learning from experience: Adults learn from experience and want to use it as a foundation for future learning;
  • Readiness to learn: Learning must matter and be relevant to their circumstances;
  • Immediate applications: Adults want to use knowledge immediately rather than in the future; thus, learning is often focused on a specific task or problem;
  • Internally motivated: Adults tend to need to be motivated intrinsically; and
  • Need to know: Adults need to understand the “why” behind their learning and the value of it.11

These assumptions focus on an internally motivated and self-directed learner guided by an educator who facilitates their learning. This is problematic, and Knowles’ critics rightly identify these assumptions as individualistic and ignorant of the relationships between the individual and society.12 While remaining mindful of their limitations, these assumptions are useful when examining recent courses.


Community of Inquiry

Originally conceived to improve online learning, the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework fosters deep and meaningful learning through critical discourse and reflection in a collaborative environment. CoI’s relevance goes beyond the online space and has expanded and been explored in blended and face-to-face learning environments. Given its applicability across learning modalities, it represents a useful tool to both examine existing educational efforts and frame potential options. The CoI framework consists of three overlapping presences which, when combined, seek to create a “meaningful educational experience.”13 First, cognitive presence speaks to the extent to which students construct meaning through sustained communication and depends of course upon the medium used. Second, social presence speaks to learners’ ability to project their personal characteristics into the CoI. This allows peers to perceive them as real persons within the digital domain.14 Third, teaching presence is the design, delivery and direction of both cognitive and social aspects with the intent to achieve meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning.15 When combined, the three overlapping presences – cognitive, teaching and social – contribute to meaningful learning. Together, they foster and support critical thinking.


Gender-Based Analysis Plus

Offered by Women and Gender Equality Canada, the GBA+ course discusses key concepts around how identity and other social factors influence and affect people differently.16 Completed in isolation, this course provides foundational knowledge but lacks any formalized teacher or peer interaction to discuss or confirm learning. This is a mandatory course for CAF members and was introduced around 2016. I saw low levels of individual engagement, motivation was extrinsic and its relevance, due to its Government of Canada focus, to those in uniform was not necessarily understood or communicated. At the time, GBA+ was viewed as more mandatory training where statistics speaking to completion rates were much more important than comprehension of content. Rachael Johnstone and Bessma Momani took a deeper look at implementing GBA+ in the defence team and noted that it has not contributed to learning or perhaps the transformation envisioned.17 This means it’s possible that current GBA+ educational efforts and practices create expectations that don’t align with operational realities.  

Contrasting GBA+ and its focus on a much broader audience, a NATO course focused on integrating gender perspectives is a mandatory requirement to deploy internationally.18 While the delivery methods of both courses are the same (i.e., no social and limited teaching presence), the NATO course was better positioned to engage with adult learners. Information was presented in the context of improving operational effectiveness which speaks to a learner’s self-concept (i.e., the why) alongside the potential for immediate application. While the NATO course draws upon ideas comparable to GBA+, they are presented to military members in relevant circumstances. Put another way, NATO approaches this subject in a relatable and less abstract manner.


Respect in the CAF

Respect in the CAF is a voluntary, in-person, one-day workshop. It focuses on developing a respectful climate in the military through awareness and understanding.19 While GBA+ lacked social and teaching presence, the RitCAF workshop used qualified instructors to speak to and engage with military members in a small group setting. Participants had an opportunity to engage with material and converse with one another. By incorporating all three presences, this approach fosters meaningful learning. Although this workshop was limited in time and the ability to formally sustain dialogue, it provided an opportunity to engage adult learners. It is well positioned to provide immediately useable knowledge and given its voluntary nature, likely draws students who are ready to learn. Unfortunately, the affordances offered by specialized instructors speaking to small groups represent constraints in increasing access.


Conversations on Defence Ethics

Conversations on Defence Ethics or CODE is a mandatory program that uses ethical scenarios to foster discussion about relevant issues, such as sexual misconduct and racism among peers in a small-group setting.20 CODE offers the potential to draw upon all three CoI presences. Whether in-person or online, a facilitator guides the group through a series of questions and scenarios. This permits peer-to-peer and peer-to-facilitator interaction. Whereas trained instructors led RitCAF, CODE facilitators prepare by attending a CODE session as a participant and the provision of a facilitators’ guidebook. While the guidebook provides scenarios and does a good job explaining how to lead these sessions, there is an unstated expectation that facilitators will have the necessary beliefs and understanding – vocabulary, historical context and present reality – to engage members beyond a superficial level.21 In contrast to RitCAF, CODE provides greater access to members and the potential for continued and sustained discussions in a way that an external workshop does not. However, this decision is not neutral, and more attention ought to be given to preparing facilitators beyond program content. When I was a facilitator, moving through scenarios was not difficult as objectives, questions and the linkages to CAF policies were clearly laid out. Upon conclusion, one would easily walk away knowing racism is bad and sexual misconduct is not acceptable. Of course, this approach – both questions and facilitator training – lacks the depth to engage with why racism, sexism and homophobia (to name only a few) exist in the CAF. This raises the question as to when and where these issues are discussed. If not communicated formally to those in the profession of arms, it might become apparent how those charged with institutional stewardship continue to reproduce the status quo.

Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach (GBA+), providing limited access (RitCAF) or simply starting the conversation (CODE) represent progress in the CAF. Each of these three courses was designed for a specific purpose and particular audience and each contributes to an over-arching conversation around conduct and culture. These are good signs, but they also demonstrate a need to reflect upon these efforts and consider the role they play in reducing the gap between espoused values and those experienced every day. Maintaining the need to approach conduct and culture as an adult learning problem, I believe this means learners must be allowed and encouraged to confront dominant narratives from a position of knowledge while considering institutional structures of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and systemic inequalities. 


A Learning Approach

By approaching instruction from an adult-learning perspective, specifically ideas around motivation, need-to-know and self-concept, the relevance and impact of this education is brought to the forefront. Directing attention both inward (i.e., personal beliefs and individual reflection) and towards the institution (i.e., structural inequalities, policies and actions) may require an act of unlearning. It must also be acknowledged that confronting and considering how one’s beliefs, attitudes and practices can adversely affect people can cause friction. This may manifest as opposition or reluctance to accept facts, or manifest as one reflects upon their institution and their role within it.22 However, by omitting difficult concepts or failing to accurately name issues one might avoid friction at the cost of actual learning.

This conceptual framework consists of two parts. First, there is a sequential element (i.e., gaining knowledge precedes positioning oneself). This draws upon the need to meet learners where they are and commence from a common starting point towards a place that permits individual reflection. Second, while each step tackles a specific idea or concept, it is important to note that each has a similar approach. I will first describe the shared component before moving on to the sequential steps. While content is important and discussed, my primary aim focuses on how the depth of knowledge is transmitted and engaged with through instructor-student interaction.

The ideas that underpin this approach are informed by Sensoy and DiAngelo’s work around social justice education,23 by Greco and von Hlatky’s thoughts on equity, diversity and inclusion in professional military education,24 Brown’s work speaking to the transformative potential of feminist perspectives in military education25 and Brown and Okros’ assessment on the need for military professionals to develop cultural competence and the role heutagogy can play.26


Common Components

Recognizing the courses’ limitations, education must provide military members with knowledge, tangible examples and opportunity to engage with concepts and ideas. This recognizes the adult learners’ need to make sense by drawing upon their own experience while presenting issues of inclusion as both real and ongoing even if our own biases initially obscure them from our view. The following occurs in each stage (see Figure 1):

  • Foundational knowledge: Exploring theory and institutional history – this is where (un)learning occurs;
  • Individual awareness: Using this newfound knowledge to recognize how who we are shapes our experience;
  • Awareness of the institution: Recognizing how the CAF privileges and oppresses individuals as an institution – this awareness speaks to the need to reflect upon our own actions and roles in the institution; and
  • Invitational practice: Seeks to engage individuals in the subject through personal experience. By exploring these ideas in each stage, one can draw upon the ideas of andragogy to motivate and engage the adult learner.

Figure 1. Aspects for Consideration Within Each Step



Figure 2. Moving From Individual Awareness to Understanding Community


Sequential Steps

This conceptual framework aims to meet an individual where they are and move from self-recognition to understanding community to fostering a more inclusive environment (see Figure 2 above). At each step (see Table 1 below for a detailed explanation), participants are presented with foundational knowledge related to a particular idea or concept, such as the differences between fact and anecdote or oppression and prejudice. Building upon potentially newfound knowledge, participants are now positioned to identify what this means to them as individuals as well as to the CAF as an institution. Finally, both instructor (or facilitator) and participant engage one another through dialogue.

Table 1. Overview of Sequential Steps

Step 1
Opinion and Knowledge
Effective education will challenge institutional discourse, our own views about ourselves, what we think we know about society and how it works based upon our place within it. Effective education is based in knowledge rather than opinion. Opinion is personal whereas knowledge is based upon a common understanding. Recognizing the difference between anecdotal evidence and peer-reviewed research is important. By examining and distinguishing these differences, subsequent conversations can be grounded in fact rather than anecdote or platitudes.
Step 2
Position Ourselves
Positionality recognizes where one is in relation to others in society. It shapes what an individual can see and understand about the world. Understanding who you are contributes to understanding others, but also how you are advantaged and/or disadvantaged within the institution. It is also important to recognize that many of these categories are socially constructed (i.e., gender) and have evolved over time. While this could be viewed as a superficial step, it is not. This reflection will enable one to recognize themselves as part of larger groups.
Step 3
Groups and Identities
Understanding the relationship between you as an individual (your position) and the social groups you belong to (e.g., race and class) permits acknowledgment of how you relate to the dominant group. It also involves recognizing “that our ideas, views, and opinions are not simply individual … but rather are the result of social messages and conditioning.”27 Another aspect involves moving beyond anecdotal evidence and instead, recognizes patterns of systemic inequities.
Step 4
Prejudice and Discrimination
Prejudice is learned pre-judgment about members of social groups to which the individual does not belong and is most often based upon limited knowledge or experience. Prejudice is a combination of stereotypes and values, whereas discrimination refers to prejudice plus action against a particular group.
Step 5
Power and Oppression
Oppression is the prejudice and discrimination of one social group against another, backed by institutional power while hegemony is the dominant group imposing their ideology (i.e., their culture and values) upon everyone. Sexism (i.e., cis-men oppressing women) and racism (i.e., white people oppressing people of colour) are common examples but it also includes ideas of colonialism and heterosexism to name a few.
Step 6
Understanding Inclusion
This culminating step, understanding inclusion, or put another way, understanding others, is only possible if individuals recognize who they are and how that affects how they see and are seen in the world. An inclusive environment rejects hateful, discriminatory and hurtful behaviour and conduct and an inclusive environment is what the CAF desires.



This paper puts forth an option to engage adult learners in the subject of conduct and culture as it relates to recognized issues in the CAF. I suggest individual change is more likely to occur by approaching military members as adult learners. By considering and drawing upon the principles of andragogy, instructors might help individuals understand the necessity of education related to culture and conduct rather than simply seeing it as a check in the box. Fundamental to this approach is understanding who you are and reflecting upon how one is privileged or oppressed and what socially constructed characteristics contribute to this. Using positionality as a starting point, core issues with the CAF can be identified and confronted. While it does not address where one ought to inject this information, I suggest it must go beyond an annual check-in-the-box session and perhaps identify success when it manifests in informal and incidental learning.


End Notes

1 Marie Deschamps, “External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces,” March 27, 2015,

2 Louise Arbour, “Report of the Independent External Comprehensive Review of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces,” May 20, 2022,

3 Minister of National Defence, “MND Advisory Panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination Final Report,” 2022,

4 Karen Davis, “Socio-Cultural Dynamics in Gender and Military Contexts: Seeking and Understanding Change,” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 8 (s1), April 2022: 66–74,

5 Department of National Defence (DND), Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve, (Kingston, ON: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2022), canadian-armed-forces-ethos-trusted-to-serve.html.

6 Emily Reiman, “The View Looking Up: A Junior NCM Perspective on Culture Change,” Canadian Military Journal 22 (4), Fall 2022: 37–42,

7 DND, Trusted to Serve.

8 DND, “Canadian Armed Forces Professional Development Framework,” Government of Canada, n.d.,

9 Ibid.

10 Malcolm Knowles, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Cambridge Adult Education, 1980).

11 Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Bierema, Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

12 Annalisa Raymer, “Andragogy of Hope and Learning Cities,” Paper, American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, 2018,

13 Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson and Walter Archer, “Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education,” The Internet and Higher Education 2, March 1999: 87–105,

14 Ibid.

15 Holly Fiock, “Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses,” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 21 (1), 2020: 135–53,

16 For more on GBA+, see:

17 Rachael Johnstone and Bessma Momani, “Gender Mainstreaming in the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence: Lessons on the Implementation of Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+),” Armed Forces & Society 48 (2), 2022: 247–273,

18 This was a requirement as recently as 2018. NATO ADL169, “Improving Operational Effectiveness by Integrating Gender Perspective,”

19 For more on Respect in the CAF workshop, see:

20 For more on Conversations on Defence Ethics, see:

21 For a look at how CODE fits within diversity, equity and inclusion training from the perspective of legal education, see: Paolo Galdenzi, “Cultural Relations among States: Is a Legal Adaption Required?” McGill GLSA Research Series 2 (1), October 25, 2022: 20,

22 Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better, (New York: Penguin Books, 2022).

23 Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017).

24 Sara Greco and Stéfanie von Hlatky, “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Revising the Concept of Military Professionalism in the Canadian Armed Forces,” in Rethinking Military Professionalism for the Changing Armed Forces, Krystal K. Hachey, Tamir Libel and Waylon H. Dean, eds., 189–200, (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020),

25 Vanessa Brown, “Locating Feminist Progress in Professional Military Education,” Atlantis 41 (2), 2021: 26–41,

26 Vanessa Brown and Alan Okros, “Unlearning ‘Stranger Danger’: Developing Cultural Competence in Canadian Military Professionals Through Collective Learning and Self-Reflection,” in Warriors Or Peacekeepers?: Building Military Cultural Competence, Paula Holmes-Eber, ed., 75–96, (New York: Springer, 2020),

27 Sensoy and DiAngelo, 35.


About the Author

Marshall Gerbrandt is a PhD student at the University of New Brunswick. His research explores adult learning in the Canadian Armed Forces which includes military pedagogy; the formal and informal ways institutional culture is learned; and online learning. Marshall holds an MEd in Instructional Design where his research explored online learning and quality of life within the Canadian Army. Prior to doctoral studies, Marshall served as an artillery major in the Canadian Army where he held leadership positions in both educational and operational units.


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