A Top Woman in Canada’s Military Issues a Stinging Rebuke of Its Culture | Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Top Woman in Canada’s Military Issues a Stinging Rebuke of Its Culture

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OTTAWA — For Lt. Col. Eleanor Taylor it was the last straw. The simultaneous investigations of the Canadian military’s top commander and his predecessor that were announced last month led her to write a stinging letter of resignation from the army reserve after more than 26 years of service.

“I am sickened by ongoing investigations of sexual misconduct among our key leaders,” wrote Colonel Taylor, one of the highest-profile women in the Canadian military and a combat veteran of Afghanistan, in an email she sent to military officials on March 13. “Unfortunately, I am not surprised. I am also certain that the scope of the problem has yet to be exposed. Throughout my career, I have observed insidious and inappropriate use of power for sexual exploitation.”

Nearly six years after a government report found Canada’s military was “hostile to women and LGTBQ members and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault,” the investigations into the institution’s top leaders have left service members and veterans reeling, and demanding that more be done to address such systemic and widespread problems within the ranks.

“Changes happened on a superficial level but without really disrupting the core of military culture,” Stéfanie von Hlatky, the director of the Center for International and Defense Policy, at Queen’s University said of the reforms made after the 2015 report. “The release of Colonel Taylor’s letter permits a bigger opening for conversations where it’s military culture that is going to be looked at more closely as opposed to just a slew of initiatives.”

In February, the military police opened separate investigations into Canada’s top military officer, Adm. Art McDonald, and the previous chief of the defense staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who held the post until his retirement from the army in January.

Little has been released publicly about the investigations, though reports surfaced last month that General Vance behaved inappropriately with two female subordinates. Admiral McDonald has stepped aside from his position while the investigation is underway.

More than a quarter of women in the Canadian military have been sexually assaulted during their careers, a government survey found in 2016, and fewer than one in four respondents reported the assault. At the time, the findings set off calls from military leaders, including General Vance, to do more to encourage victims of assault to come forward.

Many service members now say that the heavily publicized program to end sexual misconduct launched by General Vance during his tenure has been both inadequate and completely undermined by the current investigation into his actions.

Colonel Taylor and others are calling for servicewomen and veterans to speak out about their experiences.

“It has taken me quite a few years to get here, but I now strongly believe that we have a problem with our culture that enables inappropriate sexual behavior and hateful conduct,” she wrote in her email circulated to armed forces members. “I also have concluded that we do not have the tools we need to address that behavior.”

Earlier this month, a parliamentary hearing on military sexual assault and harassment highlighted that there is still no investigative body independent of the chain of command for victims of sexual assault or harassment — despite the military committing in 2019 to improve its complaints process and putting aside nearly one billion Canadian dollars to settle claims of sexual misconduct.

The hearings also revealed that accusations of misconduct were made against General Vance three years ago when he was still the chief of the defense staff, but they didn’t lead to a formal investigation.

Gary Walbourne, the former ombudsman for the Canadian Armed Forces, told a House of Commons committee that in March 2018 he received an informal complaint about “inappropriate sexual behavior” by General Vance. Uncertain how to proceed, he said he sought advice from Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defense minister and a former military officer who served in Afghanistan, who refused to review the details of the complaint.

Mr. Sajjan later testified that he declined to look at Mr. Walbourne’s evidence to make sure than any investigation was free of political interference. Mr. Sajjan had his staff inform the Privy Council Office, the central branch of the public service, about the complaints. It apparently dropped the issue after Mr. Walbourne did not provide details, citing his confidentiality agreement with the victim.

Leah West, a former armored officer who is now an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said she was sexually assaulted by a senior ranking officer at a party in 2008. She was found the next day unconscious, and the military police were called. They turned the matter over to her commanding officer.

“He asked me the question that I think too many women are in the Canadian forces are asked when something like this happens: ‘How do you want me to deal with this?’” Professor West recounted. “By asking the victim how you want to proceed it’s very unlikely that a female, especially in a combat arm and, in this case, where the person was senior to me, say: ‘Throw the book at him, sir.’”

Today, she said the armed forces’ chronic problems with sexual misconduct will only be resolved through a sweeping change in military culture and a generational change.

“I think it requires bold action now,” she said. “Those who would stand in the way of that bold action need to get out of the way and get out of the forces.”

The two investigations may prompt a number of senior officers with problematic pasts to retire sooner than they planned, she says, opening opportunities for the promotion of women and men who, in her experience, are “beyond reproach morally.”

Professor West said she had already been contacted by an infantry leader looking for advice on how to deal with the issues raised in Colonel Taylor’s letter.

Another retired infantry member, Dawn Dussault, who led an army convoy platoon in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, is also looking for a wholesale change of military culture, though she is less optimistic that it’s possible. “Rape is one aspect but there were so many other things that caused so much psychological damage for women, it’s just like the whole system is broken,” she said.

She says the rise of far-right extremism documented among younger members of the military’s ranks doesn’t give her much hope that the next generation of military leaders will be different than the previous ones.

“If more women speak out, maybe it will change,” she said. “I don’t know.”


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