'Biological wiring' remark on military sexual misconduct prompts strong MP reaction

MPs react strongly to a comment by Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson, who had told CBC that sexual harassment remains an issue in the military due to "biological wiring."

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson apologized for 'awkward characterization'

Gen. Tom Lawson on the defensive

8 years ago
Duration 3:59
Canada's chief of the defence staff faces a barrage of criticism for his comments on why sexual harassment is still an issue in the military

MPs reacted strongly Wednesday to Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson's comment that sexual harassment remains an issue in the military due to "biological wiring."

The comment was made Tuesday in an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge. Lawson later apologized, calling it an "awkward characterization."

The remark drew strong words from MPs, some calling for him to resign. 

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair called the comment "completely wrong and totally unacceptable," saying "the military brass simply don't get it."

He added that "the real problem is no one is working for a change in the culture in the military on the issue of sexual harassment."

RAW: Mulcair and Trudeau condemn Lawson remarks

8 years ago
Duration 1:11
Opposition leaders Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau both demand General Tom Lawson's resignation as Chief of the Defence Staff following remarks he made in an interview with Peter Mansbridge.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also addressed the remark on Wednesday afternoon, saying "Gen. Lawson's comments the other day were completely unacceptable. His excuse was completely inadequate." 

"Gen. Lawson should be immediately dismissed. His comments are absolutely out of place in 2015 in the society and the country we're trying to build."

Lawson's comment came in the wake of a searing report released in April by retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps that called sexual misconduct in the Canadian military "endemic."

In question period, Mulcair pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the issue, asking what he was doing to change the culture within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Harper responded that he found Lawson's comment "offensive, inappropriate, completely unacceptable." Harper said the Canadian Armed Forces would be implementing all the recommendations from the Deschamps report, but denounced taking action that could "slur all the men and women [in the armed forces]."

Trudeau also brought up the issue in the Commons, saying that "anyone in a position of leadership must set an example," and again called for Lawson's dismissal.

Harper responded to question of dismissal by saying "the chief of defence staff has already announced his retirement and his successor has already been appointed, and that will be happening soon."

Lawson announced in March he would be stepping down over the summer. His office told CBC News Wednesday his last day would be July 17.

Tense committee appearance

Several MPs didn't appear to accept Lawson's apology, grilling Lawson about his remarks during a Wednesday appearance before the Defence committee.

"You dumbed down the problem of sexual harassment in the military," said Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant.

"You're dumbing down the position of chief of defence staff."

Lawson said he made the comment in an effort to answer a question about how sexual harassment was still a societal problem in 2015, not just in the military but everywhere.

"It was unhelpful conjecture on my part as to what might motivate someone in a heinous way to believe that they can press themselves on someone else," he said.

"It was not helpful and it is for that reason I apologized."

Lawson reiterated there is no tolerance in the military for sexual misconduct but also said he knows his comments during the interview didn't help.

"What is probably the most damaging about my comments is they obscure the work going on in the military right now," he said.

In responding to the Deschamps report, the military accepted the first two recommendations outright and the rest on principle, saying they wanted to study suggestions such as the creation of an independent centre to handle sexual harassment cases.

A special unit has been established to implement the recommendations, with Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross assigned to lead those efforts.

Whitecross was in Sweden on Wednesday studying that country's efforts to handle sexual harassment and was not available for interviews.

MPs react to Lawson

8 years ago
Duration 1:46
Conservative ministers NDP and Liberal react to General Tom Lawson's remark Tuesday that sexual misconduct results from 'biological wiring.'

'Wake up, we're in 2015'

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray told reporters earlier that Lawson's comment "helps explain why the Deschamps report was never taken seriously."

But Finance Minister Joe Oliver said the comment did not reflect a systemic failure, and that "[Lawson] takes the issue of sexual harassment seriously, as our government certainly does."

Conservative MP Candice Bergen called Lawson "a great leader," but said that she did not agree with the remark, while Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said she was "at a loss for words on the chosen verbiage the general used."

Others MPs expressed outrage.

NDP MP Francoise Boivin said, "Wake up, we're in 2015."

Her NDP colleague Jack Harris noted the comment appeared reflective of a wider issue, saying "this kind of Neanderthal thinking is what contributes to the problem."

Some seemed uncertain as to whether the comment was representative of a systemic Canadian military problem.

Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais said, "I don't know if it's symptomatic or if it's just a mistake on his part, but thankfully he apologized."

When asked if he felt that Lawson's words were appropriate, Justice Minister Peter MacKay answered negatively, but said Lawson "genuinely feels bad about the way he used that language."

General Lawson under fire: MPs weigh in

8 years ago
Duration 11:29
Should General Lawson resign for his 'biological wiring' comment? MPs debate.

With files from The Canadian Press