Politics

Civilian staffers at Department of Defence also reporting bullying and harassment, say unions

The number of complaints of harassment, bullying and even sexual misconduct involving civilian employees at the Department of National Defence has increased in tandem with those being reported on the military side, say two unions representing workers.

'They're being degraded.' — June Winger, Union of National Defence Employees

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan participates in question period in the House of Commons on March 8, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The number of complaints of harassment, bullying and even sexual misconduct involving civilian employees at the Department of National Defence (DND) has increased in tandem with those being reported on the military side, say two unions representing workers.

The heads of both the Union of National Defence Employees (UNDE) and the Union of Veterans Affairs' Employees (UVAE) — which also represents some civilians at DND — say they have been hearing from a growing number of members who have been subjected to unacceptable behaviour by both non-uniformed management and military supervisors.

Because they fear career retribution, many of these civilian staffers have not filed formal complaints, said June Winger, national president of UNDE — but they are heartened by the testimony of military sexual assault survivors who have told their stories publicly and to MPs on two House of Commons committees.

"I have members coming forward with harassment complaints, bullying complaints. They're being degraded," said Winger, who added that the department is taking too long to address formal complaints.

"It needs to stop. It's not working."

Both Winger and Virginia Vaillancourt, president of UVAE, are calling for immediate action to address the growing number of complaints.

They also want the newly created office of the chief of professional conduct and culture to be given broad powers to investigate complaints and recommend discipline for all managers at DND — whether they wear a uniform or not.

As part of its strategy to combat sexual violence in the military, the Liberal government announced last week the creation of the new chief's office, to be led by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan. The new post will have a civilian deputy and the government committed to making the concerns and complaints of civilian staff a priority.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin hands over command of the NATO mission in Iraq to then Maj-Gen. Jennie Carignan in Baghdad on Nov. 26, 2020. (NATO)

"They need to ensure that investigations of complaints happen in a timely and efficient manner," Winger said.

"They also need to ensure that management impacted by those investigations are not able to influence those investigations. They need to ensure people are protected when they come forward."

Winger didn't offer any statistics to show the extent of the problem. She said the overwhelming majority of the complaints the union has received recently involve DND's medical facilities and firefighting centres.

'What about us?'

She said civilian staff have watched the misconduct crisis in the military unfold with a mixture of feelings — pride in the courage shown by those coming forward, and concern for the civilians who typically come second in the defence department.

"They're seeing something finally happen and they're saying, 'Well, what about us?'" said Winger. "We've been saying this for years and putting in the complaints [about a toxic work environment].

"We've been trying to get our stories heard. And how come the department didn't listen to us?" 

The unions are also requesting an independent investigation of all aspects of harassment, discrimination and racism within DND over the past twenty years.

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