Ottawa lacks an 'overall strategic plan' to tackle military sexual misconduct, report says

While she's seen a "palpable change" in the Canadian military's attitude toward sexual misconduct, an external observer hired to oversee a plan to change the military's culture says Ottawa lacks an overall strategy to do that.

'I think we’ve seen some progress but there’s just so much to do' — vice chief of defence staff

Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour attends a press conference.
Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour releases her final report on sexual misconduct in the military in Ottawa on May 30, 2022. The federal government tasked an external monitor with tracking progress on her recommendations. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

While she's seen a "palpable change" in the Canadian military's attitude toward sexual misconduct, an external observer hired to oversee a plan to change the military's culture says Ottawa lacks a comprehensive strategy to accomplish that.

The government appointed Jocelyne Therrien last year to supervise the implementation of the 48 recommendations in former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour's report on sexual harassment and misconduct in the military.

Therrien, who once led program audits at the office of the Auditor General of Canada, recently released her first status report. In it, she concludes that the military and the Department of National Defence (DND) don't have an "overall strategic plan" in place.

"Although I have seen some cross-referencing among the recommendations, there is no overall framework that sets out how the organization, as a whole, will move from one phase to the next," Therrien wrote.

"Does this mean that there is no progress? Not at all. Many individuals are working hard to achieve the individual steps required to meet the intent of the recommendations. But an overall strategic plan would serve to ensure that the resources are aligned to priorities."

The report says it's "incumbent" on DND to "at least have a plan" laying out the legislative changes it will propose to Parliament each year. 

"It appears at this point that the agenda is instead being driven by availability of resources and capacity issues," the report says.

Vice Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen told CBC News the report "highlights the work that we've been doing to date and it highlighted what we also knew — that we have to do more in taking that strategic move forward."

She said the military intends to "build that plan."

"I think we've seen some progress but there's just so much to do."

Allen said the Canadian Armed Forces "can't tackle everything at once" so CAF is reviewing the recommendations in the report — along with another report on reforming the military justice system and the results of a ministerial advisory panel on systemic racism — to find common themes and set priorities.

Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, Vice-chief of the Defence Staff, makes a keynote address at the CANSEC trade show,
Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, vice-chief of the defence staff, told CBC News there's been "some progress" in addressing the military's culture over the past year. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The military is trying to move past its sexual misconduct crisis. Since early February 2021, roughly a dozen senior Canadian military officers, current and former, have been sidelined, investigated or forced into retirement from some of the most powerful and prestigious posts in the military.

The government tasked Arbour with reviewing the crisis. Her report, released just over a year ago, concluded the top ranks of the military are "incapable" of recognizing "deficient" aspects of military culture that "facilitated the abuse of power that characterizes most sexual misconduct."

Arbour made sweeping recommendations — chief among them her call for the military to surrender investigations of sexual misconduct to the civilian police and courts system. As of last month, the military had transferred 93 possible cases of criminal sexual offences to civilian police.

Arbour also recommended appointing an external monitor to oversee the implementation of her recommendations.

WATCH/ Is the military capable of changing how it handles sexual misconduct?

Is the military capable of changing how it handles sexual misconduct?

1 year ago
Duration 8:47
WARNING: This video contains distressing details. Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour and Catherine Bergeron, who experienced sexual harassment while serving in the military, discuss whether the Canadian Armed Forces will be able to change how it treats women, especially those who experience sexual misconduct.

Therrien wrote in her report that she spoke with military and DND leaders tasked with culture change in the course of her work.

"During the last several months," she said, "I have witnessed a significant level of tangible activity" in response to Arbour's recommendations.

Therrien pointed to the creation of a new military office — Chief Professional Conduct and Culture, led by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan — that provides advice to unit commanders on how to handle sexual misconduct cases.

"Ultimately, however, the proof will be in the frequency of incidents and whether or not DND employees and CAF members see improvements," she wrote.

"It is too soon to tell if that is happening. The data that will be used to monitor the situation is being refined."

Therrien said she's now going to try to determine if Ottawa's efforts are having an impact on the ground before issuing a second report.

In a statement, DND said it "absolutely" agrees with the report's "observation that more and better planning is needed to sequence and prioritize ongoing and future work."

The department said the Chief Professional Conduct and Culture is continuing to "develop comprehensive implementation plans in consultation with stakeholders."

Defence Minister Anita Anand's office told CBC News the minister provided a "comprehensive roadmap" to Parliament in December 2022 that "outlines our way forward on culture change" and Arbour's recommendations.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/