Harassment in Canada's military tolerated by leadership, former justice finds

Sexual misconduct is "endemic" in the Canadian military, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps says in a searing report released today.

Retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps calls for sweeping change in macho military culture

Sexual misconduct is "endemic" in the Canadian military, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, far right, says in a new report. Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson is seated next to Deschamps, with Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West second from left and Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross at left. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sexual misconduct is "endemic" in the Canadian military, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps says in a searing report released today.

Gen. Tom Lawson, chief of defence staff, called the report disturbing and said the Canadian Armed Forces' ability to work well depends on trust.

Deschamps laid the blame on a pervasive macho culture where the leadership tolerates abuse and leaves women in fear of reporting it.

"Victims, concerned about how they will be treated by the military justice system, tend not to report sexual assaults. Many of those victims who did report an offence said that their experiences were 'atrocious,'" she wrote.

Deschamps found a "frequent use of swear words and highly degrading expressions that reference women's bodies, sexual jokes, innuendos, discriminatory comments with respect to the abilities of women, and unwelcome sexual touching."

Not all recommendations accepted outright

The military has already set up a response team, led by Maj.-Gen. Chris WhitecrossCanada's highest-ranking woman. The team will also study how other nations have dealt with similar problems.

Deschamps made 10 recommendations in the report. Lawson accepted two outright and eight in principle.

One of the recommendations accepted in principle is that the Canadian Armed Forces create an independent centre where victims can seek support and advice.

"It is critical that such a centre be truly independent of the Armed Forces," Deschamps said at the press conference.

But she and Lawson disagreed on whether the military should move immediately to create such a centre.

"I think what we need to do is look at what provides the proper outcome for our members. We need to look at what's legal within our system, what's expected of us from the government, what the chief of defence staff expects from his chain of command," Lawson said.

Marie Deschamps, shown at her swearing-in ceremony in 2002. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Deschamps said Australia, the U.S. and the French all have an independent centre, and that with Whitecross's team assessing what other countries are doing, they may reach the same conclusion.

"The members at present do not have the sufficient confidence to report the incidents. And that one of the reasons why they came to me is that they were confident that they were speaking in total anonymity," she said.

"When I looked outside at other organizations, who appear to have made improvements, they all were independent. That's the basis of my recommendation. Whatever might be found in the future, I cannot say."

In her report, Deschamps called on the military leadership to crack down and prove that they mean it, and condemned the frequent "use of sex to enforce power relationships and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit."

She found "a strong perception that senior NCOs [non-commissioned officers] are responsible for imposing a culture where no one speaks up and which functions to deter victims from reporting sexual misconduct."

'Turn a blind eye' to inappropriate sexual conduct

This, Deschamps found, grew from "a broadly held perception in the lower ranks that those in the chain of command either condone inappropriate sexual conduct, or are willing to turn a blind eye."

In response to the report, Lawson issued an action plan that broadly accepts the recommendations for cultural change.

He said the military will "study and understand" the scope of the problem, and set out to respond to reports of sexual harassment promptly and fairly.

Lawson said the military will seek to prevent incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour "to the greatest extent possible," and that a response team will meet members of the Canadian Armed Forces across Canada and abroad to discuss the report.

CBC News first reported Tuesday that the report, which was commissioned by the chief of the defence staff in the wake of articles raising the alarm about sexual assault in the military, would be "inflammatory" and would include criticism of the military leadership's handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against female personnel.

"You'll have to wait to see the report and the response, but I think it's a vigorous, strong response to a report that underscores that there is a problem," Defence Minister Jason Kenney told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon Wednesday.

With files from James Cudmore and Laura Payton