Ghosts of scandals past stalk Canadian military as sexual misconduct fallout grows

The growing political fight over sexual misconduct allegations in the Canadian military is shaping up into a once-in-a-generation scandal. The steady drip of allegations has seasoned military officers worried about a loss of credibility and wondering how long the political patience will last.

Misconduct crisis roiling the military mirrors, in some ways, Somalia scandal of 1990s

Members of the National Defence staff confer during a break in the Somalia inquiry, on Oct. 2, 1995. In its time, the Somalia scandal was a national shame and it is mirrored, in some ways, by the current misconduct scandal now roiling the military. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

It has been more than a quarter of a century, but to this day the word "Somalia" sends a shiver down the backs of soldiers old enough to remember it.

And there are going to be those in uniform who absolutely hate any comparison between the torture, murder and coverup scandal of the 1990s and the unfolding social reckoning that is taking place over sexual misconduct, and to a lesser extent racism, within the ranks. 

What they have in common, however, is that they are at their very core both crises of leadership and the perception of leaders, says retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault.

"It is clearly a crisis," he said. "I think it's a crisis of confidence in the senior Canadian Forces leadership and that's seen from both sides." 

Soldiers, sailors, aircrew who are looking up wonder what's going on, as does the general public, which is outside looking in.

"Where the credibility, the legitimacy, the trust and the confidence in our senior leadership is shaken, I don't think there can be a more serious problem for the Canadian Forces," said Thibault, a former vice-chief of the defence staff, who now heads the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. 

The stream of explosive allegations involve Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, his successor Admiral Art McDonald, seen here, and Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson. (Screengrab)

"If we are comparing back to the period of Somalia, when you look at the Airborne Regiment and you look at the actions of a few that really cast a very negative shadow on the institution, you've got to draw the parallels."

In its time, the Somalia scandal was known as a national shame. 

The grisly photos of the beating death of a Somali teenager at the hands of two members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment drew outrage from the public .

It left an indelible mark on the 1990s generation of troops. Many of those who were serving at the time can tell you where they were and what they were doing the day the airborne, which was shown to have leadership failings, was disbanded by the Liberal government of the day. Others talk about how they couldn't wear the uniforms in public for years afterwards.

Military leadership was also called into question after a CBC reporter received altered documents under access to information legislation, leading to allegations of a coverup and eventually a public inquiry.

Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa, on March 4, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The steady stream of explosive revelations over the last month of alleged misconduct — involving Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff and his successor, Admiral Art McDonald, as well as fresh concerns about the possible inappropriate behaviour of Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson two decades ago — has sent the military reeling. 

There has been a revolving door among some of the key leadership positions, in a manner that has not been seen in a generation.

Speaking to the allegations involving Edmundson, revealed by CBC News on Tuesday, military law expert and retired colonel Michel Drapeau described the effect on the military as "catastrophic" and shocking for those who are serving.

"It's a crisis of leadership, it's a crisis of credibility in high command," he said. 

"The successive allegations made against the highest ranking members of the military — there is a dark cloud over the entire military profession."

In one important respect, what has been going on over the last month differs from Somalia in the sense that the public still seems to be with the military. Public opinion research, released this week, shows the military remains a trusted institution for many Canadians.

Much of that rests on the recent history, including the pandemic-induced intervention in long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec, where the clear-eyed assessments of serving officers and medical staff on the conditions they found won universal praise. 

Ongoing investigation

Repairing the reputational damage of Somalia was largely paid for in blood during the Afghan war, where the sacrifices of soldiers made a deep and lasting impression.

Reams of public opinion research conducted by the Department of National Defence over the years showed how the public, while they generally did not support the war, overwhelmingly backed the troops and appreciated their willingness to sacrifice.

The fear that some of that goodwill could be squandered by the roiling scandal is almost palpable within the pandemic-stilled halls of National Defence Headquarters. 

Thibault said he hopes, for the sake of the Forces, that there is a quick, decisive and just conclusion to the investigations involving Vance and McDonald.

Unfortunately, that's not how law enforcement investigations often roll.

The ongoing parliamentary investigation guarantees that the misconduct scandal will almost certainly be in the face of the Liberal government for weeks, if not months to come.

Just when the government wants to showcase its progress on straightening out the vaccine supply chain, the overwhelming number of questions for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are about military misconduct.

How long political patience will last is a live question.

"Obviously, the tasks of everyone in senior leadership in our military is to move forward on ending the challenges of harassment and discrimination in the military, in other systems, as well as ensuring that anyone who comes forward to share stories or allegations is given the support and resources that they need," Trudeau said.

Moving forward is not entirely in the military's hands. 

The Liberals promised a thorough, independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Vance, who faced misconduct claims two weeks after he relinquished command of the military.

They have been drafting the terms of reference for over a month with little to show for it.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's evasive performance before the House of Commons defence committee last month and continued vague rebuttals to the testimony of former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, who says he warned the minister about Vance three years ago, are only feeding the political storm.

And that is where the ghost of the Somalia scandal rises one last time.

Out of patience and tired of the political beatings, the government of the day, under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, disbanded the airborne.

Thibault didn't offer an opinion one way or the other on whether the action was necessary. He only counselled against rash, politically expedient edicts. 

"There are always second- and third-order consequences to these decisions," he said. "One may fix one problem, but we break two or three other things."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.