Department of Defence hiring high-level culture czar to fight sexual misconduct and racism in ranks

The Department of National Defence plans to create a new top level position — a chief of professional conduct and culture — to address sexual misconduct and racism in the ranks, CBC News has learned.

Critics say they have doubts about the office's independence

A Canadian flag patch is shown on a soldier's shoulder.
The Department of National Defence is creating a new high-level position to address racism and sexual misconduct in the military. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The Department of National Defence (DND) plans to create a new top level position — a chief of professional conduct and culture — to address sexual misconduct and racism in the ranks, CBC News has learned.

A draft plan obtained by CBC News, known as an initiating directive, shows it will be an in-house position led by a lieutenant-general or vice-admiral, with a civilian acting as a deputy.

One of the main tasks associated with the new position will be to straighten out the military's tangled, overlapping reporting structure for cases of sexual misconduct.

The new position is being described as "a first step" toward addressing the Canadian military's racism and sexual misconduct crisis. DND appears to be deliberately leaving the door open to further changes "once the appropriate consultations have occurred."

There is a sense of urgency in the directive, but also a recognition that the department must step carefully if confidence in military leadership is going to be restored.

"The stand-up of the Chief Professional Conduct and Culture will be initiated as soon as possible while not rushing to solutions without deepening our understanding of this complex problem," says an undated copy of the plan, which has gone through several revisions over the past few weeks.

Neither the chief of the defence staff nor the deputy minister of defence had signed off on the version of the directive obtained by CBC News.

Another task facing the new "chief of professional conduct and culture" is to close out Operation Honour and work out what can be learned from it more than five years after it was launched to stamp out sexual violence and misogyny in the ranks.

Victims call for an independent body to handle complaints

The draft plan says the person who takes on the job will have to "listen, learn [and] study." More importantly, the new professional conduct chief might have to be humble in dealing with the victims and survivors, as well as whatever recommendations for change come out of a planned government-mandated review.

Victims of sexual assault, military law experts and politicians have voiced almost unanimous support for the idea of setting up an independent organization to handle complaints of sexual misconduct in the military — a place where victims can go without fear of reprisal.

Some have gone further by calling for an independent inspector general responsible for providing oversight of the military — including on matters of misconduct — and reporting directly to Parliament.

The chief of professional conduct position outlined in the draft plan falls short on both objectives, but the plan pledges to work with the Liberal government's long-promised external review and the existing military ombudsman.

Defence expert Stefanie von Hlatky said the plan does address the need to redefine the professional culture of the military and bring it more in line with the broader Canadian society and values.

"There will be many things wrapped up in this position, but I certainly think that will be a critical component of it," said von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen's University and fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy.

Only a 'first step'

But more steps need to be taken, she said — including the establishment of an independent reporting mechanism for sexual assault survivors.

"I would see this as a first step and I would not consider this [by itself] to be enough, to be perfectly clear," said von Hlatky after reading a copy of the draft directive.

Others — such as military law expert and retired colonel Michel Drapeau — are deeply skeptical.

Drapeau argued DND would be reluctant to give up much authority over policing the conduct of military members and would be unhappy with the kind of deep, independent oversight an inspector general would bring.

A man with thinning white hair and glasses stares at the camera. He's wearing a suit, a yellow tie and there's a Canada flag behind him.
Military law expert Michel Drapeau says DND's plan to create a top-level position to tackle sexual misconduct and racism in the ranks falls well short of what's needed. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

"This is sort of coming across as a cultural commissar," said Drapeau. The new chief, he said, "will be acting as a sort of conscience to the senior staff."

He said that by creating this new position, DND is all but ruling out hiring an inspector general — something Drapeau has called for over a number of years.

In the wake of the Somalia murder and coverup scandal of the 1990s, the defence department successfully fought off attempts to create an outside oversight body. Instead, it settled for creating the ombudsman's office — which reports to the defence minister, not to Parliament.

'There is no oversight here'

After reading a copy of the directive provided by CBC News, Drapeau said it troubles him that the new chief is expected to report through the military chain of command. He said it's not clear what kind of authority the office would have.

"It is 180 degrees opposition to what an inspector general is supposed to be," he said. "It is opposite to independent, external oversight. There is no oversight here."

The Liberal government has promised — but has yet to define — an independent process for reporting sexual misconduct in the military.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said late Thursday that the government is still very much committed to the plan for an independent reporting body.

A spokesperson for Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan says the department is looking at "additional steps ... to prevent sexual misconduct." (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"We are working to create a Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence free from sexual misconduct," said Todd Lane, who added that the minister's parliamentary secretary continues to meet with survivors and stakeholders "to see what additional steps we can take to prevent sexual misconduct and better support those who have experienced it, including the creation of an independent reporting structure to look at allegations of misconduct."

Lane said the minister has stated that all options are on the table when it comes to building a safer future for those serving in the Canadian Armed Forces and changing the culture of toxic masculinity.

"We will be taking bold action to make permanent and necessary changes and are looking at immediate actions to support survivors now," he said.

The draft copy of the directive says the chief of conduct and culture will be expected to develop "independent capacity to receive complaints and ensure appropriate actions are taken by DND/CAF to investigate allegations of misconduct made against" military members, including senior leaders.

That, Drapeau said, will worry all military members who are concerned about the independence of the office.

"Will the rank and file buy into it? Will the rank and file see this in an authentic, real, genuine manner and that the chain of command will deal with [complaints of misconduct]? I don't think so," he said.

The directive has many elements in common with what the British military implemented almost two years ago as it struggled to deal with various forms of misconduct and abuse within its ranks.


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.