Military's response to sexual misconduct report curtailed by general's orders

Weeks before the release of a report on sexual misconduct in the military, Canada’s top general issued orders for the military to plan to ignore key recommendations, including creation of a centre independent of the military chain of command to take complaints and provide support.

Chief of the defence staff's directive set out 'assumption' that meant key recommendation would be ignored

Gen. Tom Lawson, second from right, chief of the defence staff, speaks at a news conference in Ottawa April 30 following the release of a report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces. Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice and the report's author is at right, and Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, far left, is leading the military's response. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Weeks before the release of a scathing report into military sexual misconduct, Canada's top general issued orders for the military to plan to ignore key recommendations, including the creation of an independent centre to take complaints and provide support and expertise.

CBC News has obtained orders written by Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson and circulated for "Action" to 21 top generals and military managers on Feb. 25.

The orders lay out the first steps of the military's response to the report, declaring, "Sexual misconduct and harassment constitute abhorrent behaviours that have no place in the CAF."

The orders, called an initiating directive, show that in the case of at least three recommendations, military brass were told to plan to effectively ignore the advice of the external reviewer, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps.

Her report found the Canadian Forces possessed a misogynistic and sexualized culture in which harassment and abuse are overlooked, under-reported and poorly understood. Deschamps made 10 recommendations for improvement.

Among those was a plan to create an agency independent of the military chain of command to act as a centre of accountability for advice and questions about sexual misconduct, including complaints and reports.

Deschamps warned that independence was essential.

But Lawson's orders, which were written two months before Deschamps's report was made public but after a draft copy had been delivered to the chief of the defence staff, suggest the idea of independence had already been scrubbed.

"The current sexual misconduct investigation and justice system authorities will remain unchanged," Lawson's orders say under the heading of "Assumptions."

That assumption would also rule out other changes, apparently rejecting out of hand Deschamps's recommendation to allow victims to report to that independent centre or have civilian police handle an entire investigation, if the victim chooses.

It would force victims to rely on the military chain of command, and the military police and justice system, all of which, Deschamps suggested, had failed and lost the trust of women.

Centre's independence

The general appointed by Lawson to lead the military's response team, Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, said her new unit would be the "genesis" of the centre Deschamps recommended and would also go abroad to study international best practices to determine how best to arrange itself.

Both Whitecross and Lawson told reporters on April 30 an independent centre would be one of the permanent options studied.

Maj.-Gen. Chris Whitecross, commander of the strategic response team on sexual misconduct, says the military accepted the recommendation of an independent organization for victims in principle because the military needs to learn more about its options. (Canadian Press)

But the directive suggests Whitecross's team should prepare itself to, "on order, transition to a permanent establishment in [National Defence headquarters...] reporting to the CDS."

Finally, the chief of defence staff's orders say the definition of sexual harassment will not change, despite Deschamps's recommendation the Canadian Forces should "develop a simple, broad definition of sexual harassment that effectively captures all dimensions of the member's relationship with the CAF."

In that case — in fact, in all three cases — the military said it agreed in principle with Deschamps's recommendation and would "review many of its definitions that relate to inappropriate sexual behaviour."

But the orders suggest, whether any review is undertaken, the definition will remain the same:

"The definition of harassment as developed by Treasury Board ... will remain in effect."

Orders limit response: Liberal MP

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray said the orders amount to restrictions on Whitecross's ability to effectively respond to the challenge of military sexual misconduct.

"Yes, they are clearly limitations. And they're limitations on a framework that is proposed by Madame Deschamps to actually address this culture, this hostile culture in the Canadian Armed Forces."

Murray said the existence of the orders help explain why Lawson and Whitecross appeared to disagree with Deschamps at that April 30 news conference.

Deschamps told reporters she felt whatever a Canadian military centre on sexual misconduct ended up looking like, "I thought it had to be independent and it was an essential element."

Lawson said that recommendation was "unique" and was one that "anyone in the chain of command would at first be concerned with."

Murray said it's up to the Conservative government to settle that dispute and clarify the chief of defence staff's orders.

"Let's hear from the minister what their plan is. Are they accepting the recommendation?" Murray asked. "The minister was nowhere to be seen when this report came out. And has never ... made a statement about his intention to fix this problem, to accept this recommendation."

The office of Defence Minister Jason Kenney has refused to comment Tuesday on the orders.

In Winnipeg last week, where she was travelling to meet with soldiers, Whitecross said she was not familiar with the restrictions the orders appear to impose on her.

"I have no idea where they would have got that," she said. "My marching orders are very clear. My mandate is to get a team together, to get an action plan to address all 10 recommendations."

The military refused a formal request for an interview on the orders, but it did provide a written statement.

"Maj.-Gen. Chris Whitecross has not received any formal or informal direction from the chief of defence staff that in any way constrains [her] capacity to develop implementation approaches to the 10 recommendations presented in Mme Deschamps' report," it said.

"Maj.-Gen. Whitecross feels fully empowered to develop optimal approaches."

Those same February orders issued by Lawson also established Whitecross as commander of a Strategic Review Team on Sexual Misconduct and in charge of the military's response to Deschamps's report.

CBC News showed the orders to three different retired high-ranking generals, who each confirmed the assumptions set out in the directive could be seen as limitations or constraints on Whitecross's ability to act.

The office of the chief of the defence staff refused an interview request on the topic, but Lawson's press officer, Lt.-Cmdr. Jordan Holder, said the general had not ordered any assumptions that could not be changed.

Any changes would require a supplementary initiating directive. Staff for Whitecross's team concede no such supplementary order has been issued.

"There has been no change. [Whitecross's] mission, mandate and approach are directed and informed by the CDS's initiating directive," Capt. Jean-François Lambert said in an email.


James Cudmore covered politics and military affairs for CBC News until Jan. 8, 2016.