Military sexual misconduct due to 'biological wiring,' Gen. Tom Lawson tells CBC News

Sexual harassment is still an issue in the Canadian Forces because people are "biologically wired in a certain way," Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson told CBC News before issuing an apology for his "awkward" comment.

General made comments during exclusive interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge

Gen. Lawson: On harassment

8 years ago
Duration 1:32
Gen. Tom Lawson, the outgoing chief of the defence staff, tells Peter Mansbridge the problem of sexual harassment in the military persists because of how men are 'biologically wired.'

Sexual harassment is still an issue in the Canadian Forces because people are "biologically wired in a certain way," Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson told CBC News on Tuesday, drawing outrage from opposition politicians and on social media.

After CBC aired excerpts of his comments, Lawson quickly backpedalled and apologized for what he called an "awkward characterization."

In an exclusive interview with CBC's chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge Lawson said the "terrible issue" of military sexual harassment "disturbs the great majority of everyone in uniform and yet, we're still dealing with it."

"It would be a trite answer, but it's because we're biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It's not the way it should be," he said.

"Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely, men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members.

'We're talking about sexual assault'

Lawson's views brought swift reaction from NDP defence critic Jack Harris, who called the remarks "shocking."

In an exclusive interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson said the persistent issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces is because people are 'biologically wired in a certain way.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It's astonishing that at that level of leadership in the military we would hear that kind of attitude," Harris told CBC News. "It's attitudes like that, backwards attitudes about sexual assault, that lead us to the problems we have."

"We're talking about sexual assault, which is criminal in nature — that's not something that's excused by biology," Harris said.

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray tweeted, "Is he saying 'boys will be boys'? Deplorable excuse!"

Liberal Marc Garneau called for Lawson's immediate resignation.

Lauren Armstrong, spokeswoman for Defence Minister Jason Kenney's office, said that Lawson has "apologized for his inappropriate comments. Nobody who chooses to serve our country should ever be subject to sexual misconduct."

'Awkward characterization'

Lawson issued a statement after an excerpt of his comments aired on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"I apologize for my awkward characterization, in today's CBC interview, of the issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable," the statement said.

"My reference to biological attraction being a factor in sexual misconduct was by no means intended to excuse anyone from responsibility for their actions."

"I am committed, alongside Canadian Armed Forces leadership, to addressing the issue of sexual misconduct through an action plan based on the 10 recommendations provided in Madame [Marie] Deschamps' report," Lawson's statement concluded.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said she is at a loss for words over Lawson's chosen "verbiage."

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said Lawson feels badly about his choice of words during the interview.

Gen. Tom Lawson Interview

8 years ago
Duration 19:07
Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson sits down with Peter Mansbrige.

In April, a searing report by Deschamps, a retired Supreme Court justice, said sexual misconduct is "endemic" in the Canadian military. 

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

Julie Lalonde, a sex assault prevention educator who spoke to CBC News about being verbally harassed while speaking to cadets at the Royal Military College, said Tuesday that Lawson's remarks were "the most archaic defence for sexism I've ever heard."

Woman's rights advocate reacts to Gen. Lawson statements

8 years ago
Duration 7:23
Interview with Julie Lalonde, a sex-assault prevention educator who has complained that she was verbally abused by Royal Military College officer cadets

"It's clear to me that if Gen. Lawson believes that sexual misconduct is biologically driven and he is the top brass of the military, then it is clear the military has a problem," Lalonde said.

"If that's the direction officer cadets are getting, it's no wonder that we're in the current situation we are in and nobody should be surprised by Justice Deschamps's report."

Forces to tackle culture of harassment

In the interview with Mansbridge, Lawson admitted the culture needs to change.

"We are going to tackle that. We've been successful in tackling other cultures," he said. adding that the Armed Forces are "well on their way."

There are currently at least two courts martial in relation to incidents of sexual assault and harassment at the Royal Military College, one incident alleged to have taken place just last month.

"Why would a male cadet decide that they could treat one of the female cadets like that?" Lawson said.

"We believe that's a little bit of biological wiring and inappropriate behaviour."

"But what we also see is, it was reported and it's now being litigated. So we'll see where that goes," said Lawson. "The concern is not only the frequency of it happening, but making sure it gets reported and that people who are transgressed against feel comfortable to bring it forward."

3 out of 4 ISIS air missions return with bombs

Lawson announced in March he would be stepping down as Canada's top general by September. His office said Wednesday his last day is July 17. He will be replaced by Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, currently the commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command.

In the interview, Lawson also spoke extensively about Canada's role in the coalition mission in Iraq and Syria against the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) militant group. 

He said the coalition air campaign is "pretty remarkable" in its ability to avoid collateral damage while bringing pressure to bear on ISIS. 

"About 25 per cent of the missions that go to deliver weaponry are delivering weaponry. Seventy-five per cent will come back having carried their bombs back," he said.

The reasons for that include concern over civilian casualties, as well as lack of a good connection with ground forces that could "safely call in bombs."

"As Iraqi security forces start to bring their forces to bear, then we'll have eyes and capability and equipment that will tie air campaign power to what they see as targets on the ground," he said.

With files from James Cudmore, the Canadian Press