Military sexual misconduct: Independent centre to focus on victim support

Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, who is leading the response to a damning report on harassment in the Canadian Forces, reveals new details about the independent centre that will handle cases of military sexual misconduct.

Centre will advise and influence military top brass, says Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross

Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, commander of the Canadian Armed Forces' strategic response team on sexual misconduct, says the military will create an independent centre with a strong focus on victim support. (Canadian Press)

An independent centre to deal with complaints of sexual harassment in the military will be outside the military's chain of command and will focus on victim support, says Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, the officer heading up the military's response to a damning report on military sexual misconduct.

In an interview airing this Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Whitecross said she concluded that the emphasis must be on support services for victims after studying similar centres in the U.S. and Australia.

The highest-ranking woman in the Canadian Forces, who took command of her new role as chief of military personnel Friday, will travel to France next week to continue her research. 

"My sense is that an independent centre really needs to be focused on victim support, and that's the recommendation we're bringing forward," said Whitecross, who leads the response to former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps' report that found an "endemic" culture of sexual harassment in the military.

The centre will be independent from the chain of command, but will provide advice and influence, Whitecross told host Chris Hall.

"It absolutely needs to be independent, but it also needs to be able to speak to the chain of command," she said, suggesting the centre could be located within the Department of National Defence as opposed to the Canadian Armed Forces — a move Deschamps has said would qualify as meeting the criteria for independence. 

Whitecross and her team aren't just looking to other militaries for ideas on what such a centre might look like. 

"We're also looking at Canadian, national organizations, not just like-minded organizations like police forces and fire departments," she said.

"But we're also going in and talking to the organizers of rape crisis centres, to academics, so we can get a real sense for the network of help that exists right now and what this centre needs to be focusing on."

'Undivided support' from military top brass

Despite Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson's recent comments that sexual harassment remains an issue in the Canadian Forces because people are "biologically wired in a certain way," Whitecross said she's had Lawson's "undivided support" since she was appointed the lead on the response team.

"He brought a team in very early to address Madame Deschamps' report and we've been working very diligently on that," she said.

"All that speaks to a very engaged and very supportive chain of command."

Welcome support is also coming from the army branch of the military, she said. The army's commanding officer, Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse, has ordered mandatory commanders' briefings aimed at preventing sexual misconduct delivered at every base and unit across the country.

"I think Gen. Hainse is providing great leadership," Whitecross said. "We're working very much hand-in-hand. Gen. Hainse is providing what we [in the military] would probably call 'supporting fire.'"

Addressing sexualized culture 'No. 1 priority'

Addressing the military's sexualized, macho culture is the top priority for Whitecross, but she cautioned patience for Canadians hoping to see a dramatic shift.  

"This is something that takes time. It's not going to be days and weeks. We're really talking months and years," she said.

Whitecross will also be looking into ways to increase female recruitment in the military, saying there's been no direction from the top to cut back on recruitment for women. 

This fall will see Whitecross and her team continuing to hold town hall meetings at military bases and units across the country.

"We're literally bringing all the military people together to talk about this issue, to lay out the Deschamps report and the action plan that is associated with that," she said.