DND calls sexual misconduct in military a 'wicked problem,' seeks long-term solutions

Sexual misconduct in the Canadian military is “a wicked problem” with no easy solution, and the plan to address it is being given a retooling for the long haul, says the Department of National Defence.

Operation Honour refocuses to change underlying culture of misconduct

The Department of National Defence is looking for long-term solutions to combat sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces is "a wicked problem" with no easy solution, and the plan to address it is being retooled for the long haul, says the Department of National Defence.

A new long-term plan was introduced Wednesday to refocus Operation Honour — the Forces' campaign against sexual misconduct in the ranks — on changing the underlying culture of misconduct and setting up the program to be a permanent fixture of the federal institution.

The plan is called The Path Towards Dignity and Respect and replaces the previously published CAF Action Plan issued in April 2015, which was the foundation for the existing program.

Operation Honour has been the focus of intense public scrutiny since it was first introduced five years ago, after reports of sexual misconduct surfaced in 2013.

It was the result of a scathing independent report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps. Her groundbreaking analysis said the military was steeped in a highly masculine, sexualized culture where leaders turn a blind eye to misconduct.

The crackdown, which has involved charging alleged perpetrators and setting up a support system for victims, has met with mixed success.

Critics have dismissed Operation Honour, claiming the program has done little to change the culture of a military that has allowed misconduct to go unchecked for decades.

"There are no quick fixes for achieving culture change. It requires sustained effort and continual assessment to ensure we remain on track," the country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, wrote in the opening remarks to the plan.

His deputy, Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, said the new strategy is the first of its kind and unique among Western militaries because it lays down clear expectations for cultural change.

"It is without precedent among our allies," said Rouleau, vice chief of the defence staff. "It established the frame of reference in black and white language, the strategic framework for this vexing problem and how we must deal with it as a modern military. It establishes the plan going forward for the specific things we should do."

Over the last five years, the military has been "on the back foot and reacting" to mushrooming reports of misconduct, said Rouleau, who said he believes the new strategy signals the military is now being more proactive.

'Enduring mission'

The military has acknowledged previously that sexual misconduct will not disappear overnight. The new strategy says Operation Honour "will have no end date and will remain as an enduring mission for the CAF."

The new framework hopes to achieve "cultural alignment" over time through a series of measures that mostly revolve around education.

A number of authors and critics have referred to addressing sexual misconduct in the CAF as a "wicked problem," the report said, referring to a phrase initially coined in the 1970s to describe intractable institutional dilemmas.

"Wicked problems are highly complex since understanding the problem and required solutions is extremely challenging," said the report. "There is rarely an obvious end point where the presenting problem is solved, and there are no quick tests for solutions or their outcomes, due mainly to the fact that every wicked problem is unique and a symptom of another."

The new strategy attempts to, among other things, address issues the military has been struggling to fix already. It calls for an improved leadership response to incidents of sexual misconduct.

A recent study by the defence department concluded that many victims still don't feel supported by superior officers when complaints are made.

To anyone who has been victimized, "the first thing I would say as vice chief of the defence staff is, I'm deeply sorry, it should never have happened and we're working hard every day to make sure it doesn't happen to others," Rouleau said. 

The military learned a lot from victims of misconduct, he said, and "for their pain and suffering, we're growing as an institution" and moving in a more positive direction.

One part of the plan focuses on rehabilitating individuals accused of sexual misconduct — and perhaps even retaining them. But there is no similar strategy for victims, said the founder of a volunteer group dedicated to helping current and former members of the Canadian military cope with work-related sexual trauma.

"Given the high number of my group members who either quit or were medically released after reporting, or being forced to report, a sexual assault, I think a plan is necessary," said Marie-Claude Gagnon of the organization It's Just 700.

"In the CAF survey on sexual misconduct, fear of career loss, and career impact, is a big deterrent for victims to report."

Another part of the strategy lays out how the newly-created Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC), which provides 24/7 support to victims, will take a larger role in education.

"I strongly disagree on how the SMRC is expanding its role to educate CAF about toxic masculinity, perpetrators care and support for accused and handling non-punitive restorative justice process," said Gagnon. "I don't think SMRC's role should involve both the victim and the accused. It's a conflict of interest."

The report also references the implementation within military law of the Declaration of Victims Rights. That measure was passed by Parliament over a year ago but has been held up because the military legal branch has not yet drafted regulations to support the legislation.

Rouleau could not say when that will happen, but insisted he and the military's judge advocate general are focused on it.

"Something of this magnitude and import, we want to get right," he said. "So, we're not going to rush out just to say we've hit a timeline."

A legal expert said recently that, by dragging its feet on the implementation of law, the defence department is flouting the will of Parliament.

Rouleau said he is "engaged" on the issue and is hoping to be "able to signal in the coming weeks and months" that the issue has been resolved.


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.