Sajjan open to 'far greater' changes to military's handling of sexual misconduct

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the federal government is looking at major changes in organization and authority when it comes to the military's handling of sexual misconduct.

Defence minister defends his handling of 2018 allegation against retired general Jonathan Vance

'We have to get this right,' Sajjan says

Rosemary Barton Live

5 days ago
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told CBC's chief political correspondent, Rosemary Barton, that the federal government will not wait for the completed report into sexual misconduct in the Canadian military to start implementing changes. 10:30

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the federal government is prepared to implement profound reforms to how the military deals with sexual misconduct within its ranks, after it ordered yet another external review of the issue.

"The reason we're conducting this review is because the changes that we're looking at are going to need to be far greater. It's possible changes are going to happen in organizational changes, where authorities will need to change. There possibly might be legislative changes as well," Sajjan said in an interview that aired Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour will lead an external review of the issue of sexual misconduct in the military, six years after a similar study recommended establishing an independent agency for reporting misconduct, among other things.

That independent reporting agency was never established, and while Sajjan said some progress has been made, more needs to be done.

"And we have clearly seen that it has not created the confidence for some of our survivors to be able to have confidence within the chain of command, given what we were facing."

Sajjan says department has taken some steps

There were 581 reports of sexual assault in the military over the last five years, according to new statistics tabled in Parliament by the Department of National Defence this week. Survivors of sexual assault in the military say that number doesn't tell the whole story, as many victims may never report an incident.

Asked why the government had not already implemented the previous recommendations, Sajjan replied that his department had taken some steps, including the creation of a Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, which is separate from the chain of command and provides advice to victims.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, pictured here in December 2020, says the government is open to significant reforms to how the military handles sexual misconduct. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"But obviously we've seen that it has not been enough," he told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

"And what what we're doing here with Madame Arbour's work is have much broader terms of reference to look much deeper, so that we can actually make the organizational changes that are going to be needed to take those type of actions. Because authorities will definitely need to be changed."

Sajjan said he was committed to moving swiftly when Arbour's review proposes a course of action.

"We're not going to wait until we get [the] final recommendations. As part of the terms of reference, we will be taking action immediately if interim recommendations are brought forward," he said.

Vance allegation handled properly, minister says

Sajjan's leadership has come under scrutiny over his handling of a 2018 allegation against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.

"As soon as any type of complaint was brought forward about him, or any other type of misconduct, I immediately notified the appropriate authorities to take action," Sajjan said.

Sajjan speaks on a livestream during a virtual news conference in Ottawa on April 29. The federal government is conducting another external review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The defence minister testified before a parliamentary committee in April that he had followed up several times for information about the allegation that had been referred to the Privy Council Office, which subsequently abandoned it.

Sajjan had previously told committee members he had not followed up on the investigation in order to avoid interfering in it.

"We have seen files where, you know, the outcome could be different. Absolutely. Because the heart goes out to all the survivors had to deal with this sexual trauma. But one thing we absolutely have to do is use ... the process that's in front of us. But right now, we know that the process has not worked, and we need to change that." 

Former justice Arbour, who is leading the new review, said her mandate for investigation and recommendation is broader than that of former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, who helmed the 2015 study. Arbour cited the military's distinct justice system as something Deschamps was unable to examine.

Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour talks about her new role as head of an independent review into sexual misconduct in the military. Air force veteran and sexual assault survivor Christine Wood explains why the government can’t afford to delay dealing with the issue. 13:07

"This time, I can go there," she told host Chris Hall on The House on Saturday. Arbour also said an area of interest would be the promotion, recruitment, training and performance evaluation system.

She said she would look at the question: "What kind of leadership is needed and is put in place in the Canadian Armed Forces?"

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

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