Ottawa launches another external review into sexual misconduct in the military

The Liberal government has launched its long-awaited review of sexual misconduct in the military by appointing former supreme court justice Louise Arbour to head the investigation.

It's the second such probe into military misconduct in six years

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks on a livestream during a virtual news conference in Ottawa on April 29, 2021. Sajjan announced that former Supreme Court justice and United Nations high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour will lead what the government is billing as an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Former supreme court justice Louise Arbour will lead an external review into sexual harassment and misconduct in the Canadian military, the federal government announced today.

The review will provide "concrete recommendations" on how an independent, external reporting system — one which allows victims to report violence and misconduct without fear of reprisal — can be put in place, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said.

"To every member in the [Canadian Armed Forces], to every person in [the Department of National Defence] who has been affected by sexual harassment and violence and felt that we were not there to support you — I'm truly sorry," Sajjan told a media availability announcing the review.

"We also know that the current reporting systems do not meet your needs. And too often, you do not feel able to report misconduct out of fear of reprisal or retribution. We have heard you, we have listened and we taking action."

It was also confirmed Thursday that the Department of National Defence (DND) will establish a new in-house position — a chief of conduct and professionalism.

CBC News reported last week on the creation of the new position. It will be filled by newly promoted Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, who recently returned from commanding the NATO training mission in Iraq.

WATCH: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announces another military misconduct probe

Defence minister announces military misconduct review

1 year ago
Duration 3:51
Harjti Sajjan announces that retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour will lead an external review to examine the culture of harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Six years ago, the former Conservative government conducted its own external review of sexual misconduct in the military, led by another former supreme court justice — Marie Deschamps. She recommended the government establish an independent agency for reporting misconduct.

That recommendation was largely ignored. Instead, DND created a sexual misconduct response centre — which, while independent of the military chain of command, only provides advice to victims.

WATCH: Defence Minister Sajjan is asked why a second review is needed

Sajjan is asked why the military needs another report to help end sexual misconduct

1 year ago
Duration 1:31
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan spoke with reporters Thursday about the plan to change how the military deals with sexual misconduct.

An external reporting agency has been one of the key demands from the survivors of sexual assault and misconduct in the ranks who have testified before recent parliamentary committees. Those committees launched hearings after the country's two most senior military commanders — retired general Jonathan Vance and Admiral Art McDonald — were accused separately of inappropriate behaviour.

Sajjan said Thursday that the aim of the new external review is to build on what was learned from the Deschamps report.

"We can't just create an external system that we're looking at," he said after a reporter asked him why a second review is needed. "We want to be extremely bold in our way forward."

Deputy Defence Minister Jody Thomas was more direct, noting that not everything recommended six years ago was implemented — and the findings of this new review will be carried out.

"There's no simple answer," said Thomas. "It may seem like we're moving too slowly.

"We accept the Deschamps report was not implemented as intended by its author. We're not going to interpret the [eventual Arbour] report this time — we're going to implement it."

'How many people are going to suffer?'

The review is expected to take about a year. That long timeline dismays some survivors of sexual assault, who say the federal government has reviewed the problem enough.

"What do they want to study more?" asked Sherry Bordage, a former master corporal who left the military in 2014.

"How many people are going to suffer in the interim while they continue to delay taking any real action on an issue they're already aware of? They have a lot of power and don' t want to give it up."

The country's acting top military commander, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, has been signalling for weeks that the military must be prepared to fully accept the findings of the external review.

On Thursday, he seemed to direct his remarks at the more recalcitrant quarters of the defence establishment that — even after weeks of sordid revelations and multiple military police investigations into assault and misconduct claims — remains reluctant to admit there is a problem.

"We must embrace the independent external comprehensive review and the accountability it will bring," Eyre said. "We have to welcome scrutiny with humility. This will take our collective efforts. All of us. It comes down to everyone's actions and words."

Speaking on CBC's Power & Politics with Vassy Kapelos late today, Arbour was careful to temper expectations about her upcoming review — particularly regarding what an external reporting centre might look like.

"Different people have a different understanding of what independent [and] outside means," she said, adding the debate inevitably opens up questions about the "adequacy" of the entire military justice system.

Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

The military is notoriously reluctant to give up authority over its own members. Arbour suggested that whatever course her review charts, it's going to need widespread acceptance.

"I think this is an opportunity, I hope, to get it right, to do something that will generate enough buy-in internally and externally to make this work," said Arbour.

The Opposition Conservatives accused the Liberal government today of dragging its feet and pointed to a plan they presented two months ago, which included a pledge for an independent reporting centre.

"For three months, the Trudeau Liberals have failed to take action," Conservative defence critic James Bezan said in a media statement. He accused the government of doing all it to deflect and delay accountability.

"During that time, the Liberals have been misleading Canadians on their cover-up of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. The Trudeau Liberals have also refused to take any accountability for their failure to act on sexual misconduct allegations against Gen. Vance three years ago."

Today's announcement also highlighted the $236 million set aside in the recent federal budget to implement additional support programs for survivors — notably an online and in-person professional peer support program. The government is also promising to expand the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) to bases across the country.


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.

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