Parts of Canada's military culture permit 'racism, discrimination, harassment,' says acting chief

The acting head of Canada's military made his first public comments today in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against senior commanders — an effort to restore the confidence of the nation and rank-and-file members shaken by the ongoing scandal that engulfed his predecessors.

'Parts of our culture are exclusionary. They’re harmful.' — Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, now acting chief of the defence staff, listens to speakers during a change of command parade for the Canadian Army on Parliament Hill Tuesday, August 20, 2019 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The acting head of Canada's military made his first public comments today in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against senior commanders — an effort to restore the confidence of the nation and rank-and-file members shaken by the ongoing scandal that engulfed his predecessors.

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre — who until two weeks ago was commander of the army — presented himself to the audience at the annual Conference of Defence Associations Institute's meeting as a reluctant but determined warrior, and called on his colleagues to acknowledge the institutional shortcomings that led to the current crisis.

Eyre issued a written statement to military members last week, but his public remarks today were his first since he was asked late the evening on Feb. 24 to take over command from Admiral Art McDonald, who has temporarily stepped aside while sexual misconduct allegations against him are investigated by military police.

"As you can imagine, it has been quite the blur," Eyre said in a video conference address to the conference.

Eyre said he "had some reluctance when asked to take on" the job of acting chief of the defence staff, "seeing the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves...

For one, I can say we're angry. We're also tired of constantly being generalized as victims. ​​​- Lt. Col. Sarah Heer

"I love this institution. I love its people and this is all about giving back, about serving our people and serving our country."

'Shock, disappointment, betrayal'

Eyre said that, through subordinate commanders, he's looked into the state of military morale and serving members' reactions to the bombshell misconduct allegations against McDonald, the current chief of the defence staff, and his predecessor Gen. Jonathan Vance.

Admiral Art McDonald addresses the audience at the Royal Canadian Navy Change of Command ceremony in Halifax on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

He said he's found "shock, disappointment, betrayal, a desire for due process, a desire for real change," along with a "steely-eyed determination" to get on with the business of defending the country.

"These last few weeks have been distressing for everyone in the defence community, military and civilian, serving and retired and our family members alike," Eyre said.

"Parts of our culture are exclusionary. They're harmful. They contribute to an environment that in some corners is permissive of racism, discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct.

"These issues are systemic. We cannot accept our own people being harmed from within.

"Embracing our values, we must be the force that both Canada and Canadians and our own members expect and deserve."

It has been almost eight years since the problem of sexual misconduct in the ranks exploded in the media, with multiple published allegations of misogyny, brutal sexual assaults and even rape being treated with indifference by the chain of command.

The military has launched an ongoing institutional crackdown but several studies, including studies by Statistics Canada, have shown little in the way of progress.

Rear Admiral Rebecca Patterson, the commander of the Canadian Forces Health Services Group, took part in a panel discussion at the conference today to deliver a sweeping defence of Operation Honour, the military's campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct.

'People are coming forward'

When it was first implemented, Operation Honour was conceived and characterized as a military operation — which turned out to be the wrong approach, said Patterson.

"It can't be treated as a simple mission," she said, adding that changing the culture within a conservative organization like the military is difficult.

Patterson described sexual misconduct as a "wicked and complex problem" within the military's culture that must be addressed.

She also said the military has made progress, pointing to ongoing reporting of misconduct by both victims and bystanders.

"I'm not a rainbow-and-unicorns type person," she said. "I think it's very interesting that people are coming forward."

But Patterson said she's troubled by alleged victims' reluctance to report incidents to their superiors and their chains of command.

Lt. Col. Sarah Heer, who leads the Canadian military training mission in Ukraine, told a panel discussion at the conference she believes there has been too much focus on Operation Honour's failings and not enough attention paid to its successes.

'Tactical patience'

She compared Operation Honour with the effort to professionalize the Ukrainian military, which has been going on for over five years and has had to overcome obstacles.

"I suggest we need to have tactical patience," she said. "We need to adapt and we need to continually refine our efforts to enable real and enduring effects."

Heer said she has seen signs of changing attitudes among her own troops.

She also delivered an unvarnished, ground-level reaction to the events of the last month.

"For one, I can say we're angry. We're angry that allegations of inappropriate behaviour continue," said Heer. "We're also tired of constantly being generalized as victims, those of us that are women, and sexual predators for my male colleagues."


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.