It's time to be uncomfortable

Six years ago, in response to former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps' External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed ForcesFootnote 9, the Chief of Defence Staff made a bold promise to end sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, saying that "proper conduct starts now."Footnote 10 Since then, much has been done to compel leaders throughout the CAF to adopt preventive policies to eliminate sexual misconduct and to provide a "safe landing" for victims who come forward with their stories. Nevertheless, many military members continue to relate stories of harassment, discrimination and sexual aggressions. And they are not alone. Civilian members of the Defence Team have also come forward with their own stories, pleading not to be left behind in the quest for a healthy environment.

Although stories of sexual misconduct within the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces have led the media focus over recent months, sexual misconduct is a symptom of a bigger ailment: a toxic environment within both the military and civilian workplaces.Unless it is rapidly reined in and addressed, the impact of this toxicity will linger for years, affecting the reputation of the Defence Team to the point of repulsing Canadians from joining its workforce. Recruitment data suggest that this is already happening.

In addition to stories of sexual misconduct, this Advisory Panel heard numerous accounts from members of the Defence Team that highlighted systemic barriers: persistent racial discrimination for Black and racialized members, harassment of women and members of the LGBTQ2+ community, lack of informed medical support for transgender transformations, neglect of persons with disabilities and a disregard for the importance of partnership with Indigenous Peoples.

There is a common thread to many of the heart-wrenching stories the Advisory Panel heard. At their core are the lost – but potentially powerful – contributions of members of the Defence Team who leave the organization because the price they would have to pay to persevere in the organization would be unbearable. When the Defence Team fully understands that the aspects of their personal identities marginalized individuals must sacrifice to become valued members of the team are the very things that would make a stronger, equitable, more operational and more versatile force, then the Defence Team will be on the right path for diversity and inclusion to flourish.

Until then, DND/CAF must be attentive to what its people have to say. It will likely be very uncomfortable for many members of the organization. Change is hard. The response will vary among members, but the Defence Team must find the catalysts for change within itself if progress is to be achieved.

The following are some important realities that need to be acknowledged:

  • Some Defence Team members will leave. Some people are not willing to work towards a more inclusive society.
  • Some members of the Defence Team will fight these cultural changes. These members can sometimes have the loudest voices in the organization and their influence is impactful. If these influencers cannot be educated towards a culture of inclusivity, they have no place on the team. The organization cannot risk the perpetuation of a toxic environment by those who do not see the value of creating a more inclusive Defence Team.
  • Some members of the Defence Team will "shut up and put up." These are the people who do not agree with the changes but will resist silently. By virtue of inaction, they will support and maintain the status quo, perpetuating an environment of harm for Defence Team members.
  • Many Defence Team members will try to adapt to this new environment. These members may sometimes be awkward or clumsy, but they are the Defence Team's key players because they are motivated to do what is right. At times, they will not know how. They will make mistakes, because they have been enmeshed in a discriminatory system for so long and many are blinded by what they do not know. They deserve to be coached, mentored, educated and guided in the right direction. As long as they are trying to do what is right, they deserve compassion, patience and support.

Abuse of power is a key corrosive factor

The Advisory Panel had no difficulty identifying many different instances of systemic racism and discrimination in DND/CAF. A common underlying link connecting all these practices is the abuse of power.

DND/CAF, by virtue of its institutional nature and mandate, is a power structure involving “a system of roles whereby individuals hold the authority to direct resources and make decisions.Footnote 11 And where humans wield power without sufficient moderating factors, there will likely be instances of abuse of power.

Power used for any purpose other than its intended purpose constitutes abuse. This abuse can take many forms. It can be manifested physically, emotionally or psychologically and can be wielded singularly or collectively. In Canada, as shown in Part I of this report, power structures are entrenched in a colonist/settler dominant culture that discriminates against those outside of the privileged group.

Abuse of power is the antithesis of professional conduct and human decency. To use power for other than the purpose it was conferred on an individual or an organization is, perhaps, the greatest of all violations. It erodes trust, teamwork, cohesiveness, health, and creates a toxic environment. The Advisory Panel was not able to quantify the abuse of power in the Defence Team, but it witnessed its ravages amongst the nearly 19,000 complainants of the Sexual Misconduct Class Action Lawsuit, in the lingering effects on victims of the LGBT Purge, and in the dishonourable treatment of Indigenous Veterans after their return from the World Wars (where they risked their lives to protect their colonizers). Abuse of power was a consistent theme in the conversations the Advisory Panel had with the Defence Advisory Groups and Network, and the consultations it held with individual members of the Defence Team.

In spite of all this, the Advisory Panel witnessed within the Defence Team resiliency, compassion and a genuine desire to foster a more inclusive organization. On numerous occasions, the Advisory Panel heard pleas to "just tell us how." Despite the alleged incidents of sexual misconduct by senior leadership, many members of the Defence Team reached out to the Advisory Panel with a sense of optimism, encouragement and motivation. Their unwavering loyalty to the Defence Team, to their esteemed colleagues, gave the Advisory Panel much hope for pivotal change in their workplace.

DND/CAF are equipped with excellent foundational law, clear regulations and sound policies for professional conduct. They are supported by additional legislation outside of their influence, ranging from Bill C-15 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act to the Accessible Canada Act and the Employment Equity Act. And they are supported by initiatives like the United Nations Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). Once the Official Languages Act is updated, it too should become a pillar of support for inclusiveness, diversity and equity to flourish. With the Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC) organizationFootnote 12 recently stood up, the Advisory Panel witnessed a new wave of optimism amongst the Defence Team members with whom it engaged.

The Defence Team now faces its greatest current institutional challenge: to adopt a steadfast resolve to be intolerant of all forms of abuse of power, while championing diversity and inclusion. The highest levels of its leadership seem to have endorsed this imperative. The Defence Team as a whole must now embrace this ideal, and create a culture where all Canadians can serve with pride knowing that they are valued for their contributions and able to reach their potential.

“My top priority is positive and enduring culture change.”

Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, 21 November 2021.

“It is the exclusionary aspects inherent in parts of our culture that we are addressing to ensure current and future members are safe, valued and able to focus on their most important task, protecting Canada and Canadians. We must retain, and be able to attract, talent from all segments of Canadian society. Canadians must see themselves in their armed forces – our future depends on it.”

Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre, 25 November 2021.

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