Part 1 – Context of the CAF’s Sexual Misconduct Problem


The initial Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) reaction to the need to address sexual misconduct was to identify four well-defined lines of effort: understand the issue; respond to the incidents of sexual misconduct; support persons affected by sexual misconduct; and prevent sexual misconduct from occurring in the first place. These lines of effort continue to guide Operation HONOUR as it expands to include the longer-term challenge of shifting from the immediate response to sexual misconduct and the sexualized cultured confirmed in the 2015 External Review Authority (ERA) report by former Justice Deschamps report towards institutionalising cultural change.


The CAF continues to face the serious problem of sexual misconduct. Much has been done, and is currently being done, to address and eventually eliminate this complex cultural affliction, but at this juncture it is still very much a work in progress. There is much yet to be achieved.

The most recent indication that the CAF had a significant sexual misconduct problem came in the spring of 2014 when a national front-cover news report indicated that the phenomenon was rife within the Canadian military. Most CAF members, including its leaders, were quick to dismiss this account as exaggerated and sensationalist. After all, widespread sexual misconduct in the CAF had been identified in the late 1990s (also prompted by media scrutiny) and addressed through a series of corporate directives and training initiatives implemented over an extended period of years. The possibility that this approach was ineffective, and that sexual misconduct remained an issue within the CAF seemed improbable. Nor did it square with the run of apparent operational successes the organization had experienced in the post-2000 period, which necessarily demanded high levels of cohesion, compassion and courage. Instead, it was generally believed that the cases of sexual misconduct that had periodically surfaced in the intervening post-2000 period were isolated cases that frequently occur in any large organization.

Despite this prevailing scepticism, Canadian Armed Forces’ strategic leadership decided that further examination was warranted. In the summer of 2014, the then CDS triggered an internal review to examine the situation in greater detail. When the results of this review were less than conclusive, the CDS commissioned an intensive external review—an unprecedented move for the CAF. Former Supreme Court Justice the Honourable Marie Deschamps was asked to serve as the External Review Authority (ERA). Her mandate was straightforward—get to the bottom of the problem and deliver an objective and representative evaluation. To achieve this, she was granted unfettered access to the CAF and its members.

The results of the external review submitted in early spring of 2015 were unequivocal and highly alarming. Madame Deschamps declared that sexual misconduct in the CAF was both widespread among its ranks and endemic to its culture. She further stated that the CAF suffered from an underlying sexualized culture that was hostile to those targeted, primarily female and LGBTQ members. Aside from being highly inappropriate and disrespectful to the women and men proudly serving the nation, this prevailing culture was conducive to more severe incidents including sexual harassment and sexual assault. In short, the existing situation was as unacceptable as it was deplorable.

This judgement came as a shock to many serving and retired members of the Canadian military community simply because it did not reflect their particular professional environment, past or present. However, it did accurately reflect the experience of those that had suffered from sexual misconduct, many of whom had remained silent. The fact was that Mme Deschamps’ assessment was a reality for these current and former members, which meant it was a reality for too many. The CAF could not ignore that it had a serious problem of rampant sexual misconduct.

While there remained some holdouts who still refused to believe that the issue was as dire as presented, there was a palpable sentiment of disgust and outrage amongst a preponderance of CAF members, as well as ex-members. They openly questioned how such a proud and accomplished national institution could be a sanctuary for such shameful, and in some cases predatory, behaviours and attitudes. This unfathomable contradiction was difficult for many to reconcile.

The CAF responded swiftly to the Deschamps evaluation. The ERA Report was publicly accepted in April 2015, sending a loud message to all concerned or interested that the institution would not hide from this profoundly troubling assessment. The CDS publicly expressed the CAF’s commitment to address sexual misconduct as a top Canadian Armed Forces’ priority. As an initial measure, the CAF established a sub-organization charged solely with developing and coordinating the CAF’s response to sexual misconduct. This was another decision unprecedented in the organization’s long history.

The impetus for the CAF’s assertive posture was threefold. First, the CAF had a moral obligation to ensure that in return for the dedication and commitment of Canadian sailors, soldiers and aviators in defending Canada and Canadian values—including the very real possibility of serious injury or even loss of life—every single member of the CAF deserved to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of gender, background or preference. Second, any erosion of the cohesion and camaraderie central to a professional fighting force was a threat to the long-term operational effectiveness of the CAF. Finally, the CAF’s service to the nation was underwritten by the longstanding trust of Canadians toward the institution. Any breach of this foundational national confidence would ultimately undermine the Canadian Armed Forces’ capacity to fulfill its mission.

The CAF’s commitment to addressing sexual misconduct intensified with the arrival of the current CDS, General Jonathan Vance, in the summer of 2015. General Vance committed to taking a direct hands-on approach to the undertaking, assuring stakeholders that he would actively lead it from the front. He also enhanced the endeavour’s objective from addressing the CAF’s sexual misconduct problem to eliminating it—an aim he was, and remains, convinced a world-class professional fighting force must absolutely aspire to. It was obvious the corporate approach employed in the late 1990s/early 2000s had not succeeded. As a result, General Vance implemented the same direct approach to planning, executing and evaluating the organization’s response to its sexual misconduct problem as the one the CAF has successfully employed for operations across Canada and around the world for many years.

Operation HONOUR

Operation HONOUR was launched on August 14, 2015. This shift from organizational to operational imperative was hugely significant because it attached to the endeavour the same priority as the myriad of war-fighting, peace-enforcement, emergency and humanitarian operations the CAF had executed with little pause over the past two-plus decades. The goal of Operation HONOUR was to eliminate sexual misconduct in the CAF by connecting CAF members across the organization to this imperative in a language and with a focus they understood instinctively and responded to reflexively. Adopting an operational approach to an institutional imperative was designed to generate decisive results under challenging circumstances, just as the CAF has done in military operation after military operation throughout its contemporary history.

Although the Deschamps Report was extremely revealing, CAF senior leadership knew that the institution needed a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes of its sexual misconduct problem; it needed to respond to incidents as they occurred; it had to support victims; and ultimately, it needed to prevent sexual misconduct from occurring in the first place. To help achieve this, a series of associated research initiatives were launched, along with consultations drawing upon a range of internal and external expertise, including from our allies. The aim of this research and collaboration was to significantly increase the CAF’s comprehension of the problem over time, allowing it to develop and implement viable, sustainable solutions that would meet the unique requirements of a military environment.

The cornerstone of the CAF’s comprehensive research was the sexual misconduct-specific survey of the entire uniformed constituency—another significant organizational first. The initial iteration of these cyclical CAF-wide surveys was conducted by Statistics Canada at the CAF’s behest in fall 2016, with the intention of repeating the process every two years.

The initial Statistics Canada survey released in late 2016 confirmed most of the ERA’s findings, dispelling any remaining doubts that the problem of sexual misconduct was real and pervasive. It further reinforced to strategic leadership that only a seminal re-shaping of the behaviours and the attitudes expected of CAF members would solve the problem. Accordingly, the CAF needed to first trigger and then galvanize sustained culture change across the institution—a fundamental change in beliefs and attitudes to foster values-based approaches instead of a narrower focus on “results/outcomes.” 

A Contemporary Societal Affliction

Sexual misconduct is certainly not unique to the Canadian Armed Forces as contemporary news coverage emphasizes almost weekly. Although it does not in any measure diminish the CAF’s sexual misconduct problem, the #MeToo era has brought into clear focus the astonishing prevalence of this societal affliction around the globe. Indeed, no element of modern western society has gone unaffected, including government; the corporate and business sectors; the sports, entertainment and artistic worlds; the courts; and the academic environment. While the public spotlight has often fixated on police and military forces, the blight of sexual misconduct has transcended beyond these power and rank-based, rigidly hierarchical, highly traditional and male-dominated organizations. Regrettably, sexual misconduct is globally and societally ubiquitous. This context does not minimize the institution’s obligation to both its members and Canadians—the CAF remains completely committed to this imperative regardless of its deep pervasiveness beyond the Canadian military community. The changes to the CAF education and training curricula will require an immense amount of work from all services and learning institutions, as well as audit and validation.

The CAF and Sexual Misconduct

The effects of sexual misconduct have been well documented through high-profile incidents and situations over the past several years. Sexual misconduct produces frustration, confusion, anxiety, resentment, mistrust and fear that can extend even beyond the victim. While victims experience a litany of harmful impacts—including very real psychological and physical consequences—the result is also a toxic mix for the organization. The impact is uniquely serious for the CAF where the working environment is often volatile and the consequence of error frequently fatal. In a milieu where trust, cohesion and collaboration are critical to mission success, the effects of sexual misconduct can be catastrophic.

Equally important, the CAF must be held to a higher standard than almost any other organization by virtue of its mission of defending the nation and its values. It cannot defend these values if it does not wholeheartedly and unwaveringly embody them in any environment or circumstances. Exemplifying the beliefs and values that Canada stands for is, and must remain, a major focus of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Complexity of Addressing Sexual Misconduct

The #MeToo movement has brought three truths into sharp relief. One, there are no easy solutions to changing behaviors and reshaping attitudes relative to sexual misconduct. Instead, the solutions are as intricate and elusive as the problem is complex, demanding solutions tailored to each constituency and circumstance. Two, there are very few quick fixes in reshaping sexual misconduct-related organizational culture. While rapid action is necessary to curb offending behaviours and better support victims, the process of inculcating sustained culture change is inevitably a long-term undertaking.

The third truth of sexual misconduct-related culture change is that while behaviors can be impacted in the short-term through linear, punitive-based methods, the behaviour reverts to the previous level once direct oversight is removed. Enduring change is only achieved by reshaping attitudes and beliefs. To change the way members act, the CAF must change the way members think—and this is a gradual process measured in years rather than weeks or months.

Stated succinctly, instigating and normalizing such enduring change requires a significant and sustained investment in effort and time. There are no shortcuts.

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