Sexual misconduct in the military must come to an end

Photo Credit: Mayatan (Flickr)

A damning report authored by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps has exposed the pervasive sexual misconduct in Canada’s Armed Forces. She blames both a “sexualized culture” that “is hostile to women,” as well as the lack of action on behalf of military leadership regarding the issue.

A similar article authored by Maclean’s claimed that only one in 10 incidents of military sexual assault are reported, while each day, the article estimates, there are about five incidents of sexual misconduct in the military.

Canada’s armed forces currently deny the scope and pervasiveness of the problem. General Tom Lawson, Chief of Defence Staff, has said that he doesn’t believe “that sexual misconduct is any part of [their] military culture.”

Military culture centers on a fraternal camaraderie rather than an equitable partnership in which women can engage. Those who break rank and speak out about abuses and injustices compromise that fraternity, and thus are treated with hostility and discrimination. The military therefore is inherently biased towards turning a blind eye towards wrongdoing of any kind in order to maintain the facade that its members are moral vanguards.

This sentiment is echoed in the oft-repeated platitude, “we need to support our troops”: the unsaid implication here is that our troops must be vehemently defended. It implies that its numbers are infallible.

Military culture centers on a fraternal camaraderie rather than an equitable partnership in which women can engage.

Because of the misogyny and sexism that male members perpetuate, this culture disproportionately impacts women, who are most likely to be victims of such abuse.  This culture is not limited to the Armed Forces. In 2013, The Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario received complaints from more than 10 women who reported sexual harassment committed by more senior cadets. The College’s Board of Governors was notified about this issue, yet, allegedly, no action was taken. The impunity that these sexual offenders face in the college foreshadows the impunity they will certainly be privileged with when they join the Armed Forces.

Recently, former Canadian military medic James Wilks was found guilty of 10 counts of sexual assault and 15 counts of breach of trust, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Wilks now walks free after a judge ruled he could remain as such until his appeal is heard. This proceeding in military court illustrates the complacency with which sexual misconduct is handled.

If a culture of sexual violence pervades the military, it is logical that military courts operate the same way. Civilian courts, while littered with their own issues, would be superior arbiters of justice in these cases.

Deschamps’s report makes 10 recommendations on how to improve the way in which the military deals with sexual misconduct, however, so far only two have been have been fully accepted. One of the unaccepted recommendations advises the creation of an independent agency for victims in the military to seek advice and support, and lodge complaints.

General Lawson has been critical of such an agency becoming independent of the Chief of Defence Staff. This tepid response only highlights the sexism ingrained in Canada’s military. The fight to get the military to stop protecting rapists and sexual harassers and to start protecting victims of abuse will drag on unless leaders get their priorities in order.

Until then, for female soldiers, sexual and verbal abuse will be just another threat in an already dangerous occupation.