A skeptical Louise Arbour wants to see real action on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces


OTTAWA —It is not just Canada’s insular, macho, hierarchical military culture, but also Ottawa’s culture of political accountability — or lack of it — that must change in order to address the scourge of sexual harassment and misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, says former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.

In an interview with the Star, Arbour said the military and the government need to take action to effect real change.

All the “blah, blah, blah about change of ‘culture’ is leaving me a little skeptical,” she said.

The former UN human rights commissioner and former international war crimes prosecutor released her final report Monday, which explicitly rejected calls for the creation of new or more civilian oversight of the military. Arbour told the Star that’s what elected officials are supposed to provide.

Instead, she made 48 recommendations which amount to a condemnation of the failure of successive ministers and military leaders to implement recommendations of past reports — including by two of her former Supreme Court colleagues, Marie Deschamps and Morris Fish — or to address the problem of a toxic work culture in a meaningful way.

“They currently are sitting on — and this is not an exaggeration — hundreds of recommendations” that would have led to change in how the military handles sexual misconduct and harassment, Arbour said. “And there’s very little political price to pay when you keep saying ‘you’re examining and analyzing and you have a tiger team looking at an issue.’”

Arbour said she rejected the idea of creating an inspector general or another review office that would report to Parliament, saying whatever its configuration, “in the end, it’s not a court. It cannot order anything.”

It would merely “end up making recommendations. To me, the danger with that is that it dilutes rather than further increases political accountability. It’s just another layer of someone who criticizes.”

Politicians and military leaders don’t act unless they are forced to do so, she said, either by court order or in the face of sustained negative media coverage.

The gist of Arbour’s assessment is that the military does not need more “after the fact” oversight of what went wrong when mistakes are made, but needs to rely on civilian expertise to drive change.

First, it must permanently hand off military prosecutions of individual sexual misconduct cases to civilian courts. Second, it must hand off investigation and adjudication of systemic complaints of sexual or gender harassment to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Skeptical of political foot-dragging, Arbour called for an external adviser to oversee her report’s implementation and report monthly to Defence Minister Minister Anita Anand, who should “inform Parliament by the end of the year” which recommendations she does not intend to act on.

Anand said she intends to name an external adviser for that job “as soon as possible. I will say that the external monitor is going to be incredibly important.”

On Monday, Anand said she and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “agree” with Arbour, and that she would immediately act on 17 — or a third — of Arbour’s recommendations while the rest are studied further.

A senior government source said the government would have liked to act immediately acted on all of Arbour’s recommendations, but several — including the restructuring of military colleges due to their misogynistic cultures — require much more discussion.

Last year, media revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against several senior military officers — including then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance — triggered the Arbour review.

Since then, Trudeau has overhauled the leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces and the civilian-led Department of National Defence, and named a new defence minister, deputy defence minister and chief of the defence staff.

But Arbour said leadership changes alone cannot make a difference. Even if leaders are “very committed” to change the “way of doing business … the organizational culture in the CAF and to the large extent in DND is incapable of delivering by itself,” she said.

“It’s allergic to external input. That’s why you’re sitting on all these recommendations that come from the outside.”

Those new leaders need structural changes such as she has recommended to “bring oxygen” into an organization that Arbour likened to entrenched institutions like “the churches and to a much lesser degree, the judiciary,” where those inside think “nobody understands us, only we know how to run our business because we’re like nobody else, and we need to essentially be left on our own, we know better on everything.”

Nothing changes “until you start cracking” the structure that supports the culture, which is why Arbour said the military should focus on what it does well “which is the profession of arms warfare and civilian rescue deployments and that kind of stuff, and let go of what others clearly can do, at least as well, likely better, in education and justice, in some management of human resources.”

“At some point, you want to have people on board, but if you just walk into that closed shop, it’s gonna have the better of you.”

Liberal MP John McKay, chairman of the Commons committee on national defence, said in an interview that it will take “a huge amount of political will” to make the military move but if any minister has that, it’s Anand.

“She will make her senior people dance to make sure that they are serious about responding to it,” he said.

Still, McKay who has been an MP for 25 years, echoed Arbour’s fear that “every military can outwait any minister. You have to convince these people that this has to happen. They can slow walk anything.”

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