Arbour won’t pull any punches

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There is a very real possibility that these military messes could do major political damage.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 3, 2021.

The appointment of Louise Arbour to review sexual misconduct in the military takes us one step closer to an election.

The former Supreme Court justice is a renowned Canadian and international jurist. As chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Arbour carried out the first ever global prosecution of sexual assault as a crime against humanity.

And she has now been tasked with examining the Canadian military’s approach to sexual harassment, without reviewing individual cases.

Given the fact that harassment allegations have made it all the way to the military’s commanding officer, not once but twice, Arbour is facing no small challenge.

With chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance and his successor Admiral Art McDonald both being probed for sexual misconduct, the problem seems to have infected the military from top to bottom.

In addition to announcing Arbour’s appointment last week, the government also exposed the depth of the problem, tabling harassment statistics for the past five years.

The period coincided with Operation Honour, an in-house effort to stamp out sexual harassment in the military. During that time, 581 complaints of sexual assault were logged, and another 221 incidents of sexual harassment were cited.

The operation was supposed to encourage victims of harassment to come forward and lay complaints without fear of retribution.

Given the allegations at the top, the effort was thrown into a state of disarray and is in the midst of being dismantled.

Some believe the numbers of harassed members of the military is much higher, with more than 4,600 people having registered for redress as a result of harassment allegations.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan joined ministerial colleague Maryam Monsef and Liberal members of the House Defence Committee to announce the Arbour appointment.

Sajjan gave a lengthy overview of the reasoning behind the announcement but could not dodge the questions about potential government involvement.

Arbour is not the first jurist to weigh in on the military. Six years ago, former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps was tasked with the same problem.

Her conclusion: not only was the military rife with “sexualized culture,” but that “endemic” sexual misconduct was actually accepted by the military leadership.

Deschamps’ review occurred during the tenure of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper who was personally briefed about the allegations against Vance. Harper actually questioned Vance directly and was satisfied with his claim that a consensual relationship with a female officer was not a violation since she was not in his chain of command.

The Deschamps review triggered the launch of Operation Honour to stamp out sexism in the military.

Instead, six years later the upper echelons of the military are being examined for the same problem.

There is a very real possibility that these military messes could do major political damage.

The parliamentary committee reviewing military sexism heard recently that the chief of staff to the prime minister was briefed on allegations against Vance, but Justin Trudeau said last week that his office did not know that misconduct allegations were of a sexual nature.

The government obviously hopes the Arbour appointment will buy them time and distance.

They need distance from the military, which at this point appears incapable of stamping out sexism within its ranks.

And they also need time in the hope that Arbour’s findings are far enough in the future to prevent sexual harassment from becoming a fall election theme.

Liberals and the Bloc Québécois forced an end to the three-month parliamentary investigation of the military. Sajjan’s parliamentary secretary Anita Vandenbeld defended the shutdown on the grounds that military victims are anxiously awaiting the report to get some solutions.

But Arbour will want to take a deep dive into the inner workings of the problem before she puts her name on recommendations. Sajjan said that she will likely be tabling an interim report.

But most Liberals will hope that Arbour is in no rush as they would love to get through the election without having sexual harassment in the military as a major campaign issue.

In addition, when it comes to personnel matters in the military, the public is less likely to blame the government than the military brass.

Changing the culture of any organization does not happen overnight. Add a military or police element to that equation, and it makes change even more difficult.

So, a concerted effort to get to the bottom of military harassment will probably pass electoral muster.

And when her report is finalized, Arbour won’t pull any punches.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.