A reckoning for the Canadian Forces

By the early 1990s, Canada made the decision to admit women into combat roles and the most exclusive officer training institutions. Women could finally take their rightful place serving their country in all roles equally, beside men.

I graduated from the Royal Military College (RMC) in 1991. A few months later, the word “Tailhook” would send shock waves throughout the United States military. Canadians in uniform followed the scandal closely. Reports of up to 83 women and seven men sexually assaulted by U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers at a weekend conference in Nevada were alarming.

Tailhook laid bare a U.S. military culture gone wrong. Promotions, postings and pay increases were suspended. Careers were ended. Colonels, navy captains, admirals and generals were fired. A clear message of zero tolerance was sent. There was to be no doubt that the U.S. military would be a place where women could serve equally and with pride.

Canada introduced the Standard for Harassment and Racism Prevention Program (SHARP) following the 1992 assault of Dawn Thomson at CFB Esquimalt.

The jokes about the program were endless. After hours of unpopular training, everyone was deemed “SHARPened.” Complaints were buried, dismissed or not filed at all. SHARP failed.

From my time at RMC, I understood how entrenched the culture was. Women at military college were physically abused and verbally harassed. Their competence was marginalized and discounted. Attempts to get them to quit were unrelenting.

In 2015, a scathing review on the state of sexual misconduct in the military, the Deschamps Report, was published. Gen. Jonathan Vance initiated Operation Honour and appointed himself its champion. Jokes about “hop on her,” a demeaning reference to the operation’s title, started almost instantly. It was clear that the credibility of yet another culture change initiative was in the crosshairs.

Yet military women and men had hope. The prime minister was supposed to be a feminist and the defence minister committed to zero tolerance.

Now, the same officers in charge of eradicating this behaviour stand accused of it. They were enabled by the defence minister, who, under the National Defence Act, is responsible for the management and direction of the Canadian Forces. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan had the ability to investigate the allegations against Vance and Admiral Art McDonald. He also had the authority to suspend them from duty while he did so.

Sajjan neither convened an investigation nor suspended Vance. In the case of McDonald, an internal investigation reporting to a subordinate was initiated and McDonald chose to step aside. He was not suspended.

The Canadian deputy commander of NORAD had to be rotated home due to misconduct with an American civilian. The government says no Canadian rules were broken. Had the deputy commander been an American officer, he would have faced more severe reprimand. That’s a legacy of Tailhook. That was their reckoning. The standard of professional conduct was restored. And they will stand firmly to protect it.

This is our Tailhook moment.

The investigations surrounding Gen. Vance, Admiral MacDonald and all others must be comprehensive and entirely outside the chain of command. The U.S. Congress forced it in Tailhook. It’s the only option when a prime minister and defence minister fail to lead.

There is evidence that these high-profile incidents of misconduct are not isolated. It is likely that some people who have been complicit in this behaviour remain in key positions and are able to interfere in investigations. Every senior officer who has failed in their duties, either through their actions or their silence, must be held accountable. Pay and promotion must be frozen to ensure that only deserving behaviour is rewarded.

The defence ombudsman must be an independent officer of Parliament. Safeguards are required to guarantee the promise of the highest standard of professional conduct and a workplace free from harassment is fulfilled.

The values of a nation are fragile. A military stands to protect them. But it must also embody them.

Service to this country is at my core. My father was Maj.-Gen. Ian Alleslev. He lived in occupied Denmark and my grandfather served in the Danish resistance. They chose Canada because of our values. My father served in the military to defend them. I followed him and, like many others in uniform, was honoured to wear the Canadian flag on my sleeve.

“Truth, duty, valour” is a core military motto. This is the moment we decide if we mean it.

Article published in the National Post here