A Remembrance Day to forget: Canadian military plagued by sexual misconduct scandal

Several high-ranking officers have been accused of misconduct in the past year

Retired Gen Jonathan Vance, who served as chief of defence staff, was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Reuters
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They have fought at Vimy Ridge, on the beaches of Normandy and in the mountains of Afghanistan, but the Canadian Armed Forces are engaged in perhaps their most challenging battle yet: confronting sexual misconduct within their own ranks.

Since February 2021, several claims of misconduct have rocked the Canadian military at its highest levels, leaving the armed forces rudderless and the public calling for accountability.

It started with Canada’s top soldier, retired Gen. Jonathan Vance, being accused of allegations of misconduct by Maj Kellie Brennan and another unidentified woman, a story first reported by Global News.

Provincial court documents show he was accused of “repeatedly contacting [Maj Kellie Brennan] by phone and attempting to persuade her to make false statements about their past relationship to the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service".

Gen Vance now faces a charge of obstruction of justice under the criminal code. He denies any "inappropriate behaviour".

And the allegations continued to snowball into an avalanche of claims of misconduct made against a number of military leaders.

After Gen Vance stepped down from his position, his replacement, Admiral Art McDonald, was in the post a little over a month before it was discovered he was under investigation for alleged misconduct.

Admiral McDonald stepped aside voluntarily but now wants his job back after no charges were filed.

And the man who led Canada’s Covid-19 vaccine roll out, Maj Gen Danny Fortin, was charged with sexual assault in a case dating back three decades.

Maj Gen Fortin denies any wrongdoing.

“We've been having on our hands pretty much an existential crisis for the military,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

All the upheaval has wreaked havoc on the command structure and morale, she said.

“We have a considerable loss of trust in the military leadership, both from the public and also from service members themselves,” Ms Duval-Lantoine told The National.

In October, Harjit Sajjan, a decorated veteran and star of the Liberal Party, was shuffled out of the defence post in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Cabinet, a sign that public outcry over the scandal had reached the highest halls of power.

Mr Sajjan served as defence minister for six years but had come under increasing scrutiny over his handling of the crisis engulfing the armed forces.

Mr Trudeau picked Anita Anand to replace Mr Sajjan. Though she has no military background, the former procurement minister played an integral role in helping Canada navigate the pandemic.

Some analysts welcomed Mr Trudeau’s pick.

“Ms Anand is the right person to do the job,” said Stephen Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network. “She's smart, she's intelligent, she does not have any ties to the military.”

And she is already making waves.

Last week, Ms Anand announced that she would be transferring the investigation and prosecution of sexual misconduct cases in the military to civilian courts, something a number of retired Supreme Court justices had been calling for.

Most recently, retired justice Louise Arbour sent the Department of National Defence a letter stating “civilian authorities should exercise investigative and prosecutorial jurisdiction over all sexual offences by [armed forces] members".

Some, however, are concerned this could sow even deeper divisions within the military.

“People are looking for simplistic and easy solutions to complex problems,” said Rory Fowler, a retired lieutenant colonel who now runs his own law firm.

Mr Fowler believes transferring these cases out of military courts will not fix the problem, in part because it will not fully address the kinds of allegations that have been levelled.

“If the misconduct is inappropriate sexual comments in the workplace, that's not necessarily going to meet the threshold for criminal offence,” he told The National.

He says the problem does not lie with the military courts but rather with leadership.

“If the code of service discipline is in fact broken, it's because people aren't using it, and they're not using it properly,” he said.

“And that's decision making. That's not the system that's broken. That's the decision making that is broken.”

This is not the first time the Canadian military has come under intense public scrutiny.

In 1993, two Canadian soldiers serving as peacekeepers in Somalia beat a teenager to death. The “Somalia affair” prompted widespread public outcry and a demand for justice.

A public inquiry found leadership was to blame for the event and the regiment involved was disbanded. The military had its budget slashed by 25 per cent and the public damage took many years to overcome.

The current scandal has started to affect recruitment as well: the military is short about 7,500 troops, which leaders blame in part on the pandemic and the negative press that has come from the allegations.

Some wonder if the latest drama will once again affect the military's multibillion-dollar budget.

“The military right now has no allies. It's going to be very hard for the Conservatives or the New Democrats to complain if Anand does anything significant,” said Mr Saideman.

Updated: November 10, 2021, 8:13 PM