True extent of sexual misconduct problem in military unknown: Whitecross

OTTAWA — There is no consensus about the extent to which sexual misconduct and harassment are occurring among Canada’s soldiers, says the commander in charge of the military’s response to a scathing report on the problem.

Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, who is spearheading the Canadian Forces effort to address the situation, said Monday there’s no agreement among leaders, despite the report’s harsh depiction of the military’s highly sexualized culture.

“While there is a collective will to move the organization forward, there is little consensus as to the gravity of the existing problem,” Whitecross told a House of Commons committee.

In a report released earlier this month, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps documented a sexualized culture so pervasive that soldiers eventually become desensitized, while victims encountered a chain of command that seemed to turn a blind eye to real problems within its ranks.

Whitecross has so far held 16 briefing sessions on half a dozen Canadian Forces bases and said she’s heard from soldiers all through the ranks, some coming forward with personal stories, others admitting that they’ve been responsible for creating the culture Deschamps slammed.

Commanders are committed to action, Whitecross said.

“They all want to be engaged in setting the conditions for a better trust in the chain of command … that, fundamentally, is the biggest thing we’re hearing.”

The military had sought to defuse the bomb of Deschamps’s report by presenting its plan to address her 10 recommendations at the same time the study was released.

They only agreed with two of her recommendations outright, committing to the rest only in principle — including that there be an independent centre to handle sexual abuse and misconduct claims.

Deschamps told the committee Monday that the centre is only one prong of the approach.

“The centre is one of the elements of the puzzle of the whole strategy to reinstate the confidence in the organization because the victims will know that if they seek support they will not suffer any negative consequences,” she said.

“But the change of the culture requires much more than the centre.”

The choice to only agree with the bulk of the recommendations in principle prompted criticism in the aftermath of the report that the military would just end up dismissing the Deschamps’ work.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney, however, has insisted in the House of Commons that all 10 of the report’s recommendations would be implemented.

He has also promised a victims’ bill of rights for the Canadian Forces which would, among other things, strengthen the procedural rights of victims of sexual aggression.

“There’s no one cookie cutter approach here,” Kenney said Monday, reiterating the military’s commitment to the principles of Deschamps’ recommendations.

“The principle is that victims of sexual misconduct should have an independent place outside of the command structure to make those allegations so they are not intimidated, so they don’t feel that they are somehow compromising future promotions or their relationship with their military colleagues if they make such complaints,” he said.

Whitecross said the military is moving forward on each of the recommendations, and while there’s been no final decision on whether a centre would be created, she’s already met with U.S. and Australian military officials — who have such offices set up — and will also speak with French authorities.

“I like the victim support-centric approach that they both have, because fundamentally they are looking at the needs of the victims first and foremost.”

Whitecross has committed to publish a report by this fall updating the public on the status of the military’s response to the Deschamps report.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press