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Ottawa failed to properly implement sexual misconduct report, top Defence civil servant says

Canada’s deputy minister of National Defence says the military’s operation to end sexual misconduct in its ranks “lost its way” because the government failed to properly implement recommendations from a landmark report into the issue six years ago.

Jody Thomas said she wasn’t working for the Department of National Defence in 2015, when a scathing report into sexual misconduct by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps was released.

But Thomas said her “observation” is that the Deschamps report was treated like a checklist. She said the government did not “truly” implement it — something the military has been loath to say.

“It was not given the oversight it needed by the civilian part of the department, so my side of the department in terms of monitoring,” Thomas said in an interview on CBC’s The Current with Matt Galloway. 

“I think that as little was done as possible to make it look like the report had been responded to without any real change. No structural change, no legislative change, no outside the department, outside the Canadian Armed Forces reporting — those kinds of things that Madame Deschamps emphasized.”

A break with military’s message

Thomas’s comment is in stark contrast to what the military told Parliament last month.

Brig.-Gen. Andrew Atherton, director general of professional military conduct, told MPs probing sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces that all of the recommendations in the Deschamps report were fulfilled.

“From our perspective, we believe we have achieved all of those 10 recommendations,” Atherton said on April 15. “However, that is our opinion.”

Thomas told Galloway it’s time to be frank.

“My observation would be that it was treated almost as a checklist, and I think it’s time that we were just honest about that,” Thomas said.

The statement is a clear admission of failure when it comes to the Defence Department’s handling of sexual misconduct.

That said, Thomas did say she wouldn’t characterize Operation Honour — the military’s now-defunct campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct — “completely as a failure,” citing the creation of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and increased reporting. 

Second former top court justice to lead review

Thomas gave the lengthy interview to The Current, which airs Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. local, with Canada’s acting chief of the Defence staff, Lt.-Gen Wayne Eyre. It’s one of their first in-depth interviews with a media outlet since the unravelling of the sexual misconduct crisis this year.

Eyre replaced Admiral Art McDonald, who stepped aside from the top job in February during an investigation into a sexual misconduct claim. McDonald had replaced Gen. Jonathan Vance, who is also under a military police probe over claims of inappropriate behaviour — allegations that he told Global News he denies. Several other senior leaders have also been swept up into the reckoning.

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Former head of military personnel command Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, left, is under investigation for an alleged rape in the 1990s that he denies. Former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, centre, is also under investigation for inappropriate behaviour, which he denies. Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, right, is now acting chief of the defence staff. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Eyre repeated his message that the military has “failed as an institution to properly address” sexual misconduct over the decades. He called it an “existential issue” that threatens to make the military “irrelevant” in society and not able to defend the country if it’s not fixed.

The federal government has tasked another former Supreme Court justice, Louise Arbour, with leading an external review to build on the Deschamps report and implement a reporting mechanism outside of the military’s chain of command.

“We need to own this and view this as an opportunity to truly change our organization,” Eyre said, adding that the military should not be defensive about adopting recommendations.

Eyre acknowledged that he is still questioning why, in his almost 37-year career, he has never seen any inappropriate behaviour or worse in the military.

“I’ve been racking my brain,” he said. “I question what I didn’t see, what didn’t register…I wish I’d been armed with the questions, with some of the sense and understanding that I have now.”

‘It is an assault on one’s professional identity’

The sexual misconduct crisis, Eyre said, has been challenging for him personally to process.

“It’s been difficult because it is an assault on one’s professional identity to think the organization that one thought they were part of, there are aspects to it you didn’t completely understand,” he said.

WATCH | Defence chief says sexual misconduct crisis is ‘existential issue’ for Canadian military


Canada’s acting chief of the Defence staff, Lt.-Gen Wayne Eyre, says the armed forces risks becoming irrelevant to society without institutional change to address sexual misconduct within its ranks. 1:00

Eyre said it would be quite easy to retreat into retirement. But he said he wants to make a difference “understanding that I’ve got a diminished sense of moral legitimacy, given that I’m part of the generation and the generation before us that didn’t make necessary change.”

When asked why the military’s sexualized culture still persists despite all of the revelations over the years and attempts to change it, Eyre said he didn’t have a complete answer.

“Is it a question of power dynamics that we need a much better understanding of the use and the abuse of power?” he said. “Is it the exclusionary aspects of parts of our culture that I’ve talked about before? I don’t know.”

Power and abuse of authority 

Thomas said she believes it is “about power” and “about the abuse of authority.”

“It is disproportionately weighted to senior officers right now in the media, and I understand why people would question their senior leadership,” Thomas said.

“They’ve just been around the longest. Everything that’s been around in the press has been historical. That doesn’t excuse it. I’m not excusing it at all.”

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Lt.-Gen Wayne Eyre, shown in Ottawa in August 2019, is Canada’s acting chief of the defence staff. He replaced Admiral Art McDonald, who stepped aside from the top job in February during an investigation into a sexual misconduct claim. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Thomas said there is a “large cadre” of ethical officers, leaders and non-commissioned officers who are trying to do their best to evolve as society does. Since joining the navy 35 years ago at a time when nude photos of women were posted publicly onboard ships, she said she’s seen the culture evolve for women.

But the military needs to stop “hiding behind words, including harmful and inappropriate behaviour,” and say it like it is, Thomas said.

“It’s inappropriate behaviour, period,” she said. “Or it’s criminal activity and it’s rape. We have to start calling things what they are because that changes the culture. It’s too easy to hide behind something like harmful behaviour.”

Thomas said Arbour’s review is needed because if the military just takes the system that exists now and moves it outside the department, it won’t fix some of the concerns.

“It won’t fix concerns of reprisal,” Thomas said. “It won’t fix some concerns with the chain of command still being involved.”

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