A top Canadian Forces officer faced questioning Thursday about his claims the military has followed all the recommendations made by a former Supreme Court justice on how to crack down on sexual misconduct.
MPs on the Commons committee on the Status of Women had already heard testimony from the same justice that her recommendations weren’t followed.
But Brig.-Gen. Andrew Atherton, director general of professional military conduct, insisted otherwise. “From our perspective we believe we have achieved all of those 10 recommendations,” Atherton testified about the report produced by former justice Marie Deschamps. “That is our opinion.”
Deschamps was brought in by the military to examine allegations of sexual misconduct in the military. Her 2015 report outlined a culture where sexual misconduct was not only widespread, but also condoned by military leaders. One of her recommendations was the creation of an independent sexual misconduct response centre to help victims.
The centre was established, but it is not independent. It reports to the deputy minister of the Department of National Defence.
NDP MP Lindsay Mathyssen questioned Atherton about the “disconnect” on what the general was claiming and what the committee had been told. “We heard directly from Madame Deschamps just a few weeks ago, and she clearly stated those recommendations hadn’t been met,” Mathyssen noted.
The committee is looking into the issue of sexual misconduct after allegations were made against the current chief of the defence staff, Adm. Art McDonald, and the former chief, Gen. Jon Vance.
MPs have heard there is a reluctance among some military personnel to use the sexual misconduct centre because of its lack of independence and concern that information could make its way back to commanding officers.
Atherton’s comments highlight the difference in views of what “independence” on the issue of sexual misconduct means. Victims of sexual assaults have called for a true independent system, free of any potential influence by defence and military leaders.
Senior officers also continue to claim the military police unit that investigates such crimes, the CFNIS, is independent. But victims and those who report sexual crimes have voiced their reluctance to trust the CFNIS as it is actually not independent of the senior leadership.
The Canadian Forces has faced previous sex scandals in 1998 and 2014. But the military leadership successfully fought against attempts to impose independent oversight on the military justice and police system, which critics say punishes the victims and protects sexual predators.
The Liberal government has promised action to deal with sexual misconduct in the military this time, but has not provided any details.
But some officers privately say they expect to be successful once again in pushing back against independent oversight of how the Canadian Forces handles wrongdoing. Over the years, the military successfully fought against recommendations for the creation of an independent inspector general as well as an independent ombudsman.
The Commons defence committee has already heard from former Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne about the reluctance in the DND and military to embrace independent oversight.
Walbourne testified his request for independence prompted what he described as a vindictive campaign to get rid of him. DND had kept the ombudsman on a short leash, with Walbourne even having to seek permission from the department’s deputy minister to travel to a base to hear concerns of military personnel and their families.
Several months after Walbourne tabled a report in March 2017 recommending the ombudsman’s office be made independent, DND officials claimed a complaint had been made against him, but they refused to provide details. Walbourne testified to MPs he heard nothing more until Oct. 27, 2017, when deputy minister Jody Thomas told him the allegation against him would proceed to a formal investigation. Walbourne still wasn’t told of the specifics.
The notification came the day before Walbourne was to testify in front of a Commons committee about DND’s failure to act on his recommendations to help military personnel. “It was obvious this process was being used as a means of intimidation prior to my testimony before the committee,” Walbourne testified.
Sexual assault survivors such as retried corporal Sherry Bordage say real change will only come when the government removes the military’s ability to prosecute Criminal Code cases such as sexual assault. The Canadian Forces can’t be trusted to police itself since it’s common for military prosecutors to make deals so sexual assault charges are dropped, she added.
Instead, military perpetrators of sexual crimes are given minor reprimands or fines, Bordage said.