I spent yesterday watching three really smart people (all three are members of the CDSN and two are co-directors) testify before the Standing Committee on National Defence about both the news of the past few weeks and of deeper problems. The man named Chief of the Defence Staff, the highest post in the Canadian Armed Forces [CAF] and more powerful vis-a-vis his military than the US Chairman is relative to the US armed forces, Admiral Art McDonald, just a few weeks ago, has to step aside due to an investigation into inappropriate sexual conduct. He was replacing General Jon Vance, who has been accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct for ... decades. The news about Vance came out after he retired, but had been circulating in the CAF for years.*
On Sunday, Major Brennan was interviewed by Mercedes Stephenson, telling us about her relationship with Vance and his actions over the years.** I believe her, and so did a couple of retired GOFOs who tweeted out their support.
The fallout from this goes in two directions: what did the government do and what should be done now? The three individuals before the committee, Allan English, Alan Okros, and Stefanie von Hlatky (my pal and co-host of the Battle Rhythm podcast) rightly dodged the first question and addressed the second. So, I will discuss here what I learned from what they said and then, yes, I will address what several members of parliaments wanted them to address. I will summarize some of what they said. You can see my live tweeting of the hearing via this thread. [To be clear, I am not an expert on gender and the armed forces (although my class on Thursday just happened to be about that topic), organizational change, or the like.]
All three identified failures in Operation Honour, which was the campaign plan set up by Vance after the Deschamps Report. Marie Deschamps is a former Supreme Court justice who was asked to lead an investigation after reports of sexual misconduct were aired in 2014. The first failure of Op Honour was that it did not implement many of Deschamps's recommendations. The focus was on the Duty to Report--that anyone experiencing or witnessing sexual misconduct had a duty to report it. This went directly against Deschamps's recommendation that the survivor of sexual misconduct should have more than one choice. The second failure of Op Honour was that it was supposed to be implemented by the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, but that position has become the Spinal Tap Drummer of Canadian defence--we've had seven in the past five or six years. So, hard to get a strategy developed and implemented. The third is probably thinking of the effort as a "campaign plan." That framing means the effort will be temporary as campaigns are not supposed to be enduring. "Fixing" the force takes more than a few years. Fourth, Op Honour was not really aimed at changing the culture of the organization or the incentive structures that discouraged reporting and provided some level of impunity to those at the top of the chain of command. And, yes, fifth, Op Honour was launched by a general who was perceived to be in breach of the values he was trying to promote.
All three witnesses focused on abuse of power at the heart of this. Okros said that when you get hit by a shovel, you don't call it gardening misconduct. Stef vH argued that the extreme hierarchy creates asymmetries that make it hard for those lower down to be able to give consent or not. All three agreed that the Path to Dignity and Respect is a significant improvement but just a first step. It focuses more on organizational culture than the previous efforts, but falls short, in my humble opinion, of calling out toxic masculinity and abuse of power as key elements of the problem. Stef vH argued that incentive structures have to be changed. English went so far as to say that operational success has been the sole metric for promotions (I think he said that, I could be a little off) and that should change.
As a scholar currently writing about legislative oversight over the armed forces, a study comparing over a dozen democracies, I could not help but notice great variance among the members of parliament. Some were solely focused on point-scoring, and it was fun to see the witnesses to refuse to engage. One Liberal MP tried desperately to get SvH to talk about her history of founding Women in International Security-Canada (a great organization and a CDSN partner) so that the clock would run out before people asked pesky questions about what the Liberals in power should have done. She didn't play. Others did ask good questions, such as whether the Duty to Report might be problematic. Okros responded that we need to have Duty to Respond--that reports of sexual misconduct do not have a one-size-fits-all dynamic and that the target of such conduct should have some say over how it is handled. One pissed me off by asking a Huntingtonian type question: since the military is a unique organization, how could civilians be able to offer up any recommendations? Okros noted that the folks in the military are humans, and there is much civilian expertise on psychology, for instance.
I get that the purpose of the critics is to hold the government to account--to place blame on Minister of Defence Sajjan and Prime Minister Trudeau. And there is much blame to be had, but these witnesses were not the best tools for that exercise. These folks have given the committee important ideas to consider. If only the committee and the parliament actually legislated much, then I could see new laws being passed that would force the CAF to do stuff. But that is not really how things work here, as far as I can tell. Instead, the government will have perhaps better ideas of how to proceed on these issues and react better. The good news is that the CDSN and other networks and research centres are working on these issues and have much to recommend. Our personnel theme has focused in part on the condition of women in the CAF.
So, what about the short term problem of political accountability? In previous hearings and in one question yesterday, a contrast was drawn between how fast Vice Admiral Mark Norman was suspended after questions of him leaking information about shipbuilding arose versus Vance sticking around at least two years or so after Sajjan learned of allegations. McDonald was suspended within either a day or a month, depending on the reports, so perhaps Sajjan is learning. Still, getting back to the Vance case, Sajjan said that he reported the allegations to the "proper authorities" when he learned of them. He meant the ombudsman, I guess.
However, in my mind, there are two other proper authorities--Sajjan himself and the Prime Minister. The CDS position is not just some civil service job where due process is the key--it is a political position as the individual is chosen by the Prime Minister and serves at his or her pleasure. At any time, the MinDef and PM can ask the CDS to retire (since, with one exception, there are no other next jobs for a four star officer in the CAF).*** Vance had already served three years, so he could have been asked to retire in 2018 without any publicity about the allegations. Instead, he was kept on, serving longer than any other CDS in history. Maybe that was due to the spin cycle of senior leadership that the Norman case helped to create, but there is always another person who can do the job. No one is indispensable. So, either Sajjan failed to report the news to the PM in 2018 and thus should lose his job for surprising his boss OR he told Trudeau, who was fine with having Vance continue despite these allegations, in which case Sajjan needs to be shuffled out of cabinet to soak up the blame that should be headed for Trudeau.
In short, the Liberal government failed to take seriously these allegations that were widely known in the CAF. That the officer responsible for Op Honour was tainted undermined the effort--it lacked legitimacy. I heard that from women in and near the CAF over the past few years. So, we don't necessarily need to name a woman to be CDS, but we do need to have a CDS that is above reproach. Which means that McDonald may not be the right person for the job. And neither is Sajjan, not any more.
* This morning, there is news that the highest Canadian officer in NORAD, LTG Chris Coates,
had an affair while in that position. While the person with whom
Coates was apparently having an affair was not in his chain of command,
militaries tend to care about honor and integrity and keeping one's
oathes, and Coates was married at the time. So, not great. When the
Minister of Defence learned of this, Coates apparently lost his chance
to serve at the NATO Defence College in Rome and instead got one of the
top positions in the CAF--commander of Canadian Joint Operations
Command. Again, what signal does that send to the CAF?
** Mercedes Stephenson and Amanda Connolly have done a fantastic job chasing this story, breaking news, and forcing the government to react. I always insist that civilian control of the military involves more than just a few people at the top of the executive branch and absolutely does include the media. Without such reporting, these problems get buried.
*** There was much criticism last summer that Trudeau did not put Vance up for the job of Chairman of NATO's Military Committee, a four star job. Good thing that didn't happen since the embarrassment over the Vance-Brennan story would be much more international. We have no idea if Trudeau was foresighted on this or whether he was just scared of more international rejection after not getting the UN Security Council seat.