Yesterday, I was a participant in a roundtable organized by the Department of National Defence to consult/report on the sexual misconduct and abuse of power crisis. I went in with very low expectations as it was very, very large for a roundtable: 90 people split between "stakeholders" [academics, activists, advocates, survivors] and folks in DND and the CAF and other government agencies (Veterans Affairs, Minister for Women and Gender Equality) and very little time allotted for Q&A. Also, it was announced with short notice and scheduled on a Friday afternoon in the summer, which was not too family friendly. The event surpassed my expectations but not wildly so as some sessions were informative, and we did get to ask some questions. In terms of message management/PR effort, it was better than the set up suggested it would be, but I think the reactions of folks depending in part on their priors.
Before addressing the meeting itself, I want to note how much I was reminded of the classic quote by Machiavelli:
"It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them." The Prince from here*
I am going to first go through the different sessions and then address the larger context.
The first substantive session (after much performative throat-clearing that wasted the first 30 minutes) was on the Fish Report. This document was the product of a regular evaluation of the state of military justice, conducted this time by former Supreme Court Justice Morris Fish. Leah West explained much of it when she appeared on Battle Rhythm last month. The keys are: it was started before the current crisis, and it raised questions about how independent the process was and should be for prosecuting and adjudicating cases. The Judge Advocate General Rear Admiral Genevieve Bernatchez discussed how the Fish recommendations (107 of them) were going to be implemented. The most striking part of this presentation was the lack of real discussion of stuff completely outside the CAF. What would be the new oversight mechanism that Fish recommended? I found it most notable that Bernatchez pushed back against civilian prosecution--that the military courts/prosecutors outside the chain of command of the accused is sufficient independence. She portrayed the Canadian process as being what the Americans are moving towards, and I am not so sure about that. I do wonder what will happen if Arbour pushes for more civilian oversight/prosecution as the Machiavelli quite is quite relevant here.
She also discussed how former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour was asking for information as part of Arbour's review of the entire sexual misconduct/abuse of power scandal. That was interesting--that the review is underway. The roundtable promised more updates of Arbour's work, but I don't think we got much more than that.
The next session involved two breakout rooms--one on the Sexual Misconduct Reponse Centres and on Peer Support. The focus of the SMRC discussion (the breakout room I attended) was on expanding who could get support--veterans, to various regions, and the online platform--as well as expansions of the program itself. Despite being a very large breakout room (40 or so people), the discussion was pretty good with many people getting their questions and comments either by discussion or via the chat box. I did raise one question which really didn't get answered--that the SMRC is being given all kinds of responsibilities, which raises two possible problems: (1) being asked to do too much which means they are overwhelmed despite increased budgets; and (2) there might be contradictions between the different mission sets, like how to help individual survivors vs how to gather data and report. I am afraid that down the road, any question will be answered by: the SMRC is doing it. Training? SMRC. Survivor advocacy? SMRC. Analysis? SMRC. If SMRC gets all of the responsibilities, what is the rest of DND/CAF doing?
After discussion in the larger session of what the two breakout sessions had addressed, we had a session on Military Sexual Trauma and the new Command on Professional Culture and Conduct. This mostly set up the next breakout sessions. I attended the latter, led by LGen Jennie Carignan, who had been on our podcast long before she got this new gig--our second episode. She started by talking about her own experiences of having to pick her battles, which she hated doing, sometimes calling people out in large audiences for their bad behavior and sometimes letting things go. She defined much of her job as how to respond to complaints, saying that we can't eliminate difficult situations between individuals but we can help manage the complaints that arise to create a health culture with a restorative service approach. I asked about whether her command would have the ability to change the incentives facing the troops and officers--would promotions and sanctions depend on acting according to the new norms to reinforce the culture they want? She responded by discussing character-based leadership--how we train leaders, that evals would include measuring tolerance/inclusivity/etc. And I didn't have the time to ask the follow up: will such evals outweigh the usual operational performance stuff?
We had more time for Q&A at the end so I actually did have a chance to ask a question that was basically aimed at the Minister, and he responded directly to me. Given the op-ed I wrote long ago and have been yammering away about ever since, it was notable that I got invited to this and that he engaged me. I asked about the selection of the command staff--that having the CDS pick the top level folks can be problematic because it can lead to old boys network dominating. I asked this in part because newly indicted former CDS Vance had picked a guy with a very blemished record to head personnel and in part because a person who had served in the CAF had told me that much of the leadership of late had been from the same unit. Sajjan said that it was not his job to pick people (um, it kind of is) but that if there was a disagreement between the CDS and the evaluations of the candidates, it would be escalated to his level. So, a passive approach, mostly again giving the CDS the autonomy to do what he wants. It was the answer I expected, but it also showed he has not learned much since February. My question was not aimed at Acting CDS Eyre, as he has mostly impressed me with his willingness to listen and learn.
One recurrent tendency was to refer to various agencies and commands as "independent." That raises two issues: are they really and is independence a good thing? The SMRC may end up being independent from the CDS, but is it independent from the Minister of Defence? And if so, is that a good thing? Who is the principal who is not only giving responsibilities to various actors but then also overseeing to make sure the actors do what they are supposed to be doing? Giving discretion and then not overseeing is how we got into this mess in the first place.
Which gets to a good question one person asked: you guys say you are listening and learning, but you are not telling us what you are hearing and learning. Another person asked the big question--how can you change the culture of the organization when it is very white, very male, very heteronormative, that has too many white supremacists, and so on.
I did chat with one of the attendees afterwards (not my co-host as she was off to get bitten by bugs), and this person noted who did not attend--the Chief of Military Personnel, none of the branch chiefs (no head of the navy or the air force), neither the CJOC or CANSOF commanders (which are in a bit of disarray these days). There was good representation on the DND side of the house--the Deputy Minister and much of her staff. The only person who had wifi problems was ... the Minister of National Defence.
In general, I think there were two competing frustrations here. The first was that it is really hard to have a real consultation with 90 people. People got to ask a question or two but not follow up and not present much of their point of view. I am not an expert on the personnel side of things so I was mostly focused on the civ-mil side, but it seemed clear to me that the folks who are experts on the stuff were not satisfied with the consulting that was going on. The second frustration was kind of the opposite--tell us what you have done thus far and are doing right now. We got a bit of that, but less than what some folks were hoping. I also think that some were frustrated that the focus was on a key few institutions aimed at dealing with individuals and not thinking about the systemic problems--how to diminish toxic masculinity and its impact.
And, yes, I had a third frustration---has there been any re-thinking of civilian control of the military? How about reducing the autonomy of the CAF so that the civilians in DND have more say in personnel policies, in personnel decisions, etc?
I get it. Change is hard, there is much resistance in the CAF to that which is already going on, which is inevitable as Machiavelli pointed out a long time ago. It is hard to make progress when so much is frozen--that they have not decided yet to replace the suspended CDS, that the government has not chosen a new Defence Minister, that there is an election in the very near future, and so on. Much will have to wait for after the election. The good news is that the people we met yesterday who are working in the SMRC, in the new command on culture, and elsewhere are hard at work, are listening, and that there is a big community of experts and advocates who are willing to show up on a summer Friday afternoon. They will need to figure out better fora that allow for more back and forth. But the recognition that they don't have all the answers is good.