Following my commentary published in the Huffington Post on women in uniform and sexual harassment, I was offered a meeting with Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, Director General, Canadian Armed Forces Strategic Response Team On Sexual Misconduct to explore how Canada’s Armed Forces is addressing the issue with their more than 100,000 troops. A former teacher, Bennett is helping to transform the culture at the Canadian Armed Forces.
Some of the most complex, geographically distributed workplaces face the gargantuan task of transforming engrained sexualized culture while the world is watching and a public crisis is only one Tweet away. The Canadian Armed Forces confronted this crisis four years ago, and they provide a lens into what is ahead for organizations like the RCMP, OXFAM and others.
“Our #MeToo moment happened in 2014,” said Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, Director General, Canadian Armed Forces Strategic Response Team On Sexual Misconduct, Department of National Defence. In April 2014, the Quebec magazine Actualité published a story on a victim of sexual harassment in the army that was followed by more women coming forward. After the media storm, the Canadian Armed Forces called for an independent external review of sexual misconduct and harassment.
A 100-page report from the inquiry, led by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, found that Canadian Forces soldiers face a hostile environment within their own ranks, particularly female and LGBTQ members. The report found that there is an "underlying sexualized culture" which could lead to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
The report’s 10 recommendations begin with acknowledging that inappropriate sexual conduct is a serious problem that exists in the Forces. Operation Honour is the Forces’ comprehensive commitment to help mobilize a cultural shift in the military. It is a guidepost for addressing sexual violence in the workplace for organizations that include international missions and field work.
Operation Honour wins all the best practice gold stars. It is fully integrated into all aspects of military operations and was implemented using the same chain of command approach its soldiers understand. It focuses on building a culture of respect through evidence-based programs, scenario-based training designed through extensive research and consultations with experts.
Victims are free to choose between the military justice and healthcare systems or a civilian route. Members and their families can download an app that provides access to support and information on civilian and military resources in Canada and in locations where Canadians are deployed.
Targets have been set and reporting is transparent and made public. More importantly, there are signs it is working; more cases are being reported and less are being categorized as unfounded.
Operation Honour intensified data collection and is working with Statistics Canada on a follow up survey to the one conducted in 2016. This ground-breaking work was critical to identify who were the victims of sexual assault and the prevalence within the CAF.
“It may be surprising to some that there were significant cases of sexual assault against men but 85% of the CAF are male. When women are harassed there is usually a power differential where a more senior rank is the perpetrator against a woman in a lower rank. For men, it is most often their colleagues or peers, their equivalent in rank. Hazing and initiation exist by men against men,” says Bennett. “We are exploring programs for men, and consulting experts to help us address this.
“We are so early in this journey but I am cautiously optimistic,” says Bennett. “We haven’t even tackled retaliation yet, and in prevention we are in the early stages. We have built a solid foundation that we can build programs on.”
Recent stories show leading this mission requires an iron commitment. Implementation of massive organizational change is not without backlash with outcries that the pendulum may have swung too far. Lawyers, representing military staff are arguing random comments are being taken too seriously.
This may be the result of Operation Honour’s commitment to take a victims’ based approach. “The victim decides if something is offensive, if a joke was inappropriate. It is not up to anyone else to decide,” says Bennett. “These types of comments are leads to increased and more serious incidents.”
The stakes are high in this military operation and it must deal with its own disasters. Organizations take note: accepting failures and redoubling efforts are part of the process. Last December, RCAF Lt.-Gen. Alain Parent, the vice chief of the defence staff and the second highest ranking officer in the Canadian Forces, as well as Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West, the most senior non-commissioned member of the Canadian Forces were on a morale mission dubbed the “party flight”.
Two months later, military police laid sex assault and assault charges against Dave “Tiger” Williams, a former NHL player and one of the VIPs on board. Video taken aboard the flight showed people with their drinks – including one member of Chief of the Defence Gen. Vance’s team – dancing in the aisles as a rock band plays at the back of the plane. The military says it flew the victim of the alleged sex assault, a flight attendant – and three of her colleagues – back home on a commercial flight so as “to distance” her from Williams, the accused, who was allowed to continue the flight and activities.
This was a major hit to Operation Honour’s reputation, and a confirmation of Deschamps’ report indicating that this highly sexualized, criminal behaviour is enabled by the highest ranking officers. General Vance, who leads Operation Honour, has suspended such junkets until the military carries out a review, and has banned alcohol on future morale flights. “This is a marathon, we have done the first 10k,” says Bennett.
Operation Honour is scraping off years of old paint and finding some rotten boards, and it may take a generation of commitment to see systemic change. Bennett is decidedly candid about the difficulties and challenges the Forces face in navigating the serpentine culture of sexual harassment. “This is a permanent operation. The moment we stop is the moment we roll backwards.”
The model was adopted by New Zealand’s Forces and is being reviewed by many other countries. Studying its progress will help aid organizations and, hopefully, the RCMP and other forces get a jumpstart on change.
In the #MeToo era, as organizations begin the work towards breaking the entrenched systems and power structures which enable and protect sexual predators, Bennett is a refreshingly accessible and frank role model. She is helping to redefine “honour” in the military.
Progress begins with a leader, one who will no longer accept the status quo, no matter how pervasive or difficult the change will be.