Gen Thomas Lawson:
Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members, for giving me and my colleagues the opportunity to speak to you today about an issue that clearly is of deep concern to us all.
Like you, I have read and reread the articles recently published in L'actualité and Maclean's on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Like you, I am disturbed by the allegations this article contains. Certainly, no one should have to go through what these individuals have described they went through. My heart goes out to anyone who has been a victim of sexual misconduct of any kind. To speak out in such a situation takes great courage.
Regarding these articles, as hard as they were for me and for all members of the Canadian Forces to read, I recognize that their publication both highlights my responsibility and provides me with an opportunity to explain our existing policies and procedures on sexual misconduct, to re-examine them, and to improve them wherever needed.
Above all, these allegations merit a strong response from me as the Chief of the Defence Staff, and from the entire leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces.
First, let me say that I do not accept from any quarter the notion that sexual misconduct is simply part of our military culture. Sexual misconduct of any kind is wrong, it is despicable, it is corrosive, and it runs utterly contrary to everything the Canadian Forces stand for. Our primary mission, as you know, is to defend Canada and Canadians and Canadian values on behalf of the citizens of this country, and we have pledged to do so with our very lives.
For our service and sacrifice to be meaningful and effective, we must be exemplary citizens ourselves, embodying Canadian values such as respect for all persons, while maintaining the highest standards of personal conduct.
In order to operate as a cohesive and effective team in operational settings here in Canada and abroad, we must be able to trust and rely on each other as brothers and sisters in arms, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or any differences. We need to be able to foster a culture of respect with a view to avoiding any incident in the first place. But if an incident occurs, we must address it properly.
That is why the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence put a high emphasis on harassment prevention and resolution.
First, our harassment prevention and resolution policy was put into place in 1988. It was followed a decade later by mandatory harassment prevention training for all of our members. Then, a defence ethics program and conflict resolution programs were established in 2001. Each of these aimed to raise awareness on ethical issues and to encourage best practices to resolve problems early, before they have a chance to escalate.
I believe our efforts in these areas have proven themselves well. In fact, the latest Canadian Armed Forces workplace harassment survey, conducted in 2012, shows that harassment of all types, including sexual harassment, has substantially diminished over the past 15 years.
That said, preliminary analysis from the same 2012 survey also indicates that designated group members, including women, remain more likely to experience harassment than others. The analysis also suggests that they may be less likely to report harassment, whether for fear of career repercussions or due to a belief that their complaints may not be taken seriously. This is an important finding and one which indicates that more action is required on my part.
Our policies are clear. The chain of command must take all complaints seriously and act on them appropriately. That includes providing support to complainants without fear of reprisal.
If there's an issue with respect to under-reporting, this could suggest that there may be a gap between our official policies and procedures and the reality on the ground. If such a gap exists, no matter how wide, it must be addressed at the highest levels of the chain of command.
The military is a hierarchical, top-down organization, structured so as to succeed in an operational setting. And this affords both a challenge and an opportunity.
If leadership is complacent, our pyramidal leadership structure could be a roadblock to positive outcomes, but where leadership is committed, as I usually find it and observe it to be, it can drive quickly and effectively to desired outcomes.
I want to further stress that any allegation of sexual assault must be brought to the appropriate authorities for investigation. Sexual assault is a crime in both civilian and military justice contexts, and those Canadian Armed Forces members accused of such a crime are liable to prosecution in either system.
Now, as you're aware, Canada maintains a separate and parallel system of military justice. The Supreme Court of Canada and three independent reviews from respected jurists have recognized that this system is necessary. It allows us to enforce disciplinary standards that are higher for Canadian Armed Forces members than for the general public.
Canada's military justice system is continuously updated to ensure it reflects Canadian legal standards and values as contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Whenever allegations of behaviour contrary to the code of service discipline are brought forward, including allegations of sexual misconduct, an investigation is undertaken and, if warranted, charges are laid either at the unit level or by members of the national investigation service.
Members of this unit have the mandate to investigate serious and sensitive matters—such as sexual assault—and they have the authority to lay charges independent from the chain of command.
I should also note that the Canadian Forces military police group, including the national investigation service, also has a victim services program to provide complainants with immediate and ongoing support, including referral to other agencies where needed.
Where charges are referred for trial by court martial, an independent director of military prosecutions reviews the file, and an independent military judge appointed by the Governor in Council adjudicates the case with or without a panel, a process quite similar to that of the civilian system. Every step in a serious and sensitive matter such as sexual assault—investigation, prosecution, and adjudication—is designed to be free from any influence by the chain of command.
Sexual misconduct is abhorrent and repugnant.
As the highest-ranking officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, I've pledged to show strong leadership on this issue, and I demand that all others in uniform do the same.
I need to know if barriers exist in reporting incidents of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment, and I need to be certain that the chain of command is reacting to complaints appropriately.
I want to understand the full scope of any problems, and I want to resolve them, so I've called for engagement on this issue at every level of the organization. I have sent a clear message to all members of the Canadian Armed Forces that sexual misconduct goes against the entirety of our military ethos and will not be tolerated. I've ordered an internal review of our workplace programs and policies, and I have committed now to conducting an external, independent review into how the Canadian Armed Forces deals with issues related to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.
As findings emerge from these reviews, I'll consider all options to resolve any problems that we identify, including making improvements to Canadian Armed Forces policies, procedures, programs, and education.
I will not accept our sisters and brothers in arms to be betrayed by their own.
I will continue to make it clear to every member of the Canadian Armed Forces that each of us is responsible for fostering a healthy work environment and that we will do this only by treating everyone with respect, by reporting any alleged service offence, and by supporting victims of misconduct.
Mr. Chair, thank you.
Mr. Jack Harris (St. John's East, NDP):
Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, General, for joining us with your colleagues today.
I listened carefully to what you said, sir, about your deep concern and your being disturbed by the allegations. I guess, as a Canadian, I'm more than concerned and disturbed. I'm quite angry to find from these reports that the military hasn't responded appropriately when individuals were victims of, as you quite rightly referred to it, criminal acts, and find themselves revictimized by the military.
I'm looking at Maclean's magazine here, and of course L'actualité did the research on this. Inside this magazine they also show a similar account, back in 1998, using similar phrases. “Our military's disgrace” is the headline here, and before it was “Rape in the military”, “Speaking out”, etc.
I have a real sense of déjà vu, sir, given that 16 years have passed since these allegations were made. At that time the response of the military was that we can handle this internally; we can fix this problem, and we will. Why hasn't that happened?
Mr. Jack Harris:
I didn't suggest that, sir. I suggested that we still have a problem.
If I may, to try to see if we can find out what the size of the problem is, we have a suggestion in these articles that perhaps five sexual assaults a day occur within the military, based on extrapolation from reported sexual assaults. And I'm focusing here on sexual assaults as opposed to sexual misconduct in a general way. Sexual assaults, of course, are criminal, and one would expect in a hierarchical organization such as yours, where you are the commanding officer and you tell people when to get up and what to wear and what to do, that you would be able to prevent crime or punish it very easily.
I'm interested in the reporting. I have a report in front of me that was tabled—quietly—on March 19, 2024—well, I couldn't call it tabled, as the House wasn't in session at the time. It's the latest report of the Judge Advocate General for the period ending March 31, 2011. It was tabled on March 19, 2014, three years after the date in question.
First of all, this is contrary to subsection 9.3(3) of the National Defence Act, which requires annual reports to be made and tabled in the House. Does it bother you that we don't have reports for 2012, 2013, 2014 and we're relying on a report that's now three years old?
Hon. Judy Sgro (York West, Lib.):
Thank you very much for being here, and thank you for your contribution to our country.
I have to say, General Lawson and others, about 18 months ago, we sat in this very room with Commissioner Paulson and a group of RCMP officials. Some of your folks testified at a later time.
I listened to Commissioner Paulson and his great intentions, with a box of charts of all of the different ways they were going to be ending the sexual harassment issues and how they were going to make a significant change. And, you know, I believed him. I actually bought his story. He was maybe sincere that day, but it went straight downhill from there.
Bill C-42 clearly put a muzzle on all of the members in the RCMP. As a result of Bill C-42, they are no longer allowed, through a regulatory process, to talk to politicians or the media. They are not allowed to say anything negative that would disparage the RCMP. That put a muzzle on any of the current members. I have a list of several people who have a year or two before they leave, and at that time they are prepared to go public.
You have people in National Defence who have to get permission from the chain of command to talk publicly. How can we possibly have confidence as elected officials who want to make sure we have an organization that attracts women who want a career in it? How can we possibly assure them of anything, when no matter which organization we're talking about, you put a muzzle on them and they can't talk, and you tell them that there are all kinds of things to protect them and all the rest?
It was the exact same thing that I heard from the RCMP. Not one thing has changed in that organization, other than the fact that they can no longer talk at all. Within your organization, you have a chain of command that forbids them from doing that. In order to really get an understanding of where to go forward and how big a problem that is, have you thought of just not punishing people for coming forward with these kinds of complaints? Take off that permission from the chain of command and take off that muzzle, and let's finally find out how big a problem we have and how we're going to fix it.
I know you want to fix it. I think Commissioner Paulson wanted to fix it. But the steps he took were not significant enough to shake up an organization into understanding that no one is going to tolerate sexual harassment in any of these particular military services—none. Until you get a real shakeup at the top, nothing will happen. It gets covered up, and people are victimized and afraid of the reprisals.
Our own DND ombudsman testified at committee in 2012 that there was a fear of reprisals. You're not going to remove that unless you have a complete shakeup in this organization, which is maybe what the external review might show you. It's not a new problem.
I'm sad today to be sitting here. It infuriates me that our daughters and children, the females, aren't necessarily going to want to join National Defence or the RCMP.
What are you going to do to the perpetrators, other than transfer them or promote them, and penalize the women? Sorry for my rant, but it's an issue I care about, and I'm not impressed today whatsoever.
Gen Thomas Lawson:
Okay, ma'am. Thank you. That means that I probably haven't been successful in expressing my concern as well.
But I also think we should recognize that in the most recent survey, the climate survey we did, 98.5% of the respondents—it's one of the largest surveys we've ever done—reported that they did not suffer sexual harassment of any kind over the reporting period. That still means that 1.5% did, so we still have work to do, but these rates are far below where they were, certainly in 1998 when these articles came out, and continue in a trend that goes downwards.
So I think, ma'am, that there is some heartening news there that suggests women are finding a nurturing workplace. We have with us a champion for women's issues in the military, Rear-Admiral Bennett, who can speak a little more to this later, but I think there are some very heartening things.
One other data point that I think you can take as heartening is that our attrition rate of women out of the Canadian Armed Forces is below the attrition rate for men, which also suggests as a data point that they're finding it to be a nurturing and healthy workplace for them.
I do accept your concern and your anger. I mirror your anger. In fact, it's something I live with every day when I find out that in fact someone believes they have been a victim of sexual misconduct and did not find themselves able or free to come forward, and maybe even worse, when we've had individuals who have come forward who then found a process that wasn't entirely supportive. Those are two areas that I know we can improve.
Mr. John Williamson (New Brunswick Southwest, CPC):
Thank you, Chair.
General Lawson, thanks to you and your team for being here.
I appreciate your coming before us today and, in particular, your statement acknowledging that, from the 2012 survey, there remains more to be done. What struck me in your comments today is that you talked about addressing the problem and about prevention and resolution. You even concluded by saying that you will be treating people with respect, reporting any alleged service offence, and supporting victims of misconduct.
But I think there is also the aspect of justice and punishment. I too am struck by the lack of a focus on ensuring that those who behave improperly, who sexually assault their comrades, are punished, and I do think the accent needs to be put on that. I say that because some people think that in an organization the idea of a “chill” is a bad thing, but in some circumstances it's a very good thing.
If people behave inappropriately, I'm wondering if perhaps you need more concrete policies when it comes to allegations in order to immediately separate people. That's one of the things that struck me both in your conversation and in the Maclean's report that I read. Policies are in place, but they don't necessarily send a signal to the rest of the unit, or the CAF, or the public, a signal that rings right through the organization that this behaviour, while we say it is “unacceptable”, will not be tolerated.
I'd like your comments on that, please, particularly on the aspect of punishing those people, not moving them, not trying to fix it, and not trying to talk through it, but actually dealing with it, which results not only in the individuals knowing that they're going to be punished, but in the rest of the unit and the organization itself knowing.
Thank you very much for that response.
The chair will use my prerogative and ask you to wait another 30 seconds by making a suggestion. Having come from the civilian enforcement side for 30 years and having worked with the military in my station in Pembroke, I note that there is a protocol between the military police and the civilian police when there are serious allegations.
I'd like to leave you with this thought. As we know, high profile cases tend to involve males, but in policing we noticed over the years that when you remove the stigma of reporting sexual assaults, there is a time period when the numbers go up and everybody thinks it's because there's an increase in it when in fact you are reducing the stigma, you are encouraging people...especially on the male side, as we've seen nationally with hockey players and those athletes in the sports world.
My respectful suggestion would be, especially in a male-dominated environment, where you suck it up if something bad happens, to understand that this is a new era. I think the people of Canada are increasingly demanding a reflection of our society within our military. So anything you can do from your leadership perspective to remove the stigma and to make sure that victims are no longer victimized by chains of command or the old way of doing things, whether it's hazing or however new members are welcome into units, whatever it is, we begin to cease those types of behaviours and really seriously look at them and say, “This is not the way a modern military acts.”
Thank you very much, General Lawson.
We will suspend for two or three minutes, and I would ask the General, when the onslaught of media come in, to try to usher them outside the door so we can question your subordinates.
MGen David Millar:
I think the Chair, just prior to the end of the last session, characterized it very well as stigma. We've seen it recently on the mental health side, that mental health is characterized by depression, PTSD. A forces member attempts to fix the problem, and when they can't fix it, because we're all type-A personalities, they try harder and harder. They don't want to come forward necessarily because maybe they'll be seen as the weak link in the chain.
As you saw from the recent mental health video, we're changing that. Since that mental health video came out, we're seeing a 10% rise in the number of people coming forward saying, “I do need help and I'm not ashamed to say I do need help.”
I don't think this situation is any different, in that we're all proud and professional. Indeed, in our surveys regarding sexual harassment, including the 2012 survey that's posted, the majority of those who experienced sexual harassment came out and said, “I handled it myself”. The greatest percentage of our cases of harassment are peer on peer. Because it was peer on peer, many of those who were victimized felt they could address it themselves and did so.
Nevertheless, 17% only reported that they would feel comfortable coming forward, or 17% felt uncomfortable coming forward because of fear of reprisal, and concern that there wouldn't be reassurance of the action to be taken.
As we continue to look at this issue, for us, for me, that is why the next review will shed light on that, as much as we have on mental health.
Mr. Jack Harris:
I recognize, of course, that there is ongoing activity by the military. We're going to receive General Millar's internal review very shortly, I'm assuming. We obviously want to have an opportunity to look at that and to see what it leads to.
We haven't seen any terms of reference yet. We don't know who's involved, but I think we've had some very interesting questions today from members on both sides of this committee. I think there's a lot more to explore in both the relationship between the military police on the one hand and the civilian forces on the other, issues having to do with the jurisdiction, the changes that were made in 1998, for example, to bring sexual assault into the military for the purpose of prosecution because it wasn't there before. What has been the result of that, the role of the ombudsman, for example, which was created in 1998 partly as a result of the crisis that was identified at that time?
So I think there's a lot of scope for this committee to be involved in this. I don't think it's going to start immediately. The motion says “as soon as possible”, so we hope to have an opportunity to deal with this further and remain seized with the question because I think it's an important one.The revelations have concerned and angered a lot of people. Some of them are allegations. Some of them are going to be going to trial, etc., so we know ongoing matters are taking place.
I think this committee, as the representative of Parliament on this issue, should be seized with this, should undertake its own study dealing with the things that have been done so far and whatever else comes before us. But we should agree at this time to continue to pursue the kind of questions we've been pursuing today and, hopefully, get fuller answers and perhaps make our own recommendations as to what might need to be done.
Hon. Judy Sgro:
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
As you know, I'm not a regular member of this committee, but this particular issue, as I indicated, is of course very important. I'm not sure what your work plan is, but I can say that I think there's nothing more important for this committee than to look further into this issue, as we did with difficulty at the status of women committee. We managed to get some work done on it, but it was really opening the box of a serious issue.
We know that 51% of Canadians are women. We want women to be able to join the military, the RCMP, or any organization they want to, and we want them to feel safe and confident because it's a wonderful career. Why should they be denied those opportunities?
For us not to do something with it, I feel, really lets Canadians down. You've got the military and fine people trying to do the best they can, but this has been going on for years and years, and not only in Canada but elsewhere also.
I think to protect Canada's reputation, but more importantly to protect the integrity of the organization, we should adopt this motion. We should encourage National Defence to remove the muzzle from their members to finally get people talking about this issue, to truly resolve it once and for all. I think we have an obligation to do that. I think this committee would do a fine job of doing some work on this particular issue, as illustrated in the motion.