A culture of silence and sexualization in the Canadian Forces only serves to embolden those who commit sexual misconduct and sexual violence, said the head of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre.
Dr. Denise Preston, executive director of the centre that provides support to military members who experience misconduct, testified before the House of Commons status of women committee on Thursday as part of its probe into what needs to be done to change Canadian Forces culture.
The probe was launched in the wake of reporting by Global News into allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces, as were two military police probes and a separate probe by the defence committee which is set to wrap up on Friday.
“They commit these behaviours within a culture and within a context,” said Preston, when asked by MPs about who in the military is perpetrating sexual misconduct and sexual violence throughout the ranks.
“So if there is a culture that is sexualized, that is permissive, that is a culture of silence, it emboldens them and protects them from accountability as well.”
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Preston said there are “many different risk factors” when asked about commonalities among people who commit sexual misconduct and sexual violence, but said there is no clear data right now.
Part of coming up with a plan to eliminate misconduct, though, will require that data in order to form a clearer picture of the circumstances that let misconduct flourish, she said.
“That is critical to being able to design better prevention programs, and response programs as well.”
The military is facing a reckoning amid twin military police probes into the current and former chiefs of the defence staff: Adm. Art McDonald, who has temporarily stepped aside, and Gen. Jonathan Vance.
The allegations against them have led to questions over the military’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations and about the extent of progress into vows to crack down on the “endemic” culture of sexual misconduct identified by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps in her landmark 2015 report.
That report documented the “hostile” culture of the military towards women and LGBTQ2 members and emphasized the role of power dynamics and the chain of command in creating a culture where people minimize sexual misconduct, and where survivors fear reprisals for coming forward.
Preston said in order for the culture to change, it must be clear that there are consequences for sexual misconduct. She added any discussions around improving the system for survivors must be focused on what measures they say they actually need, and must be independent from the chain of command.
Brig.-Gen. Andrew Atherton also testified before the committee and said the military believes it has met all of the recommendations for change laid out by Deschamps in her report, but that it still needs to hear an independent assessment on whether experts agree.
Atherton is director general of professional military conduct at the Department of National Defence.
Deschamps has previously testified she believes there is more work to do to meet the spirit of her recommendations, particularly about the need for an independent reporting structure for survivors.
“Part of the work we need to do going forward is to understand those barriers to coming forward,” Atherton said when questioned on the fact that many survivors have testified they feared speaking up.
Atherton said the work to change the culture must begin through recruitment schools and officer training, but would not say whether a formal review of the Royal Military College will take place.
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