External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces

Marie Deschamps, C.C. Ad.E.

External Review Authority

March 27, 2015

Executive Summary

While problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault are not unique to the CAF— numerous organizations are struggling to address the prevalence of inappropriate sexual conduct,—the time is right for the leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to tackle the issue. Sexual harassment and sexual assault not only harm the victims, but also the integrity, professionalism and efficiency of the CAF as a whole.

One of the key findings of the External Review Authority (the ERA) is that there is an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Cultural change is therefore key. It is not enough to simply revise policies or to repeat the mantra of “zero tolerance”. Leaders must acknowledge that sexual misconduct is a real and serious problem for the organization, one that requires their own direct and sustained attention.

While cultural change is not an easy enterprise, the CAF has a variety of tools at its disposal including policies, training programs, the disciplinary and military justice system, and victim support services. However, these instruments need to be strengthened if they are to be effective. This Report represents the findings of the ERA’s review of the policies, procedures and programs of the CAF relating to inappropriate sexual conduct, and its recommendations for how to best utilize such tools to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the armed forces.

Scope and Mandate of the Review

The mandate of the ERA was to examine CAF policies, procedures and programs in relation to sexual harassment and sexual assault, including the effectiveness with which these policies are currently being implemented. To carry out this mandate, the ERA conducted a series of confidential interviews with reserve and regular members, from all ranks and environments (Naval, Land, and Air Force, and training), from July to December, 2014. The ERA also interviewed individuals whose work in the CAF relates, in various ways, to the investigation or prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault, or to providing support to victims of such prohibited conduct. These individuals included Commanding Officers, harassment advisors, workplace relation advisors, military police, investigators from the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, representatives of the Judge Advocate General, chaplains, physicians, nurses, social workers, and representatives of support groups, as well as several military researchers. The ERA also met with two civilian organizations, one operating in the law enforcement sector and one commercial corporation, and reviewed information concerning the practices of a number of other armed forces, to examine “best practices” in addressing inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace.

The ERA’s consultations were conducted through focus groups, face-to-face interviews and telephone interviews, and were held at various locations, including two naval bases, three land bases, two air bases, two training bases, two military colleges, and on several reserve units sites. In addition, CAF members were informed about the Review on the CAF website and through widely broadcast emails, and were invited to contact the ERA directly through a dedicated, confidential email address. The ERA made itself available to meet with individuals both on and off-base in order to ensure confidentiality and to maximize the participation of interested individuals. Ultimately, over 700 individuals contributed to the Review.

Culture of the CAF

The military ethos of the CAF is founded on respect for dignity of all persons, a principle that is embodied in CAF policies, which are  themselves enforceable through both administrative and disciplinary action. The ERA found a disjunction, however, between the high professional standards established by the CAF’s policies on inappropriate sexual conduct, including sexual assault and sexual harassment, and the reality experienced by many members day-to-day.

Throughout its consultations, the ERA met with members who appeared genuinely happy with their choice of career, and who found great personal pride and satisfaction in their work for the military. At the same time, however, the ERA’s consultations revealed a sexualized environment in the CAF, particularly among recruits and non- commissioned members, characterized by the frequent use of swear words and highly degrading expressions that reference women’s bodies, sexual jokes, innuendos, discriminatory comments with respect to the abilities of women, and unwelcome sexual touching. Cumulatively, such conduct creates an environment that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and is conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

Although the most common complaints to the ERA related to this hostile, sexualized environment, the ERA also heard reports of quid pro quo sexual harassment. Some participants further reported instances of sexual assault, including instances of dubious relationships between lower rank women and higher rank men, and date rape. At the most serious extreme, these reports of sexual violence highlighted the use of sex to enforce power relationships and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit.

The ERA found that members appear to become inured to this sexualized culture as they move up the ranks. For example, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), both men and women, appear to be generally desensitized to the sexualized culture. Officers tend to excuse incidents of inappropriate conduct on the basis that the CAF is merely a reflection of civilian society. There is also a strong perception that senior NCOs are responsible for imposing a culture where no one speaks up and which functions to deter victims from reporting sexual misconduct.

As a result of these attitudes, there is a broadly held perception in the lower ranks that those in the chain of command either condone inappropriate sexual conduct, or are willing to turn a blind-eye to such incidents.

Comprehensive cultural change is therefore required, and such change cannot occur without the proactive engagement of senior leaders in the CAF. Senior leaders— particularly those with general oversight responsibilities—need to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the armed forces, clearly state that such misconduct is unacceptable, and adopt a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the sexualized environment and to better integrate women into the military, including by appointing more women to positions of senior leadership.


It was readily apparent throughout the consultations that a large percentage of incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault are not reported. First and foremost, interviewees stated that fear of negative repercussions for career progression, including being removed from the unit, is one of the most important reasons why members do not report such incidents. Victims expressed concern about not being believed, being stigmatized as weak, labeled as a trouble-maker, subjected to retaliation by peers and supervisors, or diagnosed as unfit for work. There is also a strong perception that the complaint process lacks confidentiality. Underlying all of these concerns is a deep mistrust that the chain of command will take such complaints seriously. Members are less likely to be willing to report incidents of sexual harassment and assault in a context in which there is a general perception that it is permissible to objectify women’s bodies, make unwelcome and hurtful jokes about sexual interactions with female members, and cast aspersions on the capabilities of female members. That such conduct is generally ignored, or even condoned, by the chain of command prevents many victims from reporting incidents of inappropriate conduct.

The ERA heard repeatedly from participants that the only way to increase the frequency of reporting is to create a reporting mechanism outside of the chain of command. Indeed, a number of other military organizations—for example in the United States, Australia and France—have created independent offices to receive reports of sexual misconduct, as well as to provide victim support, conduct training, and track data. Most of these offices allow victims to decide whether or not they wish their complaint to trigger a formal complaint and investigation process. Regardless of which path they choose, however, victims are offered treatment and support.

As has been modeled in other countries, and is demanded internally by many of the CAF’s own members, the ERA recommends creating a center for accountability for sexual assault and harassment, independent from the CAF, with responsibility for receiving complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as responsibility for prevention, victim support, data collection, training, and monitoring of case outcomes. Complaint processes should allow victims to choose whether or not they wish their complaint to trigger a formal investigation, but in either case should entitle the victim to receive treatment and support services.


While mere policy change is not, in and of itself, sufficient to reduce the prevalence of inappropriate sexual conduct, policies do constitute a key tool to guide the conduct of CAF members. Unfortunately, the ERA found that the definitions of prohibited conduct in the current policies are deficient.

In particular, interviewees expressed confusion about what constitutes sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, adverse personal relationship, and fraternization. In the case of sexual harassment in particular, the CAF definition is not only overly-complex, it is also unduly narrow and fails to capture a broad range of inappropriate sexual conduct.

The definition of sexual harassment should cover not only individual and quid pro quo harassment, but also unwelcome sexual conduct that contributes to a hostile organizational culture. This includes sexual comments or jokes that are not necessarily addressed to a particular person, but which create a negative sexualized environment. In addition, the definition of sexual harassment should not be limited to incidents that occur in the workplace, given that members generally live, work, and socialize together within organizational structures created by the CAF.

The notion of adverse personal relationship is also poorly understood. It is only described in CAF policies by reference to the negative consequences on the unit, and does not specifically address relationships between members in different positions of authority. In view of the inherent power imbalance between members of different rank, however, there should be an administrative presumption of an adverse personal relationship applicable where such relationship has not been disclosed in accordance with the policy.

The concept of sexual misconduct is also poorly defined, in large part because the term has a different meaning in the policy than its ordinary meaning in plain language. The term “sexual assault”, which is commonly understood by Canadians and is consistent with the Criminal Code, should therefore be used to describe all instances of intentional, non-consensual touching of a sexual nature. The policy should also address the concept of consent and the effect of drugs or alcohol or a power imbalance on the existence of genuine consent in a sexual encounter.

Overall, the ERA found that the rules would be more effective if there existed a unified approach to inappropriate sexual conduct containing clear definitions and examples of the prohibited conduct, and which captures the institutional environment in which CAF members live, work and socialize. The policy should be expressed in plain language consistent with the Criminal Code.

Processes and Procedures

The current processes in place to identify, report, investigate and resolve incidents of sexual harassment are complex and do not yield appropriate results. It is not surprising that an overwhelming number of victims choose not to report an incident at all.

In particular, before a complaint of sexual harassment is finally resolved, the parties may have to pursue three separate stages of attempted resolution: a process of alternate dispute resolution (in which the complainant is encouraged to confront the alleged harasser informally), an administrative investigation by the Responsible Officer, and a grievance. This process is overly long and burdensome. Further, the emphasis on the use of self-help techniques and on resolving the complaint at the lowest level is problematic. Victims will generally not be comfortable taking a confrontational position with their harasser, particularly when the harasser was of a higher rank. Moreover, many interviewees who did bring their complaint forward to a supervisor reported that the complaint was not taken seriously. The ERA found that the pressure to settle complaints at the lowest level functions to stifle complaints and intimidate complainants; it has the very opposite effect of a zero tolerance policy. Formal alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is also offered to victims, however the ERA found that these procedures are generally inappropriate in cases of sexual harassment.

The ERA also heard that even where complaints of sexual harassment are ultimately held to be well-founded, the resulting sanction was generally perceived as meaningless—a “slap on the wrist”—and ineffective as a deterrent.

To simplify the process, the complaint should by-pass the two first stages and commence at the grievance level. The CO, acting as adjudicator, would still have the option of initiating a harassment investigation as part of the grievance procedure. This streamlined process would cut out unnecessary delay and pressures on the victim, and bring the matter to the attention to the CO more rapidly. Although victims could be offered mediation or other ADR techniques, this should only be one of the options available to them. Also, to improve consistency and deterrence, COs should receive guidance as to appropriate sanctions where sexual harassment is found to have occurred.

Even more serious problems were reported with respect to the procedures in place to investigate sexual assault. The ERA is particularly concerned by the reports it heard of the lack of appropriate skills demonstrated by the military police. While the ERA met with a number of dedicated members of the military police, many were confused about the relevant policies, insensitive to the problem of sexual assault, lacked training on the basic elements of the offence (including the legal concept of consent), and were unaware of the available resources to support victims. Further, the ERA heard that low- level assaults, and assaults that do not result in physical injury, tend to be ignored, and charges in these cases are often not laid.

For these reasons, among others, victims, concerned about how they will be treated by the military justice system, tend not to report sexual assaults. Many of those victims who did report an offence said that their experiences were “atrocious”. To rebuild trust in the system, complainants need to be reassured that the CAF is committed to ensuring that their complaints are appropriately investigated. This can be achieved, in part, by allowing the victim to request to have her case transferred to civilian authorities.

Finally, the ERA found that very little data is collected by the CAF with respect to the occurrence of either sexual harassment or sexual assault. While the military does have systems in place to track incidents, these tools appear to be used only inconsistently, and most incidents are not reported in any event. As a result, there is very little accountability in the chain of command or the military police as to the outcome of any particular incident, and the CAF lacks relevant information in trying to prevent future incidents from occurring.

Programs and External Resources

While an impressive number of programs and services appear to be offered to support victims of inappropriate sexual conduct in the CAF, the reality is that many of these services are only available in a few locations, or are inadequate and ineffective. Moreover, many participants indicated that they had no idea what services were available to them, and noted that there is no centralized source of information, such as a comprehensive CAF website, where they can learn about victim support services.

Overall, the ERA found that nurses and social workers are the most important resource for victims of inappropriate sexual conduct and, at times, for distressed respondents or accused. The role of nurses and social workers is necessarily limited, however, because they usually only become involved when a victim is seriously distressed and has been referred for medical care. Many victims avoid accessing medical services because of a frequent perception that this could result in a loss of confidentiality. Further, a number of interviewees had had negative experiences when reporting sexual assault to a physician. Finally, while nurses and social workers play an important role in supporting victims, their role is not to act as an advocate or to provide the member with guidance about how to navigate the various legal processes and proceedings.


Members of the CAF receive mandatory training at  regular intervals, including on prohibited sexual conduct. As a practical matter, however, this training does not seem to have any significant impact. A large number of participants reported that the classes are not taken seriously: harassment training is laughed at, the course is too theoretical, and training on harassment gets lost among the other topics covered. Power-point training is dubbed “death by power-point”, and training on-line is severely criticized. A number of interviewees also expressed scepticism about unit-led training: there is a common view that in many cases the trainers were themselves complicit in the prohibited conduct. Participants reported that COs are insufficiently trained and that they are unable to appropriately define, assess and address sexual harassment.

Overall, the ERA found that the training currently being provided is failing to inform members about appropriate conduct, or to inculcate an ethical culture in the CAF. Rather, current training lacks credibility and further perpetuates the view that the CAF does not take sexual harassment and assault seriously.

Training on inappropriate sexual conduct should be a stand-alone topic and should be carried out by skilled professionals in small groups utilizing interactive techniques. Unit- led training should be limited, and on-line training should only be used for non- commissioned members when accompanied by interactive training. Leaders should also be required to undertake regular training on inappropriate sexual conduct and their responsibilities under the relevant policies. Training for military police should include a focus on victim support, interviewing techniques, and the concept of consent. Physicians, nurses, social workers and chaplains would also benefit from increased training on how to support victims of inappropriate sexual conduct.

Conclusion: Avenues Going Forward

Policy change is a critical tool for the CAF to be able to confront the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault. However, the challenge for the CAF goes beyond policy revision if it is to effectively address the problem of inappropriate sexual conduct in the military.

First, cultural change is key. Without broad-scale cultural reform, policy change is unlikely to be effective. This requires the CAF to address not only more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault, but also low-level sexual harassment, such as the use of sexualized and demeaning language, which contributes to an environment that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members.

Second, strong leadership drives reform. The deep, genuine, and concrete commitment of senior leaders is essential to developing programs that will meaningfully impact the organization, as well as to convey a clear message to CAF members that inappropriate sexual conduct will not be tolerated, and to rebuild trust between CAF members and senior leadership.

Third, improving the integration of women, including in positions of senior leadership, is necessary to cultural reform. While the broader question of whether women are adequately represented in the CAF falls outside of the mandate of this Review, there is an undeniable link between the existence of a hostile organizational culture that is disrespectful and demeaning to women, and the poor integration of women into the organization. Increasing the representation of  women in the CAF, including in the highest positions of senior leadership, is therefore key to changing the culture of the organization.

Fourth, the CAF needs to re-build the confidence of members that the organization takes sexual harassment and assault seriously. Establishing an independent agency to receive reports of inappropriate sexual conduct and to provide support to victims, among other things, is an important step in improving processes to address sexual harassment and assault, and will demonstrate to members that the CAF takes the issue of inappropriate sexual conduct seriously. Similarly, allowing victims of sexual assault to request that their complaints be brought to civilian authorities will send a strong signal that the CAF is prioritizing their needs.

The willingness of the CAF to take a hard look at its own practices and procedures through this independent review is a measure of the seriousness with which the military takes the problem of inappropriate sexual conduct. It is an indication of a willingness on the part of the CAF to take concrete steps to reduce incidents of sexual harassment and assault, and to create a more inclusive organizational culture that respects the dignity of all its members. Cultural change, improving the integration of women into the organization, rebuilding the trust of members in the chain of command, and reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault, will not be easy to achieve. Such goals require strong leadership and sustained commitment. But they are essential to the development of a modern military organization that not only embraces the principle of respect for human dignity, but is also able to optimize on the skills and talents of all its members. The Canadian public expects it, and CAF members deserve it.