The head of the response centre set up to help victims of sexual misconduct in the military says recent complaints against senior leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces are a sign of progress, not failure.
Still, Denise Preston, executive director of the civilian-run Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, said the fact those allegations are being raised in the media, rather than directly to the military, shows there is a lack of trust in the reporting process among the ranks.
It also shows more must be done to eliminate inappropriate sexual behaviour from the military, Preston said, starting with the Defence Department and the Canadian Armed Forces finally acting on her past calls for better data.
The military has previously promised to provide better information, which Preston said is critical for understanding the scope and scale of the problem as well as who is being victimized, who the perpetrators are and what happens to them.
But Preston told The Canadian Press in an interview this week that the military has made only minimal progress over the past few years as past promises have been derailed by shifting priorities that have taken attention away from responding to sexual misconduct.
“The couple of times in the past that these efforts have started, they’ve ended up getting overtaken by other events,” said Preston, who has served as the inaugural executive director of the centre since 2017.
“It just hasn’t happened, but it’s absolutely a priority that needs to be addressed.”
Preston’s comments come amid emerging allegations of misconduct involving senior members of the Armed Forces, including the two most recent chiefs of the defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance and Admiral Art McDonald.
It also coincides with mounting questions about the military’s ongoing inability to tackle an issue that has come to the surface several times over more than two decades, including in 2014, which is when the sexual misconduct response centre was created.
Recently, a senior female officer, Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, said she is quitting the Armed Forces, saying in her resignation letter that she was “sickened” by investigations into top military commanders — and “disgusted” they took so long.
Taylor added that she was “encouraged” when Operation Honour — the all-out effort to eliminate sexual misconduct in the military — was launched in July 2015, but: “Sadly, the failure of senior leadership to set the example on the operation has poisoned it.”
Her departure comes after 25 years in uniform, including leading an infantry company in Afghanistan. It prompted a promise from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his department Wednesday to to redouble efforts to root sexual misconduct from the ranks.
Vance is alleged to have had an ongoing relationship with a subordinate that began more than a decade ago and continued after he became chief of the defence staff. He is also accused of having sent a lewd email to a junior soldier in 2012.
The allegations were reported in early February by Global News, which says Vance has denied any wrongdoing. The Canadian Press has not independently verified the allegations, and Vance has declined to respond to requests for comment.
McDonald, who became defence chief in January, has temporarily stepped aside while military police investigate an allegation of misconduct that has not been detailed publicly.
While Taylor isn’t the only one to have criticized the military’s progress on the issue, Preston suggested the recent reports should be seen as a step in the right direction.
“On the strength of a couple of people coming forward, it’s provided opportunity for more people to come forward,” Preston said in an interview done before news of Taylor’s resignation emerged late Tuesday.
“Would that have happened five years ago? Ten years ago? I’m not sure. So it makes me think that perhaps this is a result of more dialogue in the organization and a result of Operation Honour being in place.”
Preston has previously underscored the need for data, as the military currently has a hodgepodge of reports from military police, individual commanders and others.
She said the best information the military has right now is from two Statistics Canada surveys of serving military personnel released in 2016 and 2018.
The 2018 report had 1.6 per cent of members of the regular Forces — about 900 people — report they had been victims of sexual assault, either in the military workplace or otherwise involving military members in the year before the survey. For the primary reserves, that number was 2.2 per cent, or about 600 people.
“That’s the sum total of what we know,” said Preston, adding it is unknown how many perpetrators were involved.
That lack of information hampers her centre’s ability to monitor the military’s fight against sexual misconduct, Preston said, and also undermines that fight.
Preston also joined other experts and survivors of military sexual misconduct in calling for the Armed Forces to introduce ways for service members to report sexual assaults and other incidents without triggering a formal investigation, as in other countries.
The Liberal government has faced calls to establish more independent oversight and accountability over the military, particularly when it comes to inappropriate sexual behaviour.
That is also what retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps recommended when she issued a scathing report on sexual misconduct in the military in 2015.
The response centre was established in response to Deschamps’s report, but Preston acknowledged it is not independent. It relies on the Defence Department for funding and while it can identify issues and make recommendations, it is not responsible for holding the military to account.
“We need to re-look at our own mandate and our own independence and look at whether or not we’ve got it right,” she said. “I don’t think we have it right yet.”