Recent sexual misconduct scandals in the Canadian Armed Forces have been a catalyst for change.
But will it go far enough—and will it last?
Content warning: This story discusses subjects surrounding sexual assault and includes details that some individuals may find unsettling.
Lori Buchart joined the navy reserve as a teenager in 1982, at perhaps the worst time for a woman to join the military in Canada.
After decades of trying to deny entry to women, or at least keep their numbers down, the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that year forced the military to open its doors to women.
But they did not receive a warm welcome.
The military was “increasing employment of women because the law required it,” said retired lieutenant-commander Rosemary Park, of Servicewomen’s Salute, which documents and shares the history and experiences of servicewomen and female veterans. Her duties in the 1980s and ’90s included researching expanded roles for women, including combat—which is ironic, she said, because “they didn’t want us.”
Women who joined the military encountered a sexist, hyper-masculine culture, and gay and lesbian members were already targets of violence and systemic discrimination.
All three groups were ridiculed, belittled and humiliated, both as individuals and as a collective. Violence against them was tolerated, they were not considered equal and they had less power than their tormentors.
Such conditions “create a psychological environment where abuse is likely to occur,” wrote Dr. Mic Hunter in Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America’s Military.
And it did occur. In the mid-1990s, the media reported on a rape crisis in the Canadian military that had been going on for years.
Buchart was raped for the first time shortly after she enlisted at 16—and twice more during her 14-year career. In her rise to lieutenant-commander, she also endured 23 sexual assaults, ranging from men exposing themselves or grabbing her hand to feel erections to groping and attempted rape. In one case, she fought so hard that she broke her assailant’s arm.
“And I’m not the worst case,” she said.
Nor did sexual assault just happen to women. While 27.3 per cent of women in Canada’s regular forces report being sexually assaulted during their careers, so do 3.8 per cent of men. Because men make up 84 per cent of the approximately 68,000 regular Canadian Armed Forces members, nearly as many men have dealt with sexual misconduct as women.
But sexual misbehaviour is not just about sex, It’s about power.
Harvey Gingras of Winnipeg joined the reserves while still in high school in the 1980s, serving with the army for eight years and the navy for seven.
“A warrant officer groomed me over a long period of time. He started exposing himself to me, one time he tried to unzip my pants and perform oral sex.
“He said to me, ʻIf you report it, they’ll believe me, not you. It will destroy your career.’ I didn’t trust anybody in a supervisory role ever again.” Gingras was eventually declared unfit for military duty.
Survivors of sexual assault suffer cognitive, physical and emotional effects, including guilt, shame fear, depression, isolation, amnesia and anger. And for those in the military, where someone is always supposed to have your back—betrayal.
Though Buchart went on to a career as a university professor, the fallout from the assaults—particularly post-traumatic stress disorder—affected every aspect of her life and contributed to the end of her military and civilian careers.
Gingras, meanwhile, was unable to keep a job and couldn’t trust people, particularly in intimate settings. “I wouldn’t let anyone touch me. I couldn’t respond sexually.” He’s hypervigilant, terrified to use public toilets and doesn’t leave his apartment much.
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he is now seeing a psychologist. But the emotional wounds have not healed.
For years, survivors have struggled on, bearing the burden on their own. Eventually, peer support groups formed and calls for reform increased.
In 2015, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps reviewed the situation, finding “an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGBTQ members.”
That report galvanized CAF action.
In 2015, General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, initiated Operation Honour to stamp out sexual misconduct in the CAF.
On Jan. 14, 2021, Admiral Art McDonald replaced Vance, who was retiring. Within weeks, both were under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct.
The scandal mushroomed as more survivors were emboldened to disclose their abuses and senior officers were criticized—and some disciplined—for their handling of the issue.
Trust in the CAF had been broken, not only with victims and the public, but with serving members who found their pride in the institution suddenly tarnished. A senior female officer resigned in disgust.
In June 2021, Lieutenant-General Mike Rouleau, vice-chief of the defence staff, and Vice-Admiral Craig Baines, head of the navy, went golfing with Vance, who was still under investigation.
It was like a kick in the gut for survivors of military sexual trauma.
“We truly felt dismissed,” said Buchart, chair of the peer support and advocacy group, It’s Not Just 700 (INJ700), now It’s Not Just 20K.
She wrote to Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, then acting chief of the defence staff. The response caught her off guard.
Baines, who has since been replaced, e-mailed, asking to set up a meeting. She agreed.
“The first thing I asked him was: ‘What were you thinking?’”
It wasn’t about the impact golfing with Vance might have on those who experienced military sexual misconduct.
According to Baines, Rouleau had issued the golfing invitation out of concern for Vance’s health; Baines said he went along in support. But as vice-chief of the defence staff, Rouleau had authority over the investigation probing allegations against Vance.
“There are some errors in judgment from which there is no recovery, but for other missteps or mistakes, there must be,” said Eyre. Rouleau resigned as vice-chief.
Baines was given a chance to redeem himself. He took responsibility, apologized, began to make amends, and, he said, “model what to do when you make a mistake, to proceed forward with humility and honesty about it.
“I wouldn’t have totally understood what the survivors’ experience had been and all the obstacles they faced in terms of reporting” prior to meeting Buchart, said Baines.
That first conversation quickly moved on from the golf game and beyond anger and defensiveness.
Buchart shared how betrayed she felt when the chain of command defended the perpetrators, how she felt powerless to help colleagues, how the experience affected her life afterward.
Baines explained that he had wanted to champion cultural change when he took the helm of the navy in January 2021, aiming to make respect the cornerstone of naval service. He also indicated he now understood how he had jeopardized that effort.
“The sad part is [the golf game] would undermine people’s trust in my desire to bring about change. I made a mistake,” said Baines. “I had a blind spot. In retrospect it seems so obvious.”
He had previously put down sexual misconduct to a few bad apples who would be rooted out. But he came to realize that not all the bad apples were being caught and blind eyes were being turned to some awful behaviours. The system he had thought provided procedural fairness resulted in insensitivity to survivors and lack of understanding and support for their needs.
Buchart asked if he was open to attending a session with more INJ700 members. He was.
Some survivors went into the session wanting Baines’ head on a platter, said Buchart. “Most came out believing he was the man for the job.”
The sessions led Baines to a realization. “I’m a white male. All I had to worry about was being really good at my job, at being competent. I didn’t have to worry about my gender, I didn’t have to worry about being safe or the colour of my skin. My lived experience was very different than that of a lot of my colleagues.”
Baines and Buchart recognized the time was ripe to join forces.
Aside from the human toll, “We’ve got to solve this for the security of Canada,” said Buchart. “This is a fricking distraction. A quarter of the forces are unable to give their full attention and energy to their jobs.”
A restorative session was organized with more survivors and three dozen top navy leaders from across the country.
Participants from both groups were asked before the meeting what they wanted to get out of the meeting. Navy participants wanted to be heard, to speak without being judged and to feel safe.
“It was the same thing people with lived experience had been asking for for years,” said Buchart. “There was perfect alignment.”
“It was a very powerful first session,” said Baines. “These were real people telling real stories about their real experiences and the impact it had on them and the failure in many ways of the chain of command to respond appropriately.”
More military champions for change came out of the discussion. Some survivors benefited, too.
“This entire process…was a huge catalyst for me, let alone the CAF,” one participant, who prefers to remain anonymous, e-mailed Buchart. “‘Golf gate’ and the restorative engagement has transformed another layer of pain, trauma and hurt into some huge, monumental healing, restoration and empowerment for me.”
Until that session, continued the message, “I never referred to myself as a veteran.”
“This is a fricking distraction. A quarter of the forces are unable to give their full attention to their jobs.”
The scandals drove home the realization that the military was going to need outside help to solve the crisis; civilian experts and veteran survivors, who refer to themselves as people with lived experience, have been drafted for the task.
Thousands of personnel in every branch of the services and the defence department have taken part in meetings with survivors.
By the end of 2021, more than 1,300 CAF and National Defence members had participated in survivor-focused workshops developed by Survivor Perspective Consulting Group. The workshops provide training on how to immediately help victims and how to support them without adding to the trauma.
Plus, about 5,000 of the nearly 19,000 CAF members who filed claims under the 2019 sexual misconduct settlement agreement registered for its restorative engagement program.
The $900-million settlement resolved class-action lawsuits for sexual harassment, assault and discrimination against all military personnel and civilian employees, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
The federal Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) collaborated on development of the restorative engagement program, which facilitates meetings between survivors and armed forces and defence department representatives (but not individual survivors and perpetrators).
Survivors can speak about their experiences, or “talk about gaps, issues, problems, what needs to change,” said Dr. Denise Preston, the centre’s executive director.
Overwhelmingly, participants “really want to be part of changing culture. They don’t want other people to experience the harm they’ve experienced,” said Preston.
The centre is one of the successes of Operation Honour, which was discontinued in March 2021, tainted by the disrepute of Vance and derision in the ranks (some referred to it as “Operation Hop on Her”).
“The culmination of Operation Honour has had no effect on us,” said Preston. In six years, the centre’s mandate had expanded from a business-hours information and referral service to round-the-clock support.
The centre provides a single point of contact for members from the time they disclose an incident. Support includes referrals for specialized services, advocating for workplace accommodation and physically accompanying members to appointments.
To better advise CAF on cultural change, the centre has analyzed Operation Honour to see what worked and what didn’t—and why.
The centre is expanding its services for veterans and civilian employees and providing funds to more community-based sexual assault centres that serve military personnel across the country.
The centre changed the landscape for survivors, said retired captain Sam Samplonius, whose career began and ended with sexual assaults.
After joining the reserves in 1981, Samplonius was the victim of a gang rape. She was talked out of reporting it by her boyfriend, who was also in the services.
“He said, ʻYou don’t want to destroy people’s careers; you’ll be labelled as a troublemaker. It’s just sex.’”
But sexual misconduct is not just about sex. It’s about power.
Justice Deschamps had found that “reports of sexual violence highlighted the use of sex to enforce power relationships and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit” in her 2015 report.
Past efforts to end sexual misconduct have “focused on trying to change the individual, rather than trying to change the social environment,” said Alan Okros, a professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
Power dynamics are set at the beginning of military careers. In the first week in the military, recruits get yelled at. A lot.
“That sets an important tone, that it’s perfectly acceptable to yell at people,” said Okros. Hearing “suck it up buttercup” conveys the cultural expectation to endure difficult and demanding experiences, push through and carry on.
“It’s not intended for you to carry on when you’re treated in an unprofessional way,” he said, adding that unless that is formally stressed, people will think they have to endure disrespect and abuse, too.
That sets up an atmosphere that invites belittlement and harassment, which in turn opens the door to more serious assaults.
“I was assaulted a number of times in the first five years of my service,” said Samplonius. “There was daily sexual harassment. Most people I worked with were awesome, but you ran into one or two who thought the only good soldiers were bulked up. They’d pick on women, and they also picked on guys, belittled them, said ‘man up or get out.’
“It drove me to sticking with the reserves instead of pursuing the regular force career I planned to follow.”
In 2016, Samplonius was raped by a stranger who followed her back to her hotel room after a mess dinner.
Operation Honour dictated members had a duty to report
“I was older, now a captain, married with two kids.” She and her husband discussed the duty to report. “We’d been married for 23 years,” said Sampolnius. “We both knew it would be tough, but we felt our marriage was strong enough to weather it.”
“I was always the person that held stuff together,” said Sampolnius. “When I fell apart, there was nothing holding us together.”
She and her husband, who was also in the services, were posted in different provinces. “I tried to get home as much as possible, but that seemed to be a difficult thing for my chain of command to understand. I wasn’t given time off unless I demanded it.
“It was like: ʻWhat’s the problem?’ It should have been obvious that after being stalked and raped you are not okay,” she said. She was required to provide proof to get resources and assistance that are regularly offered to survivors now.
“I can’t be angry about the SMRC because it was just stood up in 2015; they were still trying to figure out how to best support survivors,” said Samplonius.
Reporting also changed her relationships at work. Her commanding officer “seemed more shocked than anything else. From that point onward, we had no working relationship. She wanted to avoid me. People didn’t know how to respond.”
Samplonius went into weekly counselling, staying late to make up time, but was criticized because her after-hours e-mails reflected badly on her boss. Her contract was not renewed, ostensibly “because all of a sudden they didn’t need someone in that position” even though it was newly created.
She felt betrayed by the institution. “I felt like you should have been rewarded for continuing to meet obligations as a soldier. I was penalized at a time when I was already struggling to maintain my identity.”
Operation Honour didn’t give Samplonius the support she needed in 2016. Two year later, Statistics Canada reported that 900 regular force members were victims of sexual assault in 2017—virtually no change from 2016.
More senior leaders have become better informed about victim-centred and trauma-informed support for survivors.
Though it contributed to cultural change, “Operation Honour didn’t go far enough,” said Eyre, now a general and chief of the defence staff. When he ended the program he said the CAF would build on its successes.
“I believe the main issue [with Operation Honour] has been emphasizing a legal approach rather than a professional one,” said Okros.
The legal approach dictates leaders remain objective during investigations, preventing them from providing the same support to victims of sexual trauma as they would when somebody in their unit has been harmed or is in distress.
As well, there’s a high bar for conviction; when no charge follows an investigation, perpetrators believe a not-guilty verdict exonerates them of wrongdoing.
But they are guilty of professional misconduct, said Okros, and that has not always been communicated.
Neither has the difference between compliance and consent.
“In a relationship where there is a power differential, compliance may occur, but true consent is not possible,” said Dr. Alexandra Heber, Veterans Affairs Canada’s chief psychiatrist, during a 2021 webinar organized by the Canadian Military Sexual Trauma Community of Practice, of which she is co-chair.
Additionally, perpetrators may believe that because someone has complied, they have consented—but they may have acquiesced to prevent physical harm or to survive, to preserve their reputation or to protect their careers.
Operation Honour did not consider some cultural realities. Its duty to report “forced individuals into situations they don’t want to be in,” said Okros.
Some people may have preferred to resolve situations without a formal investigation. Survivors may not be ready to disclose and they may worry about retaliation. Witnesses worry reporting a minor violation could ruin someone else’s career.
Noted Okros: “The result can be that some individuals choose not to see, choose not to act.”
“It’s the exclusionary aspects of out culture we have to excise,’ said Eyre. That begins at the team level.
In December 2021, Eyre, along with Defence Minister Anita Anand, apologized for the military’s inaction and the harm suffered by survivors of sexual assault and harassment, discrimination and exclusion based on sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The harm you suffered happened on our collective watch. On my watch,” said Eyre.
“It breaks my heart.”
The apology was a step toward creating a service where “everyone feels welcomed, supported, empowered and inspired,” he said in a Legion Magazine interview.
The plan to achieve that relies on both top-down and bottom-up approaches.
The Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC) will spearhead the change of policies and programs to address systemic problems—and not just concerning sexual misconduct but all types of discrimination and harmful behaviours.
“We need to constantly monitor ourselves,” said Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan, head of CPCC, who describes the process as “using a mirror to look at ourselves. We need to create self-awareness about how our leadership styles, how our manners, how our training,” contribute to an environment where misconduct can take place.
“It’s a deliberate, continuous and all-encompassing defence team approach,” said Carignan. “This cannot be an Ottawa-only solution.”
CPCC has consulted outside experts and research networks about changes to policies and established advisory groups.
Continuing engagement of survivors is very important, said Eyre. It will take years for the restorative engagement sessions with lawsuit participants to be accomplished. Awareness sessions such as those Baines and senior navy commanders attended are also happening throughout army and air force ranks.
It is a challenge to hardwire change. There is continual turnover in the CAF as new personnel arrive and old hands release or retire.
“Training has to be continuous throughout one’s career, starting in basic training, to inculcate the values and behaviours that we expect. Then again at leadership courses,” said Eyre. “But between those episodes of professional military education, we have to have continuous sessions of improvement.”
Values such as inclusion and strength of character are highlighted in the new document, CAF Ethos: Trusted to Serve. To ensure it has been absorbed, personnel assessments once based on competence have been widened to include character—how leaders plan for and encourage values like inclusion.
“It’s the exclusionary aspects of our culture we have to excise,” said Eyre. And that begins at the team level.
“We are no longer building teams from a homogenous group of individuals all from the same background. Every individual comes to the table with unique strengths and weaknesses and developmental needs. It’s going to be incumbent on every leader to understand that unique background.”
How difficult that will be was demonstrated this past spring.
In March, a navy basic training course was shut down due to allegations of sexual misconduct and racism among recruits, and an investigation launched to identify and expel the offenders.
Then later that month, two senior female naval officers resigned over the handling of a sexual misconduct incident that resulted in a warning, a $1,500 fine and the eventual release of the perpetrator, a commander.
But the complainant and an officer supporting her said three other senior male officers involved in the case were not held accountable for their roles.
“The entire chain of command could have provided more effective support to the persons involved,” said a statement from Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia. “[We] failed to meet her needs.”
Then in April, e-mails were sent to VAC, National Defence, health care specialists and academics working with survivors alleging that those who disagreed with INJ700’s approach of working with military leadership were bullied and booted from the organization. The messages also questioned whether training had been properly vetted.
Buchart acknowledges that not all survivors and members of INJ700 agreed with the approach of working closely with military leadership.
“The engagements and sessions…were not qualification-based, but experiential, which is important in helping us better understand the broad implications of misconduct,” DND spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen.
Each service has been challenged to develop its own method of expediting change.
Baines has challenged navy leaders to work with their units to create workplaces where people feel safe to report misconduct and where bystanders “feel safe to correct microaggressions because they know leadership is behind them.”
Commander Landon Creasy tackled cultural change with three new initiatives when in command of HMCS Regina: a written statement of cultural expectations, appointment of a cultural advisor and regular informal discussions of ethical issues led by a non-commissioned officer.
Navy Lieutenant Blythe McWilliam, an underwater warfare officer, was approached to also take on the roles of cultural advisor and harassment advisor.
“I advised the command team on individual personnel issues as well as policies and regulations…to make sure that everybody in the ship was taken into account.”
She briefed crew on cultural expectations and means of redress. “I explained to them…your job doesn’t include putting up with poor treatment. If you’re thinking, ‘Do I have to put up with this? Is this normal?’ then chances are it isn’t.”
One Regina crew member complained about Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt’s drop-off policy, which stipulated members had to be dropped off by someone listed on their military records and that person had to have a military family identification card.
The complainant and their same-sex partner were continually interrogated by commissionaires about the partner’s identity, their relationship, if they were married. “They thought ‘this doesn’t seem right’ and came to see me,” said McWilliam.
“I wrote up a briefing note and pushed it up the chain of command. It went to the base commander and base operations officer. Within 24 hours the policy changed. Now any CAF member is allowed to be dropped off by a family member or friend, or a shipmate and they’re no longer going to check your record to see if you’re related to this person.”
The cultural advisor had a direct line to Commander Creasy to report incidents—even involving him. He was criticized for a turn of phrase he had been using occasionally through much of his life. McWilliam alerted him it was inappropriate and explained why.
“The job is holding me or anyone else to account,” said Creasy. “If you’re going to enable somebody to provide you advice, you need to be prepared for the very day you might be the subject of that advice.”
Such open communication eased the path for a newly transgendered member and worked out difficulties posed by location of the women’s quarters, a room where the damage-control team had to suit up in firefighting gear. And in securing leave for a Muslim crew member to visit his spouse in Morocco during the COVID crisis.
“Blythe was able to open the brainboxes of a couple of people and adjust the settings so that they could see it through a different lens,” said Creasy. On issues large and small, “Blythe helped make sure we weren’t accidentally disadvantaging any member of the ship.”
It’s an attitude Dr. Preston has seen more and more as senior leaders have become better informed about victim-centred and trauma-informed support for survivors. Many are addressing microaggressions, including use of language.
“This might sound like a small thing, but it’s a big thing,” said Preston. “People are saying things like, ‘You can’t use that word; it’s better to say it this way.’ To me, that’s really heartening.” It’s culture change seen in day-to-day interactions and attitudes.
Said Preston: “They’re not waiting 10 years for some major program or policy change.”
Despite other issues demanding the military’s attention—such as the invasion of Ukraine or the pandemic—culture change won’t be pushed onto the back burner, said Eyre.
“You could argue that the challenge we’re facing now is because of our inability to adapt 30 years ago,” he said. “What we don’t want to have happen is in 30 years from now, we’re still 30 years behind.”
What is sexual misconduct?
Sexual misconduct is behaviour of a sexual nature that harms others psychologically, physically or economically. It can be abuses of power, such as pressure or coercion into sexual activities, threats for refusing advances or offers of something in exchange for sex. And any assault that violates someone’s sexual integrity as described in the Criminal Code is a crime. It can be verbal (such as jokes, remarks about someone’s body or activities, sexual innuendo, unwanted advances, verbal abuse and harassment); visual (such as exploitive calendars, inappropriate gifts, intimate photographs shared on social media and porn on computer screens); and/or physical (such as unwanted touching, uninvited hugs and caresses, and harassment, including sexualized hazing rituals).
Where to get help and support?
Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, 1-844-750-1648
Confidential support including counselling, referrals, advocacy
with chain of command and accompaniment to appointments. Information is not shared with the chain of command.
Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program, 1-800-268-7708
Confidential, voluntary, short-term counselling and
referrals for members and their families.
Veterans Affairs Canada Assistance Service, 1-800-268-7708
Provides confidential, immediate, free mental health
counselling and referrals for military and
RCMP veterans, their families and caregivers.