Retirement next month probably can’t come fast enough for my boss, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson. In an interview with CBC News, Canada’s top soldier offered these thoughts on why sexual harassment and misconduct are an ongoing problem in the Canadian Armed Forces. This was in response to the question, from CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, “It’s 2015. Why is this still an issue."
"It would be a trite answer, but it's because we're biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It's not the way it should be," he said.
"Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely, men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members."
It’s an awkward 90 seconds of video, as you can see the General digging himself into a hole, and making it sound as if it “biological wiring”, as unprofessional as it may be, is a thing in the military. It was a particularly unfortunate comment, and it was roundly condemned. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted that the remark was "offensive, inappropriate, completely unacceptable” and basically said he was glad Lawson was retiring soon.
Ann Kingston from Maclean’s Magazine asked the obvious question, which is, why did Australia’s top general get this issue right and the Canadian got it so wrong?
It was especially unfortunate because at the end of April, a report on sexual harassment in Canada’s military, “An External Review Into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces”, conducted by a retired Supreme Court Justice, Marie Deschamps, was tabled. The full report can be found here, The report found that an environment “hostile to women and LGBTQ members” exists at certain levels of the CAF, and that “Comprehensive cultural change is required”. Among Justice Deschamps’ ten recommendations was that the CAF create “an independent centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment outside of the CAF with the responsibility for receiving reports of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as prevention, coordination and monitoring of training, victim support, monitoring of accountability, and research, and to act as a central authority for the collection of data."
It is unfortunate that a distinguished military career should be capped with such a regrettable conclusion. In previous comments, General Lawson sounds much more confident about what doing the right thing for the CAF means. It may have been that the General was musing aloud on camera, though biological determinism shouldn’t have been something he pondered on national television. Some have suggested that the CDS was merely saying what too many people in the military really think. He leaves some heavy lifting for his successor, the incoming CDS, an Army general, as well as for Major General Christine Whitecross, who will be the next Chief of Military Personnel and who will head the response team handling the Deschamps report. An interview with Maj. Gen. Whitecross with CBC Radio, on 11 June, before Lawson’s comments blew up, suggests she takes the job seriously. That interview can be heard here and it is encouraging.