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Canada Needs a Military Leader Who Doesn't Excuse Sexual Harassment

06/22/2015 12:26 EDT | Updated 06/22/2016 05:59 EDT
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When I was an officer in the naval reserve, long ago, it was not uncommon to hear the expression "shit rolls down hill." This was generally understood to mean that any trouble at the top grew in momentum as it swept down the chain of command. A colourful image, and one that might also go a long way to explaining some of the intractable sexual harassment problems that persist in the Canadian military.

This past week, the outgoing Chief of Defence Staff -- the man at the very top of that metaphorical hill -- unwittingly let us all have a peek at the highest levels of thinking around this problem.

Given that this is the 21st century and not the 19th, the video clip is a bit staggering but the most memorable line suggests that the military command structure is a bit powerless to end sexual harassment because "[men are] 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."

Unless phrenology is going through some sort of renaissance that I've missed, it is exactly this kind of thinking -- and these sorts of pronouncements -- that starts the dookie's downhill roll.

For a start, why would we accept Lawson's mumbly assertion that the military is powerless to alter people's "biological wiring"? This is actually a huge part of what the command structure has always done: if the military wasn't able to overcome a soldier's self preservation instinct, then rational people would never march lockstep into cannon fire, jump from a plane or dive to the bottom of the ocean floor in a smelly metal tube. The military indoctrinates soldiers so that they do such things not just without question, but to the best of their ability. So why is it so hard to indoctrinate them into a reasonable understanding of why sexual harassment is unacceptable?

Peter Mansbridge's bafflement is palpable as he follows up with the, you know, rather obvious point that most institutions today have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment. Lawson's counter is patently absurd, suggesting that we should be giving the military high-fives for all the progress that they've made.

That line could have been taken from a Monty Python sketch where a senior officer asserts that the Royal Navy's cannibalism problem is almost under control. But it's especially Kafka-esque in light of the recent sexual harassment seminar offered to the officers-in-training at the Royal Military College in Kingston. This an institution designed to prepare young officers to become our future military leaders...and it is also a place where officer-on-officer sexual assault happens all too frequently.

At a recent seminar given to educate the officer cadets about what sexual harassment means today, the (young, female) educator was "subjected to cat calls, rape jokes and an extremely hostile environment." The majority of officer cadets condoned what was happening -- likely through their silence -- and it took an astounding five months for the RMC Commandant to send her a letter of apology.

This is progress?

Of course not: this is what happens when thinking like Lawson's permeates the command structure of the Canadian military. People come to understand when to speak up, when to shut up and when to tolerate behaviour that would be unacceptable in any other walk of life.

To be clear, it goes without saying that these actions and attitudes are not representative of the majority of officers in the Canadian military...not by a long shot. When I was a young officer trying to figure myself out, there were always more senior officers -- people like Fleming Rasmussen, Al Begin or John Underhill -- to steer me in the right direction. And I'm sure their counterparts continue to serve today.

But Lawson's waffle stifles those voices and helps entrench backwards attitudes. And, of course, it is the lower-ranking soldiers stuck at the bottom of this particular hill who get the full force of what comes rolling their way.

On the other hand, imagine if our Chief of Defence Staff responded to the sexual harassment problem like his Australian counterpart:

That video isn't just worth watching: it should be required viewing for Canadian military officers like Lawson, who seem to be inexplicably confused about how to deal with sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the current storm of outrage won't matter much to Lawson, who is scheduled to retire along with his muddy-headed reasoning on July 17th. One hopes his successor will have a better vision of what it means to lead a 21st century military.

So, er, does anyone know if David Morrison is looking for a new gig?

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