Madam Chair, thank you again for this opportunity to come speak with the committee once again.
I have with me my deputy minister, the acting chief of the defence staff, and the judge advocate general to answer questions.
I first want to clarify something, Madam Chair. I'm here because on our side of the House we have a deep respect for the traditions of Parliament. One of those traditions is the principle of ministerial accountability.
Our government believes that ministers of the cabinet are accountable to the House of Commons for the decisions of the government and for the actions of their political staff. We have been collaborative with members of Parliament and we have been accountable. It is our responsibility, and we have gladly fulfilled that responsibility.
I'm here today because, as a member of cabinet, I speak on behalf of the government and for those who work in it. Let me be clear: Unelected political staff members are accountable to members of the cabinet, and cabinet is accountable to Parliament.
The Conservatives believed in this core principle more than a decade ago, when they were in power under Prime Minister Harper. In fact, it was a Conservative foreign affairs minister, John Baird, who spoke at committee about why the Harper government was refusing to allow its staff members to testify at committee.
Mr. Baird said:
If you have a problem with my office, you come after me. You can't haul people before this committee in a hostile, partisan interrogation—people who can't fight back for themselves. If you have a problem with the government, it is ministers in our system.
They are accountable.
Or perhaps the opposition would like to hear from former prime minister Harper himself:
Mr. Speaker, our precedents and practices are very clear. It is ministers and the ministry at large who are responsible to the House and to its committees, not their staff members. The staff members are responsible to the ministers and the members for whom they work.
Prime Minister Harper and his government instructed their staff not to appear. Instead, cabinet ministers went in their place. Unfortunately, the Conservatives under Erin O'Toole—who, himself, is involved in this study, lest we forget—have changed their minds on the importance of this fundamental principle of ministerial accountability. What was so important to them when they were in government has been thrown out the window now that they are in opposition. That is regrettable and dangerous, because Canadians need to know that they can trust that the very traditions of their Parliament will not be abandoned simply out of political expediency by those seeking power.
Madam Chair, the argument put forward by Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper was correct. It was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do now.
Now to the very important issue at hand.
Let's start by stating my position in the clearest possible terms. I do not and will not accept any form of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence from anyone, regardless of rank or position. I am committed to ensuring that affected persons have access to a range of supports and are treated fairly and compassionately. I firmly believe in the independence of investigations. These have been my guiding principles on this issue since I became Minister of National Defence.
We must take care of our people and provide them with a workplace free from harassment and discrimination. It is written into our defence policy. It is written into my mandate letter. It is also my personal belief system.
Sexual misconduct is harmful beyond measure. Our government has worked hard by responding to retired Justice Deschamps' report. We put measures in place focused on understanding the issue, preventing harm from occurring, addressing incidents when they happen and providing support to those affected.
We created the sexual misconduct response centre, completely independent from the military chain of command. We launched new mandatory training and education. We partnered with Statistics Canada to conduct surveys so we could better understand the scope of the problem. We reviewed 179 old cases that had been categorized as unfounded. We created new specialized teams within our military police and our prosecution service to address sexual misconduct. We sought out experts' external advice, and we implemented new programs and policies. Last year, we released a culture change strategy. All of this work was essential and foundational.
It is clear that Operation Honour, as we know it, has run its course. It has become clear that it has limitations. It is extremely clear that we have a lot more work to do. We will learn from what has and hasn't worked, and develop a deliberate plan to go forward.
We need to make it easy and accessible for anyone at any level to report an incident, and they need to have confidence in the reporting mechanisms. That is why we will be developing an independent reporting structure to look at all allegations. As the Prime Minister and I have stated, all options are on the table. We will continue to be guided by fairness and respect for the rule of law. [Technical difficulty—Editor] be upheld, because no one should ever have undue influence on an investigation. That jeopardizes the ability to achieve a just outcome.
Madam Chair, there can be no denying it. Sexual misconduct is a serious, systemic problem in the Canadian Armed Forces. We must take bold action to establish a culture where sexual misconduct is never minimized, ignored or excused. For far too long, people in the Canadian Armed Forces have been negatively affected by a culture that is influenced by outdated conceptions of what it means to be a warrior, a culture shaped by hypermasculinity—one that rewards assertiveness, aggression and competitiveness; one that sustains stereotypical gender roles and excludes people who do not fit the mould. This ideal permeates military cultures around the world. It is evident in accounts of hazing and initiations, and we see it in the continued occurrences of sexual misconduct. It was not okay in the past, and it's not okay now.
We know we must change our culture so that we can prevent sexual misconduct from happening in the first place. We must align all behaviours and attitudes with our core value: respect and dignity for all persons. Change will not happen on its own. It requires a persistent, methodical and holistic approach. People all across the organization must be invested in it.
Over the past two months, Canadian Armed Forces members and civilians across the defence team have been having important conversations about the issues that persist in our organizations. These conversations have been motivated and informed by those who have come forward and shared their experiences, but the responsibility to address sexual misconduct does not rest on the shoulders of those who have been affected. It rests on all of us.
It rests on leaders across the defence team to establish a culture where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. It rests on commanding officers to protect their people from retaliation and reprisal, and it rests on every person in our organization to intervene as bystanders and support one another. We must continue building trust in each other and in our organizations—trust that must be earned, not taken for granted.
Enough with the politics. We have to focus on the survivors and those who are coming forward. Now we must take action and change the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you once again.