Madam Speaker, I rise today to address this opposition day motion by discussing our efforts to prevent and address sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces and the department of National Defence.
I want to talk about the efforts that were highlighted during last week's announcement about a new independent external comprehensive review and a new organization dedicated to creating the conditions for enduring cultural reform throughout the armed forces.
We recognize that our past efforts have failed. Serious allegations against senior military officers have cast a pall over the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence as a whole. We recognize that our efforts have not fully resolved the problems identified by survivors or delivered the results they deserved.
We have a responsibility to ensure that our people work in an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect. It is a responsibility that we take very seriously. With that in mind, I would like to take a moment to address recent accusations concerning the Minister of National Defence and the allegations against the former chief of defence staff, General Vance.
When the minister met with the then Canadian Armed Forces ombudsman on March 1, 2018, at the very end of the meeting, Mr. Walbourne raised a non-specific allegation against General Vance. Mr. Walbourne did not go into details. Out of respect for the integrity and independence of the investigative process, the minister directed the ombudsman to share the allegations with the appropriate authorities. The matter was shared with the Privy Council Office, which is directly responsible for Governor in Council appointments, including the chief of defence staff.
The fair and unbiased investigation into allegations of wrongdoing is fundamental to our system of justice. It is fundamental to our concept of democracy. Such investigations must never be or even appear to be tainted by political influence. The actions that the minister took were the same as the previous Conservative government. They are the same actions, in fact, that the leader of the opposition took when he received rumours of sexual misconduct regarding General Vance prior to his appointment as chief of the defence staff.
Over the past months, we have heard harrowing accounts from others who have faced sexual misconduct in the line of duty, pointing to serious problems with our institutional culture, and we highlighted the need for comprehensive and lasting change. I have personally heard from many survivors, many of those impacted, and I want to thank them for coming forward and sharing their accounts. It is making a difference. We have listened, and we are taking action.
As the minister announced last Thursday, former justice of the Supreme Court, Madame Louise Arbour, has agreed to lead a new, independent, external, comprehensive review of our institutional policies and culture. This review will build on previous efforts to date, including the Deschamps report.
Through this review, Madame Arbour will provide crucial, tangible recommendations on how we can better protect our people and set the conditions for a lasting culture change. Most notably, we will look to her for guidance and recommendations on how we can set up an independent external reporting system outside of the chain of command for defence team members that meets the needs of those who have experienced sexual misconduct. We will also look to her to help us to ensure that our military justice system can properly respond to incidents and put survivors at the centre of it.
We will strengthen our existing structures on both the military and civilian sides, including the sexual misconduct response centre, to provide greater confidence to those who need support, and to help us review our evaluation and promotion system in the Canadian Armed Forces with a focus on how our organization selects and trains its leaders.
This leadership piece is very important. In fact, this is critical. As we have seen from media reports, the previous Conservative government decided to appoint General Vance as chief of the defence staff, even though he was under active investigation into sexual misconduct by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service and the current leader of the opposition was personally aware of rumours of sexual misconduct.
Just as the Conservatives were about to appoint their hand-picked choice to lead the Canadian Armed Forces, the commanding officer leading the investigation into General Vance said he was under pressure to drop the investigation. Pressure from whom? Who was behind this pressure? Did the Conservative government push the investigation to be closed, to clear the way for General Vance? These are important questions that I hope my colleagues will address, but I digress.
I mentioned Madame Arbour earlier. Her work will provide crucial, tangible recommendations on how we can better protect our people and set the conditions for lasting culture change. She will carry out this work transparently and independently from the chain of command, with input from appropriate stakeholders inside and outside of the defence team. She will assess our progress in applying the recommendations of the Deschamps report and help us build on those efforts. Throughout the process, she will be able to provide any interim recommendations, which we will act upon as they come in.
In addition to the review by Madame Arbour, we have launched a new organization within the defence team, tasked with setting the conditions for cultural transformation across the institution. That is beginning right now. We know that there are problematic aspects of military culture that can foster sexual misconduct and other harmful behaviours. These are values, beliefs and behaviours that prioritize toughness and aggression over emotional intelligence and cooperation.
These parts of our culture are completely unacceptable. They make us less effective and reliable as an organization. They erode the confidence people have in our institution and, most importantly, they harm those who have chosen to wear the uniform and devoted their lives to keeping us safe.
Under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan, serving as the chief of professional conduct and culture, this new organization will examine how we can address these toxic parts of our military culture, informed by best practices, as well as experts, advocates and those with lived experience, inside and outside of our military. This organization will unify, integrate and coordinate our existing efforts, including ensuring the interim steps Madame Arbour recommends are addressed immediately and fully. Ultimately, they will provide concrete steps that we can take to prevent sexual misconduct and other harmful behaviours from happening in the first place.
The work that this new organization has been tasked with, and Madame Arbour’s efforts, both take into account the fact that sexual misconduct does not happen in a bubble, nor is it the only harmful behaviour that can leave lasting trauma. To create lasting change, we have to look at the full spectrum of the problem.
We have to examine systemic challenges such as abuses of power, discrimination, biases and negative stereotypes, and address each of them appropriately. We have to shed ourselves of the outdated and toxic notions of what it means to be a warrior, an attitude that can foster these harmful behaviours and values. We have to transform the culture of our military from top to bottom, and we must have the right reporting and investigative structures in place to handle incidents when they occur.
We are deeply committed to building a culture of inclusion across the defence team. With these new initiatives, we are taking active steps to prevent sexual misconduct and other harmful behaviours by looking at our existing structures, and the values and behaviours of our institution.
We are ensuring that every member of our team is treated with dignity and respect at all times. At the same time, we also know that we need to do more to support people when they have been harmed. That is why, through budget 2021, our government is providing over $236 million in funding to expand our support systems to ensure the independence of sexual misconduct allegations and to improve our capacity to handle harassment and gender-based violence through the military justice system. As part of this, we are expanding the reach of our sexual misconduct response centres across the country. This is an important step to ensure that members and veterans who have been affected by military sexual trauma can access the resources and the supports they need.
We have heard from people affected by military sexual trauma and we know that they face different challenges than survivors of other forms of conflict-based trauma. That is why the work that our sexual misconduct response centres do is so important. They have been a key resource for those in our organization affected by sexual misconduct since 2015. They offer 24/7 confidential support and counselling services to anyone who reaches out and, crucially, their work is carried out independently from the military chain of command.
Dr. Denise Preston and her team help members navigate the various support services available to them, both inside and outside the department. They can help members access the right mechanisms to report incidents of sexual misconduct, including a military liaison team made up of a Military Police liaison officer, a special military adviser and a military liaison officer. This team is dedicated to the work of the SMRC and they are experts in their field. They can give members advice about how to make a complaint or about what is involved in an investigative process and they can facilitate reporting if the member chooses to do so.
The SMRC can also assign a dedicated counsellor to support members through the process, including advocating for them, accompanying them to appointments and assisting with workplace accommodations. However, this is just one piece of the work they do.
The SMRC is also working with affected members to develop new programs and create a national survivor-supported strategy and it provides crucial, expert guidance and recommendations that shape the policies and programs we have in place across the defence team.
To support its efforts, budget 2021 also provides funding to develop a new peer-to-peer support program. In the coming weeks and months, we will work with Veterans Affairs Canada, professionals, mental health professionals and those with lived experience to launch this program. It will include both online and in-person support informed by best practices and available to any Canadian Armed Forces member or veteran who has been harmed.
Finally, this funding also ensures that we will continue our efforts to implement the declaration of victims rights in our military justice system.
We have worked extensively with victims groups and we will soon launch an online questionnaire to solicit anonymous feedback from DND employees and Canadian Armed Forces members. Through these efforts, we will make the changes needed to modernize our military justice system in line with the commitments we put forth in Bill C-77. We are dedicated to building a military justice system that takes a victim-centric approach and truly gives victims and survivors a voice. We have already made some important progress implementing Bill C-77 and we will keep doing this critical work.
We want to ensure that we have the best support available when people have been harmed. Through the funding provided in budget 2021, we are doing just that. We know that gaps in our institutional policies led us to fail our fellow team members. We have not lived up to our responsibility to protect our people. We have seen that the values we proclaim to hold dear do not always match people’s lived experiences.
Every defence team member, every Canadian, deserves to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination, an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect, an environment where they are valued for their skills. However, the past weeks and months have shown us we still have a lot of work to do to make this environment a reality.
For those who have been harmed, I am very truly sorry. We have listened; we are still listening. Our efforts must deal with the issues at the root of the problem. We cannot just treat sexual misconduct on a case-by-case basis. We have also learned that culture change on this scale cannot simply be ordered. It requires active effort from all of us and a strong understanding of the parts of our culture that have caused harm. Our efforts must be comprehensive. They must be lasting. They must address the systemic changes that keep us from moving forward.
I know that many people are skeptical of our efforts, and with good reason. Too much damage has been done. Too many people have been affected.
However, I promise that we will do whatever it takes to transform the culture within our Canadian Armed Forces and get to the root of sexual misconduct and other toxic behaviours.
I also want to make it clear that the measures the minister announced last week are just the first steps based on the conclusions of the independent external comprehensive review.
Under the leadership of the chief of professional conduct and culture, and following the recommendations of other experts dedicated to cultural transformation, we will continue to make progress.
We will do whatever it takes to restore confidence, and we will keep working to ensure a genuine culture of dignity and respect for all those serving in the forces.