A screencapture of former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour announcing the findings of her report on sexual assault and harassment in the Canadian Forces on Monday, June 30.
Former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour announcing the findings of her report on sexual assault and harassment in the Canadian Forces on Monday, June 30. Credit: YouTube

Despite her busy schedule on Monday, retired captain Annalise Schamuhn carved out some time throughout her day to follow the news around the external review of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) released by former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour. It hit close to home for Schamuhn because just last year, she came forward with her story of surviving Military Sexual Trauma (MST) hoping to create change in the armed forces. 

Mme. Arbour’s report focusses on the root causes of sexual misconduct in the CAF and laid out recommendations for how that CAF can better handle sexual misconduct cases.

In the report, Mme. Arbour makes 48 recommendations on how the CAF can address sexual misconduct, from changing definitions to changing how assault cases are handled. Each recommendation is looking to tackle one thing: the toxic workplace culture that victimizes women. 

“When thinking about culture change in response to the sexual misconduct crisis, the CAF leadership seems to have been incapable of examining which aspects of its culture have been the most deficient. In none of the initiatives it has launched, is there a single reflection on whether its insular, hierarchical structures may have facilitated the abuse of power that characterizes most sexual misconduct,” Mme. Arbour wrote.

Schamuhn also pointed to the CAF culture as the root problem of this issue. 

“The inflection point is when we stopped talking about it as a women’s issue or ‘a few bad apples’ and acknowledged it as a cultural issue,” said Schamuhn.

Who has value in the CAF workplace

Schamuhn said that one driving factor behind the toxic workplace culture is the type of worker that is valued by the CAF. 

“In the military, you are the most powerful or valuable if you fit a certain stereotype. If you’re a combat arms man who runs a certain distance, does a certain number of push-ups and looks a certain way, then you’re going to have a lot more power,” she said.  

Masculinity is prioritized in the military, according to Mme. Arbour’s report. In the section of her report that covers leadership in the military, Mme. Arbour said that recruits in training learn early on that what is rewarded is “conformity to a masculine ‘ethos’ and elimination of the inconvenience of diversity.”

This culture of rewarding masculinity is what is facilitating the creation of a toxic workplace culture Schamuhn explained.

“When I think about being a woman in the military, I think of it in that context,” Schamuhn said. “You’re in a position where by default you have a lot less power. You’re more likely to be victimized in an abuse of power situation.” 

Donna Riguidel of the Survivor’s Perspectives Consulting Group, a group that focuses on supporting military sexual trauma survivors, also said the military functions in a way that prioritizes masculinity. 

“The military itself is not really made for anything other than the average man,” Riguidel said, “The equipment is not made for women’s bodies and there are buildings you can work in that are old enough to not have a designated washroom space for women.” 

Riguidel said she wanted to avoid the term “toxic masculinity” because it has connotations she doesn’t want to employ in the discussion of MST; however, the term did come to mind. She said a restrictive view of strength creates an incomplete picture of who should become leaders in the military.

“Some people equate being tough or strong with being able to push others down. They equate it with being sexist, misogynistic, racist. Unfortunately, a lot of the traits we used to look for in leaders did not prioritize empathy. If you have a leader who is strong, intelligent, charismatic but has no empathy, you could very easily have a leader who is a sociopath. We need to have someone who understands that the people they command are people,” Riguidel said.  

In her report, Mme. Arbour highlighted that the people who work in the CAF employ skills other than strength. She said that while people often focus on the role of the CAF as a role of fighting and defending, most members do not spend their careers in combat.

“For many occupations and trades, members will be in combat zones for only a few months, if any, during their entire careers. And while it is important to train for combat, and be in a state of effective readiness, I believe soft skills are equally important,” Mme. Arbour wrote.

Arbour: Sexual assault cases should be heard in civilian courts

The insular nature of the CAF protects the workplace culture from outside criticism, according to Mme. Arbour’s report. She highlighted the long history of a toxic and sexist culture within the military.

“The CAF has been unwilling or unable to embrace the intent and vision that came from external sources, choosing the letter over the spirit, often the appearance of implementation over its substance,” Mme. Arbour wrote. “I believe this is a consequence of the insularity within which the CAF has traditionally operated, and its determination to perpetuate its old ways of doing business.”

To address the insularity, Mme. Arbour wrote that leaders in the CAF should become more open to input from outside. She also recommended that the CAF hand over sexual assault cases to civilian courts permanently. 

This is something Schamuhn agreed with as well. 

“This is something the civilian court system deals with everyday. There’s a lot of expertise there,” Schamuhn said.  

Schamuhn also said the military court system has a lot of vulnerabilities in it. She said that the military is very small and that raises concerns about objectivity. 

When Schamuhn reported her own experience with military sexual trauma, she went directly to civilian authorities. She said it is hard to say whether she had a better experience than she would have had by going through military court.

“I have only really heard of people in military court having a really hard time,” Schamuhn said. “It’s pretty tough to keep secrets in the military. When there’s a proceeding or investigation going on, information leaks out and you can lose control over the process.”

While Mme. Arbour’s report highlighted cultural issues within the CAF that marginalize women. Survivors of MST said most of the information in her report is not new or surprising. Shcamuhn said while the report was very thorough and well done, it contained a lot of information she and others have known for years. 

Mme. Arbour’s report is not the first of its kind. Another retired Supreme Court Justice, Marie Deschamps, released a report in 2015 highlighting the same issues. The Deschamps report created a flurry of activity that failed to create the change needed, Mme. Arbour wrote. 

Despite a history of ineffective action, Schamuhn said she is hopeful. She said that the leadership and government is one that understands the importance of safety and trust within the military. Schamuhn said that seeing a government and leadership personally invested in changes is what makes her believe things will move forward. 

Schamuhn said, “It’s just one more step along the path. The most important thing here is to get on it.” 

Gabriela Calugay-Casuga

Gabriela “Gabby” Calugay-Casuga (she/they) is a writer and activist based in so-called “Ottawa.” They began writing for Migrante Ottawa’s radio show, Talakayang Bayan, in 2017. Since then, she...