7 June 2022
Those of our readers who follow Canadian military affairs will already be aware that for some time it has been becoming increasingly obvious that there are deeply troubling cultural currents festering within parts of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). There can be no doubt given the multiple sexual abuse investigations currently underway, as well as the many high-ranking officials who have been removed from duty. In response to the problem, the Government of Canada requested Justice Arbour launch an independent review of the situation. That report was released this past week. On the same day, the Trudeau Government announced a new round of firearm legislation, which included a ban on all handguns. Despite this sensational headline, it did little to lessen the reception of this troubling report, which the Government quickly pounced upon the opportunity it presented to virtue signal by accepting the report and its recommendations in its entirety.
Certainly, there can no longer be any room for doubt, the problems within the CAF are serious and run deep. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. Particularly concerning there appear to be serious issues at the Royal Military College (RMC), where after multiple complaints the Military Police did not take action on criminal harassment and sexual offences. This is where my attention is going to focus. One of the 48 recommendations made by Justice Arbour, number 29 specifically targeted the Military Colleges suggesting that it might be better to send Cadets to civilian universities, to quote it in its entirety:
Recommendation #29: A combination of Defence Team members and external experts, led by an external education specialist, should conduct a detailed review of the benefits, disadvantages and costs, both for the CAF and more broadly, of continuing to educate ROTP cadets at the military colleges. The review should focus on the quality of education, socialization and military training in that environment. It should also consider and assess the different models for delivering university-level and military leadership training to naval/officer cadets, and determine whether the RMC Kingston and the RMC Saint-Jean should continue as undergraduate degree-granting institutions, or whether officer candidates should be required to attend civilian university undergraduate programs through the ROTP.
In the interim, the CPCC [Chief Professional Conduct and Culture] should engage with the RMC Kingston and the RMC St-Jean authorities to address the long-standing culture concerns unique to the military college environment, including the continuing misogynistic and discriminatory environment and the ongoing incidence of sexual misconduct. Progress should be measured by metrics other than the number of hours of training given to cadets. The Exit Survey of graduating cadets should be adapted to capture cadets’ experiences with sexual misconduct or discrimination.
I am deeply troubled to find just how many folks within the self-proclaimed military adjacent community seem to infer that the solution is to do away with the College entirely and are reflexively supportive of this suggestion. On my Twitter feed popped up the following, from a self-described “Government relations professional w/an army side-hustle.”[sic]
Just saw a LinkedIn post: In response to the Arbour report, someone changed their profile pic to their decades-old mil college uniform grad pic. They want their network to know they support the institution. Hanging on to the past over supporting an inclusive future? Thoughts?
To begin, to borrow the parlance of the times, a more ‘cringe worthy’ occupation and/or description of one’s work with the military I can’t imagine. In addition, the obvious logical fallacy of false dichotomy is nonsense and I think we should expect more from ourselves when discussing such serious subjects, even on twitter. I find it repugnant that the question is framed in this way along with the implied moral judgment being made against her straw man in the process. Furthermore, the idea of having to trade the College and ‘the past’ (presented as a source for evil) to achieve a progressive good is just idiotic. This approach along with the comments that followed reveal a deeply troubling attitude in which everyone seems all too ready, even eager, to tear down, disparage, and throw out ‘the past’ as some sort of evil dead weight. The following two responses were particularly revolting from my point of view and sum up well the tenor of the conversation.
• Generically speaking, I imagine responses like this are people that have their identity tied to the institution. It becomes a personal attack at the psychological level.
• That is classic passive/aggressive. The culture needs to change and hanging on to the past is not the answer.
(I’ve chosen not to embed the tweet because I don’t want to give these people more attention)
Now I usually disregard Twitter entirely. If social discourse if a dumpster fire (it is) then Twitter is the dumpster. Also, to borrow from Dave Chappelle, ‘Twitter is not a real place.’ In this case, I have made an exception. The reason for doing so is that the sense I get is that within the Ottawa bubble and halls of power this attitude is widely shared, and seems rather disconnected from those Canadians who either A) live outside the bubble; and/or B) have some familiarity with the military. In fact, in the conversations I have had in the wake of this report many are deeply concerned about this one recommendation, to their credit they are equally concerned about the revolting cultural problems the report highlighted.
Myself, I am troubled as to why it never occurred to these twitter folks to consider that individuals expressing support for these institutions, which have no doubt profoundly influenced their identity, may be doing so in response to those who are so flippantly ready to throw away the entire institution, bathwater and baby. Perhaps it’s because they are more cautious in their thinking and wise enough to realise that this need not be a binary choice. Maybe they would rather fix Canada’s institutions than do away with them. I would argue that anyone who understands these institutions likely realises the potential they hold in serving as a vehicle for healing and reforming these cultural issues. It’s an all too common as well as glaring oversight on the part of the Twitter brigade that I find deeply troubling.
Justice Arbour is thankfully a more, indeed very, serious mind with a very serious resume. She is someone with a high level of familiarity with military affairs by any standard, particularly by civilian standards. That said, I do believe, with respect to Justice Arbour, that in this case a blind spot has emerged. This is not surprising, the nature of these kinds of inquiries means that as the investigator is exploring the issues at hand they find themselves confronted with the demand to educate themselves on multiple tangential facets of the contextual body. In basic language, as you explore trouble in military culture surrounding sexual and racial discrimination you will at any moment have to educate yourself about this or that part of the military. Justice Arbour herself acknowledged this within her report.
Although on its face Justice Arbour’s recommendation #29 and the review that it suggests seems both prudent and unremarkable, I fear the implications of this recommendation, given its mention of sending Cadets to civilian universities, could lead to a profoundly troubling solution to the problem. To be clear I think very highly of Justice Arbour and her report in general. However in the instance of her approach to the College. I think this demonstrated a lack of depth in her thinking, something of a knee jerk reaction (far too prevalent in Canada today) that does adequately weigh the larger issue of military education, the purpose it serves, and the role it plays, particularly at the Cadet level. There is a reason that most of the world’s militaries have some form of military college. This is more than simply some misguided affection for the past. It’s because of its profound role in building and maintaining the Force and its culture…. which, yes, needs repair. This is an institution and culture, that it should be pointed out, despite its faults, promotes values we all share, as well as holding incredibly important lessons that have been hard-earned and paid for in blood.
These values such as ‘truth, duty, and valour’ to borrow from RMC, are not abstract for the military. The importance of rank, hierarchy, merit, placing the good of the team (or unit, or mission) above self-interest, and serving something greater than one’s self are central tenets of the military ethos for good reason, lives depend upon it, this is not hyperbole. These principles, which might seem archaic and worthy of ridicule by some, underpin the foundations of western society. It seems very en vogue at the moment among self-proclaimed, mostly young civilian and urban, ‘progressives’ to sneer derisively at these ideals as backwards and the source for all things ‘toxic.’ This represents a lack of any meaningful thought into the subject, despite what twisted and multisyllabic jargon filled Twitter threads they post on the subject. This ethos is quite simply essential to a functioning military. These ideals did not come about by accident but through the evolution of several thousand years of professional military training from across the globe.
Like it or not the military is not the civilian world and in order to safeguard the latter, the former has to hold to a line some of us might find uncomfortable and many will never understand, having never tried to. This is not to justify or defend sexual harassment, racism, or discrimination of any kind. They are intolerable, and in total opposition to the military ethos. They must be sought out and destroyed. So too must leadership that tolerates these forces. However, to be clear, these ‘archaic’ military principles are not the cause of the toxic elements of CAF culture, it is their absence that has caused the current problem. This absence, as I will hammer home continually in the article, comes from the civilian neglect, lack of support, and chronic underfunding the CAF has been forced to endure for decades. This has had considerable influence in fomenting a somewhat insular attitude within the CAF that keeps ‘outsiders’ at a weary arms length. Justice Arbour is correct in her observation,
Unfortunately, the very success of CAF operations, which I am not in a position to assess, reinforces its view that it is unique, and that CAF can do everything without the assistance of outsiders, as it always has.
What is not appreciated is the why of how this came about. Without understanding that we have no hope of fixing the problem.
It for the above reasons that military education is both unique and essential, it is why it needs to be nurtured and supported not eliminated. Cadets face added challenges unique to their experience and path that are totally incomprehensible to their civilian counterparts. Like all undergraduate, Cadets face coming into their own, coming to grips with oneself, maturing into adults, developing the principles that guide their lives and the lenses by which they view the world. However, Cadets face the added challenges of understanding and embracing traditions, principles, and values that, as Twitter threads seem to prove, are not necessarily a natural fit to the mind someone in their late teens or very early 20s. Cadets face being challenged by these ideas, force to come to grips with, and develop an understanding of how these ideals, that often feel so antithetical to their inclinations, fit into the world, as they come to understand their importance and place in the unique path they have chosen. Cadets must contend with conditioning their body as well as their mind for the road ahead. Although the former might seem straight forward, it’s not, and the latter is monumentally challenging. These thousands year old military traditions and lessons need to be unpacked, critically examined, and incorporated into the Cadet’s understanding and view the world, which first requires the tools necessary to do so, take a lifetime of higher education to fully grasp. For all these reasons military education, which is an integral part of one’s career path from induction to discharge is unique and essential to effective leadership. Leadership I might add that is realistically the only way of correcting the current cultural course in the CAF. For this reason military education needs to start on day one.
One final point concerning military education. As I mentioned, military education runs the entire course of an Officer’s career. Most outside of this bubble probably don’t realise it but there is a very strong relationship between academia and the military, particularly social sciences such as history. High-ranking Officers commonly have MAs and even PhDs. This further education is usually pursued with some sort of civilian component, either at a civilian university, a mixed model like King’s college London’s Defence Studied Department at the Joint Service Command Staff College (JSCSC), or at a Military College with at least some civilian instructors. If the current course suggested is pursued this will become untenable. The pool will likely become even smaller than it already is until it dries up entirely and we are left without any professionals left in the field of military education and the relevant, not to mention necessary, knowledge will evaporate completely. I for one am deeply apprehensive about the job market in this field, which I am only just beginning to enter, and I have already resigned myself to the reality I will likely have to leave my home country to pursue a meaningful career. This should be deeply concerning to Canadians, and it’s not. That is a major problem.
With regards to a culture in need of repair, I think it’s worth reiterating that the military has degraded to what it has become in part due to the kind of attitude being displayed, which has fostered neglect and disregard. It is precisely its lack of care, attention, and support that got the CAF to where it is. As the Forces say “Crap in, Crap out.”
Some sort of political show-trial and purge aimed at eliminating the perpetrators and leadership that turned a blind eye won’t get this done. The underlying conditions that allowed this rot to fester and grow will still remain. Eventually we will find ourselves here again. Likewise eliminating the College won’t solve the problem because we will have even less agency over how this culture develops, having surrendered our strongest source of influencing it. The only viable solution is to invest heavily in bringing positive forces to bear in influencing and redirecting cultural currents in the directions they were always intended to flow but have sadly run off course from.
Jettisoning Cadet education and requiring they attend civilian university undergraduate programs is, quite frankly, a terrible idea that will exacerbate the problem by removing an opportunity to instil the values and principles the military will need moving forward if they wish to drag themselves free of this quagmire. Instead, it will be left to chance and the Forces will have to try and accomplish it after the fact. The issue is not with the existence of the College, it’s with its quality. Dismantling military education instead of fixing it is exactly the wrong thing to do.
The Military College is by and far the best vehicle to fundamentally reform Canadian military culture. This is where leadership is made. The solution is not to dismantle the military education system, in fact, the fix is quite simple, it’s the same solution to the rest of what ails the Forces…money, not to put too fine a point on it. The forces need attention, repair, and support. The Military College is at the heart of the solution. It needs the funds to attract and retain the best possible instructors (both military and civilian, though, especially the latter) that Canada can muster. To be clear, I support Justice Arbour’s observation concerning the somewhat insular tendency of the Forces. There can be no doubt that civilian instructors or ‘outsiders’ will be a critical component to the solution going forward.
To be fair to the Forces in my experience (whatever value you attribute to my anecdotal observations) leadership has been pretty eager to engage with outsiders. Whatever the case, these ‘outsider’ individuals are paramount to shaping our future military leaders, to build good leaders we need quality instructors able to engage with students as well as pursue quality, informative research. Quite simply, that is not currently the case. That will take a hell of a lot more money than is currently allocated to the cause. Oh, by the way, it’s clearly worth every penny given the current self-induced circumstances we find ourselves in.
In the interest of full disclosure, my MA in War Studies is from RMC, which I pursued as a civilian, and I deeply love the school and will staunchly defend the institution’s importance. I also have no trouble acknowledging the problems within the Forces and, as I highlighted, I am clearly aware of the cause. Crap in, crap out. In addition, despite having never seen these problems myself I do not doubt the issue or claims made by those who have encountered them, far from it. I also feel that having now completed my PhD in Defence Studies at King’s College London where my department is housed at JSCSC where my professors teach military professionals, I feel my insight into, and picture of, this issue is particularly well informed.
There is a reason that, as Justice Arbour observes, the Forces are insular in their attitudes. The military requires specialised schools for what are specialised people pursuing specialised skills unlike anything else in the world, ie making decisions concerning the use of force, often lethal, in defence of the principles upon which our society rests. This is no small thing. Their reasons for holding their views are reasonable, their attitude to outsiders, however, is not. Considering all of this, one should ask if a civilian university is really equipped to instil what is required of leaders in this field. Having pursued an undergrad at a civilian university, participated in the Canadian Naval Officer training program, and having the educational experiences I have, my opinion is not by a country mile. It is, for this reason, that I will staunchly defend the value of the institution, as will many others. This is I believe beyond measure or contestation and critical to the future of the Forces and ensuring quality leadership. Its importance if not its culture, indeed, in spite of the cultural problems in need of redress, is paramount, now more than ever.
This is why I have come out swinging so hard over what was a very stupid comment albeit on a very silly medium (one with far more influence than it deserves). I think it’s only proper that we as Canadians expect, nay demand, greater depth of thought on great issues such as this. At least let us move past false dichotomies and other logical fallacies so we might have an honest, thoughtful, non-partisan conversation for once. One where all those who have experience with the subject are heard. Particularly given that it concerns the future of military leadership at a time when a rogue nuclear power has invaded a European democracy to pursue a program of war crimes tantamount to genocide, a Situation which threatens the entire international order, and with it our way of life.
DefenceReport’s Recap is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here is the author’s own and is not necessarily reflective of any institutions or organisations which the author may be associated with. In addition, they are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.