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Former UN human rights chief Louise Arbour tapped to review military sex misconduct

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is tapping former Supreme Court justice and UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour to lead what it is billing as an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and o

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is tapping former Supreme Court justice and UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour to lead what it is billing as an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Arbour's appointment Thursday, nearly three months after the government and Canadian Armed Forces were rocked by allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the military’s very top commanders.

While one of Arbour's primary tasks will be to help establish an independent system for victims and others to report incidents of sexual misconduct, Sajjan says she will also review other aspects of the military’s approach to preventing and punishing such behaviour.

That includes everything from how it screens recruits and trains service members to the way reports are handled, victims are supported and perpetrators are investigated and punished.

"This system needs to be focused on those who have experienced misconduct, be responsive to their needs, and be outside of the chain of command and the Department of National Defence," Sajjan said, according to prepared remarks.

"Any less cannot be accepted. Any less will not be accepted. Madame Arbour and her team will provide significant direction on how we must evolve to support affected people and how we can ensure that every incident is handled appropriately."

Yet while Sajjan billed Arbour's appointment as a major step forward in the military’s fight against sexual misconduct, reaction to Thursday's announcement was extremely mixed from victims, advocates and experts.

Many questioned the need for yet another review more than six years after another retired Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, released an explosive report on the extent of sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces.

Deschamps's top recommendation was to create an independent centre outside the military that would receive reports of inappropriate behaviour while helping develop training, providing victims with support, and monitoring how cases are handled.

But the military resisted creating such an external body. The government instead allowed for the creation of a sexual misconduct response centre, a civilian-run body focused primarily on victim support and training but with no oversight powers.

"The last thing the CAF needs right now is another external review," Megan MacKenzie, who studies military sexual misconduct at Simon Fraser University, said in an email.

"Justice Deschamps has recently noted that her recommendations are 'gathering dust' and it would be stretch to say that they have implemented even 4 of the 10 recommendations."

That the government said Arbour's mandate would focus on establishing an external system for receiving reports of sexual misconduct, but did not include a similar emphasis on external accountability and oversight, was also seen as cause for some concern.

"There is no real accountability structure, we don't know much about how it will evolve, and we don't know who can actually push for change at a higher level," said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Opposition parties were quick to pan the review, with Conservative defence critic James Bezan accusing the Liberals of trying to ease the political pressure over their failure to act over the past few months. 

For his part, NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said: "While we have the utmost respect for Justice Arbour, another review that will take months is a distraction.  

"We already have the Deschamps report from 2015. The recommendations from that report were not implemented."

Others such as Carleton University professor Leah West, who has previously spoken about having been sexually assaulted while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, were more optimistic.

While West questioned why the Liberal government waited six years to launch Thursday's review, she said such work was necessary to start implementing Deschamps's recommendations and begin bringing about real change in the military.

"What I think was necessary at the time the Deschamps report came out was a meaningful engagement in: 'Okay, how are we going to go about implementing these recommendations and then putting those recommendations into practice?'" West said.

"That's not what happened. That's what should have happened. And so now we're left, six years later, with having to engage in that exercise. And the exercise needs to take place. It should have happened five years ago. But it does need to happen."

The former Supreme Court justice will not be looking at individual cases, a number of which are currently under active military police investigation, but will instead make recommendations on how the military can do better.

Arbour, whose appointment was one of a number of new initiatives announced by Sajjan, will send recommendations over the next year or so to the minister, who will pick which to direct the military or Department of National Defence to implement.

The 74-year-old has earned a reputation over the years of speaking truth to power, including during her four-year tenure as the United Nations' top human rights official, and West was among those expressing optimism that her appointment would lead to real change.

Defence Department deputy minister Jody Thomas acknowledged that many may be "skeptical" of Thursday's announcement, adding: "Please continue to judge us by our actions."

Sajjan said the government is committed to acting upon Arbour's recommendations, which will be made throughout the course of her tenure, and that her final report will be made public once it is complete.

Responsibility for putting Arbour's recommendations into practice will ultimately rest with a new team under a three-star general with the title "chief of professional conduct and culture," whose responsibility will extend to weeding out racism and hateful conduct as well. 

Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, one of the military’s highest-ranking female officers, who recently completed a tour commanding a NATO training mission in Iraq, has been tapped to fill the position.

West suggested the military leadership in place now is better placed to deal with the issue of sexual misconduct than when Deschamps's report came out in 2015.

"I do have a sense that the CAF's leadership does care and wants to get it right," said. "And I think that is the key offset here."

Along with Arbour's appointment, Sajjan said the Ottawa-based response centre will be expanding its footprint to different military communities across the country. The government will also be offering peer support for victims who have served in uniform.

Both measures, which were hinted at in the federal budget as the government promised $77 million in new money and said it planned to redirect another $158 million from other parts of the military to help fight sexual misconduct in the ranks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Apr. 29, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press