Saturday, December 03, 2016


A headline came out lately, "Sexual assault more likely in Canadian military than in general". Since I spent 20 years in the military, I felt like weighing in on this topic.

The history of women in the Canadian military has not been without issues. In the 1960s, there were no women in combat roles. The only time you would see a woman in uniform was in the role of a cook, clerk, a member of a military band, technician, basically anyone whose job is NOT to point a weapon at the enemy.

My trade was essentially Communications Technologist, and my first 'posting' in 1981 was an Army unit, so there were very few women, probably less than a dozen in a unit 300 strong. As any man will tell you, if you work in a predominantly male work environment, the testosterone level can get pretty high. It wasn't unusual to see pinup posters and other manner of lewd content on walls, inside vehicles, on toolboxes, etc. Women were treated with considerably less respect than one would experience in public. It was a rough, male-centric environment. That's an observation, not an excuse.

Not long into my stint at my first Army unit, we prepared to embark on a rather major exercise involving pretty much the entire Army, gathering in Gagetown, New Brunswick. Because of the sheer scope of the exercise and all of the logistical work that needed to be done for an exercise of this magnitude, the Army brought in the Reserves to help. There were a lot of women in the Reserves. This meant that all of a sudden, there were a lot of young women attached to our unit, which was a very new experience for everyone. For the most part, the younger, single guys didn't mind. In fact, many of them took advantage of the situation and nature took its course. The older, mostly married men, who were typically in supervisory roles, did not appreciate this change very much and treated the women as unwelcome outsiders, and certainly not as equals. I'm positive that once the exercise was over and the women returned to their Reserve units, the leaders breathed a sigh of relief, as things would return to normal. But not for long.

On our next major exercise, two years later, female reservists joined us again. This time, it was the elder, senior managers in the highest ranks that resisted. While everyone was tasked with setting up their tents and digging their latrines and trenches, the women were told not to lift a finger and the men were ordered to do the heavy lifting on their behalf. Needless to say, this didn't go over very well. The women were insulted, the men were incensed. It created an air of animosity that some people were able to see through, but not all. Once again, when it was time to go home, the men were happy for status quo. At least the only trenches they'd be digging now were their own.

The biggest permanent change came when the government decided that women were given the opportunity to enter combat roles with men. This coincided with a newly introduced harassment in the workplace regulation for all Federal employees, which includes the military. Now, not only would we be seeing more women in Army units, now even in combat roles, but the way in which men were used to behaving was no longer acceptable, according to official regulations.

There was push back. Even some leaders didn’t know how to explain to their people what was not acceptable and why, because they didn’t even understand themselves. I recall one incident where we were being briefed on the new rules. One guy wanted to know, if he asked for, and got permission, to tell a lewd or off-colour joke, then it should be acceptable to tell the joke. The person giving the briefing was stumped. I got up and said, “Use your common sense. If you feel the need to get permission to do something, that's a red flag right there. It’s probably not a good idea to do it, even if you ‘get permission’.” I went on to explain that few people would vocally object when asked, even if in their hearts they did object, because of peer pressure. Nobody wants to be a stick in the mud, especially the newly integrated women.

This is an important message that just wasn’t getting out. Too many people were trying to find loopholes in the new rules to continue behaving as they had always done before.

This mentality never really went away completely. I would venture to say that the general attitude in the military was better in 1990 than it was in 1980, and that it’s even better today, now that women in all roles are no longer a novelty. But leadership never laid down the law and made it clear that nothing other than a harassment-free workplace, and everyone treated as equals, would be acceptable. Leaders also were seen to abuse the power of their rank where women were concerned. This sends a powerful message to the other men and women. Reported incidents were often swept under the table, especially when the offender was being ‘groomed’ for fast track through the ranks. I am even aware of an incident where a military male raped a civilian female off base, and the situation was turned over to military police and the military justice system, which did nothing. Admittedly, this was in the 1970s, but I would be amazed if this kind of protection doesn't still exist today, even if it is to a lesser extent.

So, the blame rests, in my humble opinion, squarely on the shoulders of leadership. Just as it does in the RCMP, various police forces, and any other male dominated work environment. Based on the most recent lawsuit headlines about the military trying to sweep various members' experiences under the carpet, things still have a long way to go.

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