Experts Reflect on the Arbour Report

Experts Reflect on the Arbour Report


The CDA Institute recently asked four experts to provide their assessment of the recommendations outlined in the Arbour Report. We asked them what they thought the most significant recommendations were, which ones should be prioritized, as well as what they thought should have been included in the report; what the best path forward is to ensure recommendations are followed through on; the utility and influence of RMC; how the CAF can encourage diverse recruitment; and why previous attempts to address sexual misconduct in the CAF have failed. The following is a summary which synthesizes the responses provided during one-on-one interviews conducted by the CDA Institute.



While consisting of 85 recommendations, the Arbour Report demonstrates broadly that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) needs to become more transparent about its internal processes – particularly where sexual violence, gender, and ethnicity are concerned. Given that previous inquiries have resulted in similar findings, it is imperative that the CAF incorporate criticism from external organizations and civilians. However, as discussed by subject matter experts, the culture within the CAF complicates this. Military cultural attitudes often dictate that issues such as sexual misconduct and discrimination are handled internally. It was noted that the regimental system incentivizes leaders to handle issues on their own before escalating up the chain of command, which accounts for low numbers of reporting. Moreover, this culture is ingrained within the senior leadership because they were inducted into the military hierarchy in an insular environment that emphasizes its distinctness. Taken together, these factors demonstrate that the culture of sexual violence is not only deeply entrenched but that there is also no short-term solution to this issue.

This is reflected in one shortcoming of the report, which, as noted by experts, does not provide any guidance for dealing with allegations concerning senior leadership. Without this guidance, large-scale cultural change within the CAF would be difficult, if not nearly impossible. Institutional change – like leadership change, promotion, recruitment, and retention – is part of wider cultural change. If the CAF continues to resist civilian pressure to change or attempts to handle institutional change internally, then any observable change would continue to be minimal. For those impacted by these actions, this can be disheartening.

“We must open up barriers and create an organization, internally, that should be looking externally as much as internally”, Dr. Alan Okros said. “The fundamental challenge we’ve got is that the military has not been keeping pace with evolutions in broader society. We’ve got individuals, communities, and groups that are no longer willing to put up with and endure what they’ve had to endure,” said Okros.

Minister Anand and her successors must continue to be drivers of cultural change and institutional reform within the CAF, however, action plans for these changes are long-term and require consistency. Even so, this may not be possible in the future, given political challenges, the potential for cabinet shuffles, or the election of different political parties, which may hold different mandates. The Arbour report contained both actionable and broader points where more research or monitoring was required. Consistency is necessary to address these large-scale institutional issues within the CAF.

“Largely, there have been suggestions for initiatives that have not been implemented. Mostly, that’s because of political reasons, particularly with the CAF, and particularly with external reviews”, said Dr. Megan MacKenzie. She stated that there is always the risk that government-appointed external reviews will become ineffectual once a new government takes over and mandates shift. Prior initiatives are sometimes relegated to the back burner because there is no sense of ownership over them.

Dr. MacKenzie also highlighted the lack of political will as an impediment to addressing sexual misconduct and encouraging culture change. “There’s just not a lot of political will, nor are there many political champions of this issue,” she said. “The current Minister of Defence seems to be one of the strongest champions of this issue in Canadian history. However, typically, most politicians have not wanted to take to this issue head-on. Military leaders have largely had the same approach, hoping the issue would just go away”, MacKenzie said.

Besides addressing cultural change within senior leadership or the CAF, experts all noted that cultural change must begin with education – particularly focused on the role that the Royal Military College (RMC) plays in training CAF officer cadets. Reviewing the utility of RMC is beneficial, given that training at RMC purports a sense of ‘elitism’ within CAF leadership. While RMC is useful since it provides professional skills and an accredited undergraduate degree, the institution has been embroiled in controversy – particularly regarding the lack of professionalism displayed by some officer cadets. Furthermore, given the cultural makeup of RMC, this can embolden the student body with privilege and dysfunction. In contrast to other Canadian universities that offer CAF training in conjunction with the completion of an undergraduate degree, RMC fails to reflect Canadian multiculturalism and diversity – a point that must be addressed in the CAF’s mandate for widespread cultural change. However, any review of the CAF should preclude any panic or alarm over the potential closure of RMC, instead, it should prioritize improving educational experiences for potential officer cadets or looking at alternative models to deliver on officer cadet training.

Dr. Stephen Saideman said that the sense of entitlement that has been displayed by some higher-ranking members of the Forces could potentially be connected back to the culture that has been fostered at RMC. “I think one place this might come from is the military college because there is this effort to create an elite,” he said. “While you want to create an elite, there must be some accountability and responsibility. But there’s something in the institution that has caused people to leave thinking that the rules don’t apply to them, which stays with them beyond that. If you have a military or academic institution like that, is it inevitable that it will create a sense of elite entitlement or privilege? I’m not sure. But if we’re going to keep those schools around, then we must figure out a way to mitigate that.”

Another concern experts had about the Arbour Report is the absence of a recommendation to appoint an Inspector General or a similar role. Arbour takes the position that if all of her recommendations are implemented, there is no need for an independent external monitor. However, the lack of an independent mechanism to oversee cultural change or abuse allegations could mean that the needs of survivors or victims are not being addressed. Conversely, the implementation of an Inspector General could be fraught with issues – especially if the ministry or Parliament politicizes the role of the Inspector General. However, given that a call for an independent reporting and oversight body – which was found in previous reports – was not adequately justified by Arbour, it seems as though Arbour is placing trust in the current military scheme to be the core driver of these changes. It remains to be seen if the current military scheme – through the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) – will be successful in this endeavour.

“A lot of people recommended something akin to an Inspector General role and it isn’t there,” Saideman said. “I think that’s a mistake because her report deals with sexual misconduct in some elements of leadership, but it doesn’t get into some of the dynamics of abuse of power and entitlement that have helped foster this culture. It doesn’t get to the challenge of civilians or military either.”

Additionally, suggesting that sexual misconduct cases should be referred to the Human Rights Tribunal (HRT) is concerning. Given that action against perpetrators of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse needs to happen quickly, the HRT is not necessarily the place for recourse of that nature. Not only would these cases overwhelm the HRT – adding further harm to victims – but this recommendation fails to connect causal factors between sexual harassment and racism, which implies that a GBA+ perspective is needed for future recommendations. Dr. Stéfanie von Hlatky stated that the absence of an independent reporting mechanism sitting outside the chain of command in the short term might also lead to confusion and dissatisfaction with the way that current systems are run.

“I think an impression the report leaves is that if all of the recommendations are implemented, culture will be noticeably improved,” said von Hlatky. “However, in the short term, it creates a lot of uncertainty for service members, and that can create particularly acute challenges for victims and survivors who are wondering what to do next.” Von Hlatky stressed the importance of viewing the recommendations holistically, not separately. The cross-cutting themes are important because even once those recommendations are implemented, the Canadian Forces will need several principles so that practices or policies are constantly updated and adapted to the times. “That’s been a core challenge for the CAF”, von Hlatky said. “The military is trailing behind the rest of society.”

In sum, advancing cultural change within the CAF is highly dependent on both transparency and institutional reform. Civilian pressure – often through media pressure – has already been highly successful in shedding light on sexual misconduct and harassment. Institutional reform is key to wider cultural change. Not only does the CAF need to consider how ingrained this culture is within the senior leadership, but it also needs to understand that education is a driver of cultural norms and practices, which necessitates an external review of RMC. Furthermore, the Arbour Report’s success could be hampered by a new government with different priorities, future challenges, or cabinet shuffles, and it remains to be seen if CAF culture change is a priority for future ministers or governments.

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.