Lieutenant General (Retired) Guy Thibault, CMM, MSC, CD
Former VCDS (2013-16), Chair Conference of Defence Associations Institute
“The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces are committed to demonstrating leadership in reflecting Canadian ideals of diversity, respect and inclusion, including striving for gender equality, and building a workforce that leverages the diversity and multicultural fabric of Canadian society” – Minister of National Defence, Halifax International Security Forum November 2020
There are many important issues confronting policy makers and strategic staffs at National Defence and the Canadian Forces as they look toward 2021. Our leaders need to adapt our strategies and institutions to effectively deal with myriad challenges such as:
- Great Power competition with an increasingly assertive China and aggressive Russia;
- Conflict and instability in regional hot-spots in the Middle East and Maghreb, Korean Peninsula, South China Sea, Straits of Taiwan, and along the China-India border;
- Terrorism and the continuing threats posed by Violent Extremist Organizations;
- Fractures in the solidarity of the NATO Alliance;
- Persistent Cyber Security threats;
- A reset of Canada-US Defence Cooperation for Continental Defence and NORAD Modernization especially in light of an incoming new administration in Washington;
- Increasing climate change related natural disasters;
- Asserting sovereignty in Canada’s Arctic region;
- Modernizing the Canadian Forces and delivering on the Defence Policy commitments from Strong Secure Engaged; and
- Security implications of the current pandemic and post-COVID National Economic Recovery.
A daunting list to be sure, however of all these pressing issues I think the top priority for an incoming Chief of Defence Staff must be a doubling of efforts started under General Jonathan Vance on addressing persistent systemic cultural problems that have the potential to harm the trust of Canadians in our Armed Forces.
Increasing Diversity and Upholding “Duty with Honour”
Over the past year few years, despite a significant amount of leadership attention and concentrated efforts aimed at increasing diversity, ending sexual misconduct, and eliminating prejudice and hateful conduct from within the ranks, progress is frustratingly slow.
In 2020, CF members carried out their operational missions around the globe (including here at home in response to the pandemic) with great distinction. Unfortunately at the same time, the reputation of the armed forces was somewhat tarnished by some high profile negative reports. A recent Stats Canada study showed that despite the CDS’s personal leadership on Operation Honour over the past half-decade, nearly 70% of Military College Cadets reported to have witnessed or been the victim of unwanted sexual behaviour, including 15% of female officer cadets reportedly having been sexually assaulted in the last year. There have also been a small but steady number of cases of members of the military associated with hate groups including: The Proud Boys, Soldiers of Odin and La Meute, and worrisome incidents such as the FBI arrest of a Canadian Army Engineer accused of being a Neo-Nazi and a heavily armed Reservist who crashed his pick-up truck through the gates at Rideau Hall with an apparent intent to harm the Prime Minister.
The response from DND/CF to these issues has been somewhat mixed. From the top there have been forceful statements and public commitments for action, commanders at all levels have issued orders, new personnel directives and policies have been promulgated and training programs developed all with a view to increasing diversity and addressing harmful behaviours. While these are all necessary and commendable efforts, it has been disappointing to see cases where the CAF has difficulties getting rid of ‘bad apples’ due to various technical, policy, legal or administrative reasons, despite individual conduct that is clearly incompatible with the military ethos of “Duty with Honour”.
The cultural problems in the Armed Forces are complex and are a microcosm of what is occurring in society. Having said this, Canadians rightfully should expect the highest level of professionalism, ethical behaviour and moral conduct from their men and women in uniform. Notwithstanding the incredible talent and dedication of our military commanders in their profession, one of the reasons for the slow progress with cultural change in the armed forces lies with our leaders themselves. In my experience the majority of our senior ranks are ill-equipped for fixing institutional issues of diversity and systemic racism because of their ‘blind spots’.
Systemic Racism in the CF: ‘Blind Spots and Unconscious Bias’?
This past summer high profile events in the USA and Canada focused national attention on policing and the disproportionate use of excessive (and too often deadly) force against ethnic, racial and indigenous minorities.This led to protests and calls for national leaders to take action to address systemic racism in our institutions and society.
After participating in a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest on Parliament Hill in June, my 21-year old son caught me completely off-guard by asking me “so what are YOU doing about this Dad?”. Given the status and influence of contacts from my former role as VCDS, he figured of all the people he knew, that I could (and should) be doing something!
Sheepishly, I had to admit that I was not doing anything… but it certainly caused me to wonder what I might have answered to the question of whether I believed there was ‘systemic racism’ in the Canadian Forces. I watched with great interest the criticism of RCMP Commissioner Brenda Luckie who struggled with the question and I think my gut instinct would have been to go on the defensive and say something along the following lines:
‘No, I do not believe that there is ‘systemic racism’ in the Canadian Forces, although I know that like all big organizations we have some bad actors in our ranks and this includes individuals who likely harbour racist beliefs.’
As VCDS I likely would have reiterated our good intentions, highlighted our diversity policies and programs and defended our actions by noting that cultural change takes time and we are slowly and surely making progress. While serving I certainly believed that my colleagues and I were highly motivated, well educated and informed on these issues and as a leadership team we were fully committed to increasing diversity and ensuring an inclusive, respectful and safe environment for everyone serving in the armed forces.
Having said this, with the benefit of further reflection and using me as the case-in-point, I can now more clearly see aspects of ‘systemic racism’ at play in the Canadian Forces.
When I joined the military in 1978, I was recruited from a working class suburb of Montreal where my neighbours, schoolmates, sports team-mates and members of my scout troop were from a wide range of racial, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds: Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, immigrants with familial ties to the Caribbean, Pakistan, India, China, Ukraine, Poland, Korea and Italy – my best friends were literally a mini-United Nations.
38 years later, after a wonderful career and the privilege of serving at the highest ranks of our Armed Forces, my circle of close friends and colleagues now look totally different – they look a lot like me – White, mostly male and socio-economically advantaged. While I am disappointed to have to acknowledge this, my service and progression to the uppermost ranks in our armed forces effectively led to me having less and less routine interaction with individuals representing the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of Canadian society.
The Problem of Promoting Leaders “Like Me”
I expect that my experience in this respect is typical and persists within the current Senior Officer/Non-Commissioned cadre which, in terms of diversity, is not where it should be after 40+ years of working to increase diversity in the Forces. In my view this is at least partly because of the way Canadian Forces leaders are mentored and groomed. Our most senior commanders are likely quite confident in their individual skills, experience and qualities that led to their success and as a result tend to pick and promote their successors with an unconscious ‘like-me, similarity bias’.
The obvious problem is that the vast majority of CF leaders charged with fixing the problems of racism, prejudice or gender inequality in the “system” inevitably have ‘blind spots’ given that they are from a demographic where they have not likely witnessed or experienced the harmful behaviours at issue. I know that I and many of my colleagues initially had a hard time believing the picture painted by Justice Marie Deschamps in her 2015 report on sexual misconduct as her descriptions of the CF work environment simply did not match our lived experience in the forces.
Given the military’s hierarchical rank and organizational structure combined with overall low levels of representation of women, LGBT and ethnic and racial minorities in the CAF it is not too surprising that most senior leaders are generally under exposed to the perspectives, views, stories and lived experiences of the men and women who routinely experience prejudice, racism and unwanted sexual behaviour.
As the Military Advisor to the Prime Minister, Commander of the Canadian Forces and head of the Profession of Arms in Canada, the Chief of Defence Staff has many important responsibilities, but none more critical than maintaining the trust and confidence of Canadians in our Armed Forces.
I know that our current and past Chiefs of Defence and senior military commanders are incredible, dedicated professionals and well-intentioned in their efforts to change CF culture, but without acknowledging and finding new ways of overcoming their ‘blind spots and unconscious like-me bias’, their plans and actions to address diversity, inclusivity and to stamp-out harmful conduct will not likely match the ideals they espouse. Progress will continue to be frustratingly slow and ultimately place at risk, the trust, respect and the ‘hearts and minds’ of Canadians in their Armed Forces.