Canadians think highly of their military, but recent sexual misconduct scandals in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have damaged its reputation, according to a new report commissioned by the Department of National Defence.
The report, prepared by Earnscliffe Strategy Groupincludes the results of an online and telephone survey conducted in 2021 and a series of online discussions conducted through focus groups in 2022. It found that participants’ opinions of the military are less positive now than studies previous reports and that Canadians are increasingly concerned about sexism and racism in the ranks.
“Canadians’ impressions of the CAF are mostly positive or neutral. Very few respondents have a negative impression…However, tracking data demonstrates some erosion of overall impressions of the CAF, as well as impressions of those who serve, and the level of pride Canadians have in the FCC,” the report said.
The number of participants who said they view the military “very positively” fell to 35% in 2021, from 43% in the 2020 study and 57% in the 2018 survey.
Survey participants were asked to rate their level of pride in the Canadian military on a scale of one to five, with five expressing the most pride. Only 18% gave a rating of five – well below the 28% recorded in 2020.
But 65% said their overall impression of the CAF was positive and only 11% had a negative opinion.
The survey interviewed 1,501 Canadians aged 18 and older, of whom 525 participated by phone and 976 online. The online focus groups consisted of 10 groups with 10 participants in each group.
Since early 2021, the military has been rocked by multiple allegations of sexual misconduct among senior officers. Jonathan Vance, a retired general who served as chief of the defense staff (CDS) from 2015 to 2021, pleaded guilty to a single charge of obstruction of justice in March 2022 as part of a investigating allegations of sexual misconduct.
Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, lost his CDS job in February 2021 after facing allegations of sexual misconduct. The federal government replaced him with the current best soldier, General Wayne Eyre. The military police did not charge McDonald.
A few months later, Major-General. Dany Fortin, then head of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine supply and logistics effort, resigned from his post amid a military investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct . Quebec prosecutors later charged Fortin with one count of sexual assault stemming from an incident that allegedly took place while he was a cadet. Fortin is to be tried in September.
The vast majority of survey participants – 81% – said they paid at least some attention to news stories about alleged sexual misconduct in the Canadian military.
Only 56% of respondents agreed with the statement that the military is an equally good career choice for women as it is for men, compared to 70% in the 2020 survey. third (36%) said the military work environment is friendly to women, up from 50% in 2020.
Only 46% said racist and hateful views are not tolerated in the CAF, down from 61% in 2020.
Some participants in the focus group portion of the research said the sexual misconduct allegations left them with a more negative impression of the military.
“I would say [sexual misconduct]unfortunately, cast a shadow,” said one of the attendees.
“I mean, obviously it’s a little that makes it look like a lot. But I would say it’s something that sometimes overshadows in terms of… who runs the armed forces? And how… is it fair for women ?”
Government insists army is advancing
In a statement sent to CBC News, a Department of National Defense (DND) spokesperson said making the military a safe and inclusive workplace is the department’s top priority.
The statement highlighted DND’s response to former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbor’s report on sexual misconduct in the military, saying the department has begun implementing 17 of Arbor’s report’s 48 recommendations and was looking for ways to implement the rest.
WATCH: Can the military change the way it deals with sexual misconduct?
“We understand that achieving measurable, positive and lasting cultural change is essential to sustaining members of the Defense Team and restoring public confidence in our ability to defend and keep Canadians safe,” says the press release.
“We are moving quickly to achieve lasting, intersectional cultural change. Our ongoing efforts will focus on addressing and preventing all forms of systemic misconduct and supporting those who have been harmed.”
One of the recommendations DND is implementing transfers jurisdiction over cases of military sexual misconduct to civilian law enforcement.
Earlier this year, General Eyre said the CAF was on the verge of “rapid change,” including cultural change. The military also recently changed its dress and grooming rules in an effort to promote diversity.
Sam Samplonius is co-founder and co-president of It’s Not Just 20K, an advocacy group for those affected by military sexual trauma. She said she could understand why the army’s reputation had taken a hit.
“I can see how, as someone in the public reading these stories, I would believe it’s just a free-for-all in the military and no one is safe,” she said.
But Samplonius, who served as a reserve officer in the CAF, said Canadians shouldn’t let grim headlines make them cynical about the positive cultural changes happening in the military.
“I think if Canadians are really, really concerned about their military, I think they need to do some research first and see what is actually being done to address the issues,” she said.