'Sickened': Senior military commander leaves Forces over sexual misconduct investigations
OTTAWA -- A senior commander in the military has resigned from the Canadian Armed Forces, saying she is “sickened” and “disgusted” by the ongoing investigations into sexual misconduct allegations against top officers.
In an internal letter requesting leave Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, who was most recently the deputy commander of the 36th Brigade Group and has been touted for her accomplishments as a high-ranking female officer, said she is not surprised by the number of high-profile male leaders being accused of inappropriate conduct.
“I am also certain that the scope of the problem has yet to be exposed,” she wrote in the letter, which she requested be shared widely with military leadership.
She went on to write that throughout her career, without naming names or specific examples, she has “observed insidious and inappropriate use of power for sexual exploitation,” and that some senior leaders are unwilling or unable to recognize the negative impact of their behaviour. Or worse, they know the harm but think it can be kept under wraps and “lack the courage and tools to confront the systemic issue,” she wrote.
“I have been both a victim of, and participant in, this damaging cycle of silence, and I am proud of neither. I am not encouraged that we are ‘investigating our top officers.’ I am disgusted that it has taken us so long to do so,” said Taylor, who served for decades before leaving the regular force for the reserves.
In early February, military police launched an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance. Six weeks after his departure, Vance’s replacement, Admiral Art McDonald, stepped aside because of a military police investigation into unspecified allegations of misconduct against him.
CTV News has not independently verified the allegations at the centre of these investigations into the Forces’ highest ranking officers, but the House of Commons National Defence committee has struck up a study that’s been exploring the issue of sexual misconduct within the Forces, where new information continues to come to light.
OPERATION HONOUR 'POISONED'
In her letter Taylor cites Operation HONOUR— the Armed Forces’ mission to prevent and address sexual misconduct—saying that while it appeared the military was moving in the right direction, “the failure of senior leadership to set the example on the operation has poisoned it.”
She’s now calling for the name of the operation to be dropped, calling it “harmful.”
In the letter Taylor said she considered remaining in uniform to try to “affect change from within,” but now she doesn’t think that’s possible.
“I have spent the past decade speaking publicly and passionately about the gains women have made in the CAF. While I remain fiercely proud of parts of our organization, on the issue of addressing harmful sexual behaviour, we have lost all credibility,” she writes.
In a statement the Canadian Armed Forces confirmed Taylor’s departure and said they have reached out to her, asking to “learn from her as part of our ongoing efforts to address broader cultural issues,” calling her a mentor to many and an “outstanding officer” who is respected for her “bravery, skills, intellect, and compassion.”
"As we have said before, there is absolutely no place for any kind of misconduct in the CAF. Not only does it harm our readiness and cohesiveness, but it also affects our ability to retain people. This loss highlights the importance of tackling this issue,” said the Forces. “It is clear that the road ahead will not be easy.”
'MUST SEIZE' CHANCE TO IMPROVE: SAJJAN
Taylor, who is from Antigonish, N.S., previously served as an infantry commander during the war in Afghanistan in 2010 and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the governor general in 2011 for being an “exceptional combat leader” in that role. She went on to work with the special operations unit Joint Task Force 2, and in 2013 was named one of Canada’s top 100 most powerful women.
“For me, the breach of trust has been too much, and my release is the best tool at my disposal to highlight the depth of my disappointment,” wrote Taylor.
Sandra Perron, the country’s first female infantry officer, knew Taylor and said she was saddened when she learned of her departure because at this time the Forces needs more women like her.
“It's always disheartening to see another woman with a ‘knee down’ as we say, the military… basically saying, ‘I have battle fatigue, I can't do this anymore,’ and not battle fatigue from deployment or operations, but battle fatigue from fighting a system that is no longer suitable for her,” Perron said.
Perron, who wrote a book about her own experiences of sexism and abuse while in the military, said that while she’s heard from members that progress is being made, it’s clear from the voices speaking up recently that the military has not come far enough fast enough.
“It also says a lot about the state of… the atmosphere that is prevailing right now in the military where women are tired of just putting up with this stuff, and are willing to come forward to tell their story,” she said.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman Gregory Lick said he agrees with Taylor, saying the military has lost credibility when it comes to handling sexual misconduct within the Forces. “We owe our members much, much more than that,” he said.
“Members need to have the confidence and comfort level to come forward… and that their allegations will be addressed properly and they will receive fair treatment and there will be no reprisal. And for that, I truly, truly believe that it needs a completely independent investigative body to do that, reporting to Parliament,” Lick said, adding that the Forces’ Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and the military national investigation service could benefit from more independence from the chain of command as well.
Citing Taylor’s letter in a statement, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that the Canadian military “must seize this opportunity” to eliminate misconduct and abuses of power within the ranks.
“All options are on the table to make sure that any person serving in the Canadian Armed Forces can feel safe and confident to come forward to report misconduct… We need to redouble our efforts to change the culture of toxic masculinity and eliminate sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. We owe it to our members and to Canadians to get this right,” the minister said.
'WATCHING THIS MISSION FAIL'
While the military and Sajjan continue to vow change will come, one military member who says she’s on her way out, is skeptical.
“There’s a complete lack of trust right now among survivors in the Canadian Forces leadership to honour their promises to us to make things better,” said Donna Riguidel.
She has joined others who say they’ve experienced sexual misconduct while in uniform in calling to be given a place at the table to offer input on any coming structural changes aimed at improving the situation.
“Nobody’s talking to us, nobody’s asking the survivors: ‘hey, you know what, you guys know better than anybody where the problems are in the system, why don’t you help identify them, do you have answers? Do you have solutions?’” she said. “We’ve been standing by and watching this ball get fumbled over and over again and watching this mission fail over and over again, very publicly.”
The NDP is now calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make concrete changes urgently, before more women are “forced out of their careers.”
“Women across the country are watching closely to see how the prime minister handles these allegations... So far he has only shown that he does not take them seriously. Women are concerned, upset and some are scared of losing a career they’ve spent their lives building,” said NDP women and gender equality critic Lindsay Mathyssen in a statement. “The prime minister needs to stand with them.”
With files from CTV News’ Sarah Turnbull and Annie Bergeron-Oliver