In the two weeks since one of the hardest chapters of my life was made public

This article was originally posted on my LinkedIn profile.

It has been two weeks since one of the hardest chapters of my life was made public in a CBC interview. Since then, I have become even more deeply involved in a national conversation that was already profoundly important to me.

I have received hundreds of messages from people and have noticed themes emerging: common sentiments, questions and wishes. My goal with this article is to summarize and respond accordingly.

Why I told my story

The person who sexually assaulted me in 2013 was convicted in civilian criminal court. The former Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) promised to review and update policy. The chain of command provided an opportunity for mediation. And yet, the issue of toxic culture in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) persists and perpetrators of sexual misconduct are still likely to receive more support than victims.

Perpetrators of sexual misconduct are likely to receive more support than victims.

Following the stories of some very brave women over the past few months, I wanted to set the record straight about two false narratives that I saw emerging:

  1. The CAF needs to get rid of a few bad apples.
  2. Women are victims and this is a women’s issue.

Firstly, the sexual assaults that I experienced in 2013 weren’t new to me: they reflected the way I had been treated by many people throughout my military career. This misconduct had been condoned by a system and a power structure that tolerates and promotes unacceptable behaviour.

The culture of the CAF nurtures and enables sexual violence and other forms of discrimination. It allows for the marginalization of people who don’t fit a specific mold, and the muzzling of people with the moral courage to challenge the status quo. It makes excuses for those who commit or cover up abuse and sexual misconduct because they’re “good guys”. It narrowly defines leadership in a way that can only lead to homosocial reproduction of the ultra-privileged. And it is nearly impervious to self-reflection and thus evolution. It’s not just a few bad apples: it is a system that plants, nurtures and harvests bad apples into its senior ranks.

Secondly, women are strong and brave. We have to work harder to prove ourselves, to accommodate the fragile egos of the powerful minority, and to maintain our honourary membership in the boys’ club. We delicately walk the line between strong and “aggressive”, passionate and “hysterical”, capable and “bossy” – words that are never used to disparage our male colleagues. All while enduring all manner of sexism and misogyny ranging from micro-aggression and dog-whistles to overt misconduct and violence.

Women delicately walk the line between strong and “aggressive”, passionate and “hysterical”, capable and “bossy”.

This is not just a “women’s issue”. Similar discrimination and hostility victimizes anyone in the CAF who does not benefit from power and privilege. This includes support trades, junior ranks, racialized persons, LGBT2IQ+ persons, non-anglophones, injured or exhibiting any attribute that could be labeled “other.”

These issues awakened an anger inside of me. Not destructive anger: it was the type of outrage that leads to social justice. The feeling I was responding to was the seething undercurrent of rage that LCol Eleanor Taylor talked about.

I was fed up with the old narratives used to explain away the reality of what is going on. There are thousands of voices that need to be heard, but they are being drowned out by the privileged few who live in a parallel universe where discrimination doesn’t happen. I was tired of remaining silent about what had happened to me and, subsequently, my husband.

How my experience of this story differs from my husband’s

This story was just the tip of the iceberg of sexual assault for me. From the beginning of my military career in 1997, I experienced everything from inappropriate comments and unwanted touching to outright sexual violence. There was bullying at the Royal Military College (RMC) and beyond, even from other women trying to survive like crabs in a bucket in a devastating, toxic culture.

Kevin didn’t experience any of this.

It took me eight years to finally realize I was not safe in the military. That was 2005, but my contract wasn’t up until 2010 so I “sucked it up” and soldiered on.

Three years after I retired, I was assaulted by someone I had served with, a “brother in arms”. After the assaults, I carried shame and guilt over what was done to me. It took me two years to tell my husband because I was scared of how he would respond.

I “sucked it up” and soldiered on.

Kevin’s privilege had blinded him from seeing the issues I had faced daily at RMC and in the Army. Like so many others, he was not trained or equipped to see what was going on outside his perspective, much less do anything about it.

Telling my story for the first time

I had been indoctrinated into Army culture and expected to be disbelieved or blamed. I thought excuses would be made for the perpetrator due to his well-honed “poor wounded veteran with PTSD” persona. 

I tested the waters a few times to see if my husband would be receptive to hearing my story. I told him about troubling warning signs I had observed in the offender’s personal life. It is painful now for Kevin to recall that he thought the man “just needed a friend” and, as a result, I didn’t feel like I could tell him what that man had done to me.

Eventually, Kevin ended the friendship and was physically assaulted. It was then that I finally told him what I had been through. To my relief, my husband believed me and didn’t blame me. However, he still carries guilt and shame for the fact that I had had to carry it alone.

Kevin has taken on the enormous challenge of facing his privilege and biases. He has continued to do thebrave and vulnerable work, exploring his own blind spots. It takes a lot of strength to empathize with what I have gone through. We now walk this journey together.

In a man’s world

The military is the ultimate Man’s World within a man’s world. When I try to describe the culture to privileged men, it’s like trying to explain water to fish. They aren’t aware that they’re swimming around in toxic masculinity or that not everyone enjoys access to the same benefits.

When I try to describe the culture to privileged men, it’s like trying to explain water to fish.

This culture wears people down and destroys their self-worth, one tiny cut at a time. Women are tired and we need brave allies and accomplices. I hope more men will see how they benefit from the system and then start to use their relative privilege to dismantle and rebuild it.

We Can Do Hard Things

After our story became public, we heard from members of the military who feared that sharing our story on social media would be seen as disloyal to the chain of command. Two CDS’ have been removed and untold numbers of cases of sexual violence and other types of misconduct and abuse covered up. And yet, many still do not feel safe to share their opinions on what has become the most important issue for the CAF today.

Soon after our story came out, we were asked to comment on the response from military leaders. For us, the story was not just about the actions of certain individuals. It was meant to highlight a broader cultural issue. We felt that the immediate response from leaders should be to provide a safe venue for everyone to express their sentiments about an unjust system.

People are fed up. They want their leaders to be held accountable. People want open conversations about moral and ethical issues. They don’t want more policies or PowerPoint lectures. They’re tired of waiting for the senior leaders to figure this one out.

People are fed up. They’re tired of waiting for the senior leaders to figure this one out.

We’re seeing movements from the ground level, people taking ownership for the culture of their military. Formal authority is no longer enough to command these people; imposing change from above is not going to work this time. Our servicepeople deserve and demand leaders with the emotional intelligence and humanity to empower and enable transformation from the ground up.

My wish for the future of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF)

Current CAF leaders are not formally required to consider and empathize with human emotion. Indoctrination teaches leaders to “take care of people” by remembering the names of their spouse, or how many kids they have. I argue that leaders must also self-reflect about their own unconscious biases and resulting contribution to, or tolerance of, issues that harm people in their care.

The CAF must seek out leaders who exhibit critical thinking and moral courage to take care of people as humans. People are at the heart of the CAF. If we take care of our people, they will take care of the mission.

Rethink “The Mission, the Men, and Me”

This tired adage seems to apply during high priority, no-fail tactical missions (that apparently don’t include women?). The other 99% of the time, the focus needs to be on human beings. People aren’t a secondary afterthought. Taking care of people is the most important part of being a leader. Taking care of people starts with taking care of yourself. Set the example through self-care, introspection and personal development.

How do we get there?

During junior leadership training, candidates are given the opportunity to lead “small party tasks” where they practice planning and executing small missions. Afterward, staff conduct a debrief to review students’ performance.

The CAF can start here. By asking the right questions, we can influence how new leaders think. For example, What did you do to foster a sense of safety and belonging in your team? What actions did you take to include everyone when you were mining for the best ideas? How did you resolve conflict in the team? Who displayed moral courage today and what did that look like?

Be deliberate about rewarding moral courage, not blind obedience or born privilege.

As leaders continue their careers, keep asking these questions. Then, measure their emotional intelligence and empathy. Weed out those who only do things to impress their superiors, without regard to the well-being of their subordinates. Be deliberate about rewarding moral courage, not blind obedience or born privilege. Define exemplary leadership based on the health of the team after the mission is successfully accomplished.

Define exemplary leadership based on the health of the team after the mission is successfully accomplished.

In addition to past performance records, there are valid and reliable psychometric tests to measure and even predict strong leadership characteristics in individuals. Madame Arbour and LGen Carignan need access to these resources and the experts who design and implement them.

In addition, Fortune 500 companies have published results-driven case studies on how to overcome systemic cultural issues. The CAF can draw from this experience.

Resistance to Change

A culture of privilege can be difficult to recognize. People who benefit from it tend to feel their status is deserved and they work to protect the cultural systems in place. This further distances them from people who are marginalized by the same culture. Rather than changing the entire system, it is easier for the powerful minority to place the blame on a few “bad apples”.

Cultural norms that disproportionately reward the privileged are a blind spot for the very people who benefit the most. It is uncomfortable to discover where we are blind and have unwittingly contributed to a problem we do not wish to perpetuate. We all have blind spots, I’m with you on that.

The pendulum has swung from a culture that minimizes sexual misconduct to one that expects zero faults and vilifies human error. This promotes fear and undermines healthy transformation. Using blame and shame to shape behaviour generates defensiveness and increases resistance. No one comes forward or admits mistakes when they feel at risk. We need to create the conditions in which it is safe to do the hard work of introspection that leads to personal growth.

Using blame and shame to shape behaviour generates defensiveness and increases resistance.

I recognize that seeking to transform a culture is a massive undertaking and that the institution has not equipped our leaders for this moment. Yet, we all must take responsibility for our role, especially those of us who have a disproportionate amount of influence. This is tough, uncomfortable work. Be curious and patient with yourself. Allow yourself to fail. Be brave and accountable, and have the tough conversations.

In times of change I find it helpful to reflect on the words of Maya Angelou. “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

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