In 2013, I woke up to a man sexually assaulting me in my own bed. He was a senior officer in the military. Over two years later, I made a statement to the police. It may seem like a long time to wait, but less than a quarter of sexual assaults are ever reported at all. Like me, survivors blame themselves, fear retaliation, and don’t think we’ll be taken seriously.
In my case, those concerns turned out to be unwarranted. The civilian police detective who took my statement believed me. I don’t remember if she said, “I believe you”, but I knew she did. She received my story and asked clarifying questions, she gently pushed me to provide the details that would be needed for the legal process. She clearly and kindly explained that the odds of prosecution, let alone conviction, would be extremely low.
The legal outcome didn’t matter much to me at that moment. I felt safe and believed.
I came to see that the legal system was not the justice system. I accepted that telling the truth didn’t guarantee a guilty verdict. What I’ve learned is that justice goes far beyond what happens in a courtroom. True justice provides closure and emotional healing. My sense of justice could not rely on the offender taking responsibility for the harm he inflicted, let alone making amends. (After he was found guilty, he continued to claim innocence and cover up his convictions.)
True justice provides closure and emotional healing.
A fraction of sexual assault cases ever see the courtroom, and less than half of those result in a guilty verdict. I was one of the “lucky” ones: my case went to court and the offender was found guilty of all charges.
That said, the guilty verdict was only a small part of me feeling that I had achieved justice. What had the greatest impact on my sense of justice was the support I received from the detective, the prosecutor, and other victim support services.
The betrayal after the criminal conviction
How the military responded to the case was a different story.
Several senior officers, including members of my husband’s Regiment and his own chain of command, wrote letters to support the convicted sex offender at his sentencing. When we found out, I (and my husband) felt completely betrayed.
In pursuit of justice, we appealed to the head of the military, then-Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Jonathan Vance. His response had the illusion of addressing our concerns, but it did nothing to repair the ongoing sense of betrayal.
In his letter, Vance promised to update the Operation Honour policy with specific direction regarding the provision of letters in civilian trials. He did not follow through. Even if he had, it would have done nothing to address the injury inflicted on us by senior members of our military “family”. This is a classic example of a senior military official trying to use policy to make the pain of injustice go away.
This is a classic example of a senior military official trying to use policy to make the pain of injustice go away.
The military failed to recognize the harm that was done to us. Vance’s formal response stated, “the officers in question have been counselled and I am satisfied they firmly understand their shortcomings and my position.” My first question is – What exactly is your position? And secondly – What do you think their shortcomings were?
I can only speculate as to what the answers might be. Regardless, there was no accountability for the devastation we felt. After being counselled by the CDS, both individuals were appointed to positions of even more power over others without ever having spoken to us. To this day, none of the officers involved have reached out to apologize to us for what they did. From our perspective, they never acknowledged our suffering or took responsibility for causing us harm.
How could anyone think that this is an actual resolution, let alone restitution?
More significant (to me) than the failure to resolve our individual case was the failure to prevent similar harm being inflicted on others. How can you advocate for institutional healing when you haven’t even stopped the bleeding? I am certain that other women and men continue to be abandoned by their chain of command. I can’t think of a more clear-cut example of this pattern repeating itself than a senior officer choosing to golf with an alleged perpetrator – a clear expression of support.
It wasn’t until we spoke to the media that Dawe was held accountable. Interestingly, no disciplinary action appears to have been taken against Colonel Adair. In fact, he will soon be directing senior leadership training in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), as well as a programme that includes senior public servants and private-sector leaders. Individual members of military leadership might disagree with Adair’s judgment; however, what they tolerate they promote. By not taking definitive action against him, the chain of command further aggravated our sense of injustice.
What the military doesn’t understand about Justice
What my husband and I experienced was a moral injury.
A moral injury refers to the “impacts of actions that violate a service member’s core moral values and behavioral expectations of self or others”. These are lasting emotional, psychological and social wounds (1).
Sexual assault, of course, causes moral injury. So why am I focusing on the military’s response several years later instead of the harm of the crimes?
I want Justice.
Justice is complex, multifaceted, and somewhat subjective. True justice is about healing and closure. It restores a sense of safety. Academic literature recognizes several interrelated aspects of justice: consequence, recognition, voice, prevention and connectedness.
The consequence aspect of true justice is broader than punishment or retribution. Consequence speaks to the importance of wrongdoers’ accountability, taking responsibility and making amends. It is essential to the healing survivors still need to do, even following a conviction. In our case, the former CDS’ response acknowledged the transgression, but the transgressors did not take responsibility or make amends. This feels like injustice.
Recognition encompasses being treated with dignity and respect – it addresses the human need for belonging. Unlike the care I received from the detective who interviewed me, the military’s response made Kevin and I feel brushed off and belittled. We sought healing and were further injured.
The voice aspect of justice is about victims feeling heard and included as active participants in setting things right. The response we received from the top General closed off the possibility for further discussion. He seemed to think he had fixed it without ever asking what we needed. We were denied an opportunity to participate in the process of closure.
True justice is about healing and closure. It restores a sense of safety.
For those injured by misconduct and criminal behaviour, prevention is often more important than punishment. Victims who pursue justice are determined to protect others, regardless of what happens to the perpetrator. Now that Kevin and I used our voice publicly and continue to engage in the conversation, we feel like there’s hope that others can be spared our experience. There is healing in this.
Finally, crime and misconduct are damaging because they result in a feeling of disconnection and being cut off from community. They make the community feel unsafe. Therefore, connectedness is crucial for healing and closure. For us, it was a powerful healing experience to be overwhelmed with support and gratitude after our interview. After feeling like we were alone in our struggle for so long, it was an enormous relief to feel the warm, safe embrace of genuine connection.
What the military needs to change
When our interview aired this past April, the senior leadership of the CAF did not see the need to take any drastic actions. MGen Dawe was supported by the A/CDS, and Col Adair’s involvement appeared to be overlooked completely. After all, no laws or written rules had been broken. But is it enough to make decisions based on the minimum standard of law and written rules?
It’s not illegal to write a character reference in a criminal trial. It’s not illegal to play a round of golf. Taking this a step further, it is not illegal to be a bully or destroy people’s lives and careers. It’s not illegal for leaders to create an environment in which their subordinates feel unsafe. And yet, these types of behaviours have a profound impact on the operational effectiveness of the military.
I want to see the Canadian military hold itself to a higher standard. I want to see a CAF that is guided by principles, not just by rules.
What we need is a principles-based organization that behaves very differently from the rules-based military we have now. Although the CAF has publications that discuss ethical and moral principles of the profession of arms, the organization lacks a sound understanding of how to implement these standards. The military has been trying to use rules to enforce these principles, an approach that is fundamentally flawed. It was destined to lead to our current reckoning.
In a principles-based organization:
- Leaders turn toward and prioritize addressing breaches of ethics and morality.
- Checklists and procedures are only for simple tasks; higher-order thinking is applied where complex human dynamics are involved.
- Leaders invite difficult discussions rather than issuing edicts.
- Moral authority, not just legal authority, is required to lead.
- Leaders take responsibility for the impact of their decisions, regardless of intent or whether rules were broken.
- Apologies account for all forms of hurt, and include a plan to make the organization better through education and prevention.
- Justice goes beyond punishment: it is victim-centred and focused on healing and closure.
From rules-based to principles-based Justice
True justice is largely out of reach in the military today, where power dynamics and abuses of authority are commonplace. Like me, many people don’t even realize that they are victims because the behaviour is so prevalent. When they do realize they have been victimized, the current culture prevents them from reporting abuses of power, acts of coercion, and even assaults. Victims fear not being believed or having their career affected for reporting serious offenses. Or they don’t report for fear that a rule-bound commander will overreact to an otherwise correctable issue.
General Vance was a leader who believed he could restore justice by issuing an order and threatening punishment for non-compliance. But while rules-based systems are clear on paper, they always have loopholes and built-in situational tolerances. Often, you must be caught breaking a rule multiple times before there is any real consequence.
This is not the view of justice we want to teach, especially not to young leaders and new recruits. It does nothing to address the behaviour’s impact on the victim or restore a sense of safety. Legalistic thinking doesn’t lend itself to compassion for chronic moral injuries that cause survivors to come forward 30+ years later to report still-open wounds.
Legalistic thinking doesn’t lend itself to compassion for chronic moral injuries that cause survivors to come forward 30+ years later to report still-open wounds.
There are many strongly principled leaders hamstrung by policies and procedures that prevent action to protect potential future victims of toxic leaders. They also know that pushing the limits of written policy to ensure safety and justice can have consequences to their own career or sense of belonging.
We need these highly principled people leading the CAF, but the system causes them moral injury. Their own actions (or inaction) damages their conscience or moral compass because they have to “transgress [their] own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct” (3).
These deeply principled individuals eventually leave the CAF or develop coping mechanisms to deal with the cognitive dissonance. We lose a disproportionate number of morally strong leaders because they are sidelined or leave a system that opposes their personal values.
The old rules-based system is ripe for disruption
If we’re serious about changing CAF culture, we require a new, principles-based way of thinking about justice. And, in order for members to change their thinking, they cannot be constantly in a state of threat. Humans need mental and emotional space (psychological safety) to take on higher-order thinking and introspection.
Leaders who base their decisions on principles rather than policies can prioritize the safety of those who don’t hold a disproportionate amount of power. When they aren’t hyper-focused on written policy, they can respond to unofficial or third-party reports without requiring the victim to undergo a painful reporting process. They can believe the victim and restore safety in the workplace while finding a way to provide the respondent with due process.
Leaders who base their decisions on principles rather than policies can prioritize the safety of those who are at a power disadvantage.
In addition to a new way of thinking, culture change also requires leaders to develop a new set of skills. Leaders need to create the conditions wherein people feel safe coming to work and aren’t consumed by the emotional drain of managing their image or identity. I don’t mean safety based on a mountain of policies: I’m talking about being safe in the expectation that they will be treated in keeping with the principles of dignity and respect.
The skill of holding people accountable for breaching principles is not for the faint of heart. It requires leaders to go to an uncomfortable, vulnerable place. Leaders must first tolerate the emotional distress of sitting in a painful story and connecting to the experience of the victim. They have to maintain a spirit of compassion and curiosity to fully understand the impact of harm and what is needed to restore justice.
The leadership skill of holding people accountable for breaching principles is not for the faint of heart.
In addition to caring for victims, leaders also need the strength and compassion to make it safe for offenders to explore the impact of their actions. It’s hard to hold space for someone to introspect about the emotional devastation caused by their actions, regardless of intent. It takes tenacity and grit.
The difficult work is to signal that the offender is still accepted as a person, even though their behaviour caused harm. These are the conditions under which wrongdoers can become principled allies, serving to prevent further harm and maintain strong connections within the military unit or community. This is what true, healing justice looks like.
The Seeds of Change
Zooming out to broader society, the Canadian legal system addresses one small aspect of justice. Incarceration or probation are deemed to be sufficient rehabilitation for criminals to safely re-enter the community. This type of justice is insufficient in the military, where survival depends on being able to trust the people to our left and right.
In order to build and maintain a high level of trust, we need to address professional misconduct long before it rises to criminal levels. When misconduct does occur, we need to restore a sense of safety through fulsome justice that brings healing, closure and reconnection.
When my husband and I finally shared our story about the betrayal by the military, it felt like our healing process was moving forward again. The outpouring of empathy and validation were deeply therapeutic. Various leaders in the defence community heard the pain of our story, faced uncomfortable truths and bravely reflected compassion back to us. We were seen and recognized, and have been able to reconnect with our military community.
Despite the current crisis in the CAF and accompanying political activity, recent events have shown that the seeds of change are starting to germinate. Being included as active participants in righting the wrongs and preventing further harm to others is helping Kevin and me heal from the moral injuries inflicted years ago.
One thought on “Our definition of Justice needs to encompass these additional aspects”