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External report on misconduct delivered

In what could be considered lightspeed progress in the bureaucratic world, Jocelyne Therrien, the government’s “external monitor” on misconduct and assault within the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, has taken less than six months to release her first assessment.

When Defence Minister Anita Anand announced that the former executive in the Office of the Auditor General had been appointed by cabinet, she said it was the government’s “most basic responsibility and top priority to ensure that (personnel) serve in an institution where everyone feels safe, protected and respected.”

Therrien’s initial one-year appointment as External Monitor was the government’s response to recommendations in May 2022 by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Arbour about what apparently had become endemic within the military. It had resulted in several high-profile resignations and court cases.

In her first biennial report, released May 18, Therrien says that in her first few months on the job, she has “witnessed a significant level of tangible activity within DND/CAF as it responds to the hundreds of recommendations from external reviews on sexual misconduct.”

The challenge going forward was to manage projects and initiatives so that cultural change could be “timely” despite the lack of an overall framework for reforms to mature.’’ She dismissed any notion that had been no progress, noting that Arbour had said last year that there was already “palpable change in the air.”

Therrien says many within DND and the CAF are “working hard” on change but that a overarching strategic plan would ensure resources are aligned to priorities. She also notes that many of the recommendations for change require regulatory and even legislative change, a potentially lengthy process. “Even though the timing cannot be controlled per se, it is incumbent on DND/CAF to at least have a plan that shows what it proposes to present to Parliament, from year to year, based on departmental priorities.”

She says that while the current agenda is driven by what resources area available, that shouldn’t be a blockage. “But there is something to be said about steering the ship based on the changes considered to be the most critical to cultural evolution.” That could begin with improved screening of recruits as well as weeding out “individuals who exhibit unacceptable behaviour.”

Meanwhile, among the “positives” she has encountered in her first few months on the job is increased reliance on evidence-based approaches to issues. She also says that the government’s creation of the office of a Chief Professional Conduct and Culture under the command of Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan in 2021, had already made a difference.

“Unit commanders have a place to go for advice on how to deal with situations as they arise,” Therrien says. “Ultimately, however, the proof will be in the frequency of incidents and whether or not DND employees and CAF members see improvements.”

And while it was “too soon to tell” how that process would evolve, she says the information used to monitor progress is being refined and “in time, at least the information to track progress will be better.” But data are only part of the picture and Therrien says she plans to “gain a qualitative understanding of whether […] efforts are bringing about changes on the ground.”

Commenting on the report, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, channelled Anand’s comment in December about the need for a “safe, protected and respected” workplace, saying in a statement that “ultimately, our institutional culture underpins our readiness and operational effectiveness.”