Balance needed rather than unnamed allegations

CHRIS MacLEAN  –  May 18, 2021

All I know is what has been released by the Department of National Defence and what has been reported by CTV News. What follows is my opinion based on the facts that are in the public domain.

Shortly after 7pm last Friday evening (14 May), I received a ;DND media release with the short and cryptic message that Major-General Dany Fortin is being investigated by military police for... something. No details whatsoever – other than his name and that he had "left his assignment with the Public Health Agency of Canada". DND gave no indication as to whether Fortin had voluntarily stepped back from his position as the public face of the federal vaccine rollout, or if he had been removed – either way, he has denied doing anything wrong (but that was not in the press release).

With all of the serious allegations being levelled against senior military leaders of late, CTV News understandably jumped into action to try to get more details. 

According to confidential sources to CTV News, the investigation is based on an allegation that MGen Fortin had exposed himself to a female approximately 32 years ago, while he was a student at Royal Military College Saint-Jean. Hardly newsworthy. This new information hit the news on Monday morning and should have calmed the feeding frenzy that had grown over the weekend and the obvious assumptions that arose from the lack of information in the DND press release – but the damage was already done and the momentum set.

One important aspect needs to be examined. Was a complaint against Fortin made at the time but not investigated (which would point to a legitimate systemic issue)? Or was the complaint just made, in March of this year, as has been reported? If the complaint was not made until this year, why not, and why now? How relevant is the complaint to what actually happened 32 years ago?

Speaking as one woman – who is included in the huge numbers who have experienced sexual misconduct, abuse and assault over their lifetime – I feel the pendulum is swinging too far (and I know that's a politically incorrect thing to say).

Since turning 18, I personally have experienced sexual misconduct in many forms, from inappropriate communication to sexual exposure, to inappropriate touching, to workplace rape, and also violent rape that resulted in hospitalization (in the interests of clarity, all of the serious stuff occurred before the age of 26).

If I was to rate these in terms of seriousness, harm and mental impact, sexual exposure doesn't even make the list.

As statistics also reflect, most of my experiences went unreported, including the workplace rape, but I do know full well what women go through with traumatic events. I have experienced the near-paralyzing panic that flooded over me upon seeing the perpetrator of the violent attack when he was found (once found, he was charged and released pending a court date, but fled the country and police lost track of him).

Changing the historical paradigm of downplaying and covering up sexual misconduct everywhere, including the testosterone-infused armed forces, is an extremely important priority that must be addressed quickly and consistently.

But we must have balance and clear-headed thinking.

I have seen innocent men's lives destroyed by unsubstantiated allegations that result in a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. Even when the complainant withdraws the accusation, or when the court finds no evidence or a lack of credibility (such as the accusation based on a completely unremembered abuse that surfaced during a seance), the disruption lasts for years. Over those years, many accused men get ousted from their job without pay and pension payments are suspended. Feelings of drowning caused by knowing everyone is silently assessing the validity of the accusation, typically leaning towards the accuser's story, are common. Most experience extreme financial stress due to the high cost of defending themselves, particularly when financial instability results from losing their job. In two recent cases I am very familiar with, the men lost their jobs and were never reinstated even though they were fully exonerated by the court. In all cases I am aware of, there is no form of compensation for their legal defence, but there was no cost to the complainant.

Before jumping to destroy a man's 30+ year career, let's make sure the response is proportionate to the action. If every man is to lose their job for every off-colour action of their 20-year-old university days, we may as well round up every man now, because the statistics will show very few, if any, would be fully exempt from stupidity.

When I was in high school, back in the 70s, streaking was all the rage. Racing naked across the gym floor during a school-wide assembly, in front of impressionable, young teenage girls, typically resulted cheers and jeers from the audience, not psychological harm, and we were many years younger than the young woman who may or may not have seen Dany Fortin's privates. The boys were disciplined, but an expulsion would have been an overreaction. Of course, repeat perpetrators would have experienced an appropriately escalated response.

If there was harm done, some 32 years ago, there should definitely have been a complaint made at the time. Even now, the allegation should be heard, but should the need for an investigation be balanced with the seriousness of the harm? The unnamed woman was possibly young but definitely not a child. No matter how impressive they always seem to feel theirs is, seeing a young man's wiener is not sexual abuse. How damaging could a viewing be? Seriously. (again politically incorrect).

Sending such a frivolous event to be investigated only serves to dilute the serious accusations, making a mockery of everything and pushing progress back.

Despite the recent focus of media reports, the military has not cornered the market on sexual misconduct or abuse of power over women. All of the historically male-dominated careers are rife with victims. But no industry gets a pass. It is everywhere. It is in the public sector, in the private sector, it is in NGOs, in the Arts, it is in Academia, it is anywhere men and women are together. If it wasn't, the MeToo movement wouldn't have exploded the way is has.

It seems ludicrous to drag today's Prime Minister to the pillory over the abuse of rank over women in the military, as Erin O'Toole was doing Monday. However, the bureaucrats and politicians have deservedly been roasted for their "look the other way" approach and "failure to act" once allegations are known.

The fact that Fortin's misdeed happened more than 30 years ago is no reason to excuse inappropriate behaviour, but unwelcome infantile behaviour can't be ignored at the time and then expect everyone to be horrified 32 years later. Unfortunately, fending off unwanted male attention is a near-constant reality for women. Swift and meaningful reform is a mandatory effort that must not be delayed. Sexual abuse must stop, and it will not abate if incidents are swept under the rug, but let's be honest about what constitutes sexual abuse. Being subjected to an exposed willie would be considered abuse of power if that was the case but, as a student, Fortin was not in a position of power over the complainant.

Balance seems to have been thrown to the wind.

Am I suggesting the military police exercise their understanding of the law when choosing how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse? Yes. Should DND Public Affairs do the same when choosing to publicize every single allegation? Again, I would say yes, even though I recognize the possibility that such discretion could possibly support a coverup, but there are ways to ensure that does not happen.

In this particular case, even if true, would exposing one's privates result in prison? Should it be the focus of an irresponsibly vague announcement to all media sources across the country? Should the immature antics by a 20-year-old destroy his long history of dedicated service to the country? Just writing that last sentence invokes the "what if" response, which further proves just how damaging unnamed allegations are.

Chris MacLean