Defence chief seeks true picture of military harassment

Gen. Tom Lawson, on visit to Charlottetown, says armed forces must be watchful of ‘heinous characters in uniform’

Jim Day
Published on June 19, 2014

Canada's Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson, left, shares a laugh with Capt. David Ellis, right, and petty officer (first class) Robert Patenaude. Lawson was in Charlottetown Wednesday visiting with Canadian Armed Forces personnel at HMCS Queen Charlotte.

©Guardian photo by Jim Day

Canada’s top soldier says the military must do everything possible to weed out “heinous characters in uniform’’ who prey on female soldiers.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson told The Guardian in an exclusive interview Wednesday that he plans to pay great

attention to an independent review that will have the authority to interview military members and could potentially uncover fresh allegations of sexual


Lawson was grilled by the Commons defence committee in late May about a recent magazine report that claimed sex assaults within the ranks are at an epidemic level.

The story, published by Maclean’s and L’actualite magazines, interviewed several victims and examined a decade’s worth of statistics documenting reported attacks.

It said military police get as many as 200 complaints of sexual assault each year, with many more cases going unreported because the victims fear the consequences within the military hierarchy of coming forward.

Lawson told the committee he found the allegations disturbing, and acknowledged the courage of those victims who spoke out.

Following a visit with Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Charlottetown Wednesday, Lawson discussed his eagerness to learn the true extent of the problem.

He says just weeks before the articles were published, he had taken possession of the largest poll that had ever been done within the armed forces on harassment of all forms. The report showed harassment, especially sexual harassment, was declining to “really low levels.’’

He adds the reports were “extremely good’’ when both male and female soldiers were asked to anonymously detail their workplace environment.

Lawson also pointed to the attrition rate among women of late being lower than men as a possible indication that military life is becoming more free of harassment for female soldiers.

“That may just show extra patience among our women too, but it’s a positive data point the fact that we have been successful in getting women into certain trades and professions within our organization at very high levels and then keeping them in at a

fairly high rate,’’ he added.

“So I take those as positives but I will look towards our external review for getting better.’’

He says Ottawa is very close to announcing a “very distinguished Canadian’’ who will come in and take the reins on the external review.

“I, of course, would be delighted if she came back and says ‘pretty good’,” said Lawton.

“But I’m also readying myself for her to come back and say, ‘you missed. You thought you were better than you were’.”

In the meantime, the general wants to ensure the chain of command is standardized in their response to claims of sexual harassment with those coming forward being made aware of all the avenues of help available, from seeking victim protection services to reporting an alleged sexual offence to civilian police rather than to military police.

“All of these things need to be well advertised so our members are being looked after,’’ said Lawton.

He said the military must be watchful of “heinous characters in uniform who somehow are able to allow themselves to prey on others. We absolutely have to do everything we can to weed them out.’’