‘Systemic and cultural failings enabled abuse to occur and persist’ says RMC Alumni Association

Content warning: This article refers to sexual misconduct and abuse, and may include content that is triggering for readers.

“Truth, Duty, Valour.” The honourable values in the motto for both of Canada’s Royal Military Colleges seem distant following the release of a sobering statement from the RMC Alumni Association (RMCAA) late in June 2022. The statement acknowledged that “systemic and cultural failings enabled abuse to occur and persist” at both of Canada’s military colleges.

Much of the abuse referenced in that statement is sexual in nature.

In May 2021, Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour was engaged to conduct an Independent External Comprehensive Review of policies, procedures, programs, practices, and culture within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the Department of National Defence (DND).

Published on Monday, May 30, 2022, her findings — specifically those regarding sexual misconduct — raised questions as to how and if the two military colleges, RMC Kingston and RMC Saint-Jean, should continue to function as educational institutions.

Mme. Arbour wrote recommendations that “could imply significant and difficult changes” ahead at RMC Kingston (pictured here) and RMC Saint-Jean, noting it is time for a reassessment of their role. Kingstonist file photo.

In her report, Mme. Arbour wrote, “The value of loyalty, especially to one’s comrades and the institution, appears to frequently come into conflict with the value of integrity, as evidenced by the fact that blatant and longstanding problematic behaviours have gone unreported and unaddressed over multiple decades.”

Additionally, “there is an obvious disconnect between rhetoric and reality,” she said, acknowledging that cadets receive an abundance of training focused on “ethics”. She noted many reasons for this: instructors who appear skeptical about the ethical content they teach, stale instruction methods which give little credence to the subject, and the contrast between “real military skills” and perceived “soft issues”. All contribute to an entrenched culture that is at odds with the values being taught, Arbour relayed.

“One example is particularly startling,” Arbour wrote. “Several young women entering basic training were told that they should ‘get on the pill’ or, worse, that they should get a prescription ‘for the pill that will stop their periods.’ Not only is that an appalling suggestion, it also illustrates the extent to which commitment to diversity and inclusion is purely formal.”

She pointed out that the percentage of women at military colleges is far lower than in civilian universities, which, on average, have 50 per cent or more female-identified students. At RMC Kingston specifically, in the 2021-22 academic year, women made up just 23 per cent of undergrads. In December 2020, women represented only 18 per cent of graduate students. And, in 2021-22, only 24.2 per cent of military college cadets at RMC Kingston, and 26.4 per cent at RMC Saint-Jean self-identified as visible minorities. 

Arbour pointed to a 2020 Statistics Canada Report which indicated that, of the 512 RMC Kingston and RMC Saint-Jean cadet survey respondents, 68 per cent reported having experienced or witnessed unwanted sexualized behaviour in the previous 12 months. For female cadets, 79 per cent reported they had witnessed or experienced these types of behaviours. Mme Arbour called this a “significant number of incidents”. 

“Our interviews with female cadets were similarly worrisome, as they confirmed that the college environment for female cadets remains unwelcoming and, at times, hostile, and that sexual misconduct and discriminatory attitudes persist,” she wrote. “I was told that almost every female cadet has either experienced an incident or more of sexual misconduct ‘or worse’, as well as persisting discriminatory comments and attitudes.” 

She stated that the female cadets do not report most sexist remarks, discriminatory attitudes, inappropriate sexual advances, and other sexual misconduct perpetrated by their male colleagues for a number of reasons, such as not wanting their male colleagues to get in trouble, not wanting to suffer the many social repercussions of reporting themselves, not wanting to be be drawn into a time-consuming, emotionally-draining, and unpleasant administrative and/or disciplinary process, or the fact that the consequences for the perpetrator were often considered inadequate or unlikely to change male behaviour.

“None of this is new, and the slow progress, assuming there has been some, indicates that the roots of the problems are deep and entrenched. While the CAF has taken steps to address these cultural and systemic failures, the current situation is still highly problematic,” Arbour concluded. 

Almost all incidents of “unwanted sexual behaviour” occurred on campus, were perpetrated by peers, and many incidents took place with other students present. Cadets were highly unlikely to intervene when they witnessed incidents and cadets who had experienced them spoke to someone from the school only 7 per cent of the time.

Since these schools function more as a “military unit” with peers given power over younger peers, Arbour observed, “The military colleges appear as institutions from a different era, with an outdated and problematic leadership model. There are legitimate reasons to question the wisdom of maintaining the existence of these military colleges, as they currently exist.”

Arbour recommended that a review of the quality of the education, the military training, and the socialization at the colleges be conducted by an outside education specialist. 

Different methods of military education should be examined, she suggested. “There is enough evidence that military colleges are not delivering on their mandate that I believe alternatives must be explored with an open mind.”

In response, the statement from RMCAA reads, “Over the past weeks… the board of directors…have read the [Arbour Report], and we continue to reflect on it…To the survivors who have been let down by the system, this should not have happened. It has taken courage for you to come forward and discuss what happened. We make a commitment to you to work diligently with the Colleges, the CAF and DND to advance cultural and systemic change so this does not happen again.” Their full statement is available on their website.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse or assault Sexual Assault Centre Kingston is a not-for-profit organization providing free, confidential, non-judgmental support for all survivors 12+ regardless of gender or identity of recent and/or historic sexual violence in Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) since 1978. Learn more here.

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