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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Alamy Stock Photo
# Christine Whitecross
Former head of military abuse team: 'You just need to get rid of the dinosaurs'
Christine Whitecross is a retired Lieutenant General who led the Canadian Forces strategic response team on sexual misconduct.

THERE IS A LIGHT at the end of the tunnel for military abuse victims but there needs to be greater transparency within organisations and accountability for the abusers, Canada’s former top female officer has said.

Christine Whitecross is a retired Lieutenant General who served as the commander of the Canadian Forces strategic response team on sexual misconduct. 

Whitecross took on the role of speaking up for victims in the Canadian military and seeking to solve the decades-old problem of barrack-based sexual crime. 

Canada has been reeling in a series of scandals that has seen its top officers in a storm of  public scrutiny as a flurry of allegations have been leveled against them.

Such is the weight of the allegations that two of the countries defence chiefs – former General Jonathan Vance and his successor Admiral Art McDonald – were all caught in the crosshairs of allegations. 

Military leader Vance had introduced a sweeping set of measures seven years ago to deal with the issues that were first identified in a series of news magazine articles in the 1990s.

But just shortly after his retirement in 2021 two separate allegations emerged from two female subordinates of inappropriate behaviour by Vance. 

What followed was an exposition of Vance’s behaviour that saw a parliamentary enquiry and a criminal investigation. 

The criminal investigation found that he had fathered two children with Kellie Brennan, an army major under his command, and then “willfully attempted” to pressure the woman to not discuss their relationship with investigators. 

In April, Vance, who in a stellar career led Canadian forces in Afghanistan before taking up the top job in defence, pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice. 

chief-of-defence-staff-jonathan-vance-attends-a-bilateral-meeting-between-prime-minister-justin-trudeau-and-latvian-president-egils-levits-in-london-on-tuesday-dec-3-2019-chief-of-the-defence-staf Alamy Stock Photo Former head of the Canadian military General Jonathan Vance. Alamy Stock Photo

The revelations didn’t end there because Vance’s successor McDonald also found himself suspended in 2021 after Canadian military police launched a probe into unspecified allegations. 

The results of the investigation were never revealed but he was not reappointed to lead the military and has since retired. 

There are more senior figures removed including Vice Admiral Haydn Edmundson, the head of human resources, who has been charged with sexual misconduct and committing indecent acts. He is set to stand trial in a civilian criminal court and has denied any wrong doing. 

Louise Arbour

This all resulted in various reports culminating in an independent review by Louise Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice which was released in May.

Arbour, who was also the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, found that the military had failed at its attempts to reform. 

She found that there was a lack of commitment by the military leadership to change its culture to foster an environment where the improvements could be made. 

“They now need to adapt to a new reality. The women warriors are here to stay and they will stay on their terms, seeking the substantive equality to which they are entitled. Women should no longer feel like guests,” she wrote.

Arbour’s findings in the report, which run to 48 separate recommendations, include greater civilian and independent oversight.

She also recommended taking investigations away from military police and into the hands of independent civilian police organisations. 

An independent review is also underway in Ireland having been formed following allegations by a group of former members of the Defence Forces, known as the Women of Honour, who allege they were victims of sexual harassment and bullying.

However the group has criticised Defence Minister Simon Coveney following his announcement of the review in January, describing the process as “pointless” and “shameful”.

Their criticisms centre around their claim that the review is against the original terms of reference and is nothing more than an “administrative review”.

Under terms of reference of the review, a draft report is to be provided to the minister within six to nine months, and the final report is to be provided within 12 months.

The final report and recommendations will be brought to Government by the Minister.

Christine Whitecross

In an interview with The Journal, following Christine Whitecross’s  appearance at the recent Slándáil event in Dublin, she spoke about her efforts and how she confronted the issue inside the Canadian military. The summit saw civilian and military experts meet to discuss the future of Irish Defence.  

image0 (1) Christine Whitecross Former Lt Gen Christine Whitecross. Christine Whitecross

As Whitecross began the process of examining the problem inside the Canadian military she said she worried that it could be just another ‘tick the box’ exercise for senior officers.

Her first task was to identify the people she needed to convince that it was more than a clerical effort and it was a problem that needed solving – she divided those people into three categories. 

“You’ll get a group of people who understand and believe it, you’ll get a group of people who are kind of on the fence, and you’ll get a group of people who are opposed, that this is even a problem and because they don’t see it, they don’t hear it, or whatever,” she said. 

Whitecross was tasked in 2015 with forming a team by then Chief of Defence General Thomas Lawson, to deal with the “insidious behaviour” and held multiple so-called town hall meetings and then brought her findings to senior officers. 

“I wanted to talk to people and tell them what the report found,” she added. 

She went across the country and spoke to 30,000 soldiers, air force personnel and sailors and at each meeting she had people coming to her with their own stories. 

“I would have people coming up to me and giving me their own personal disclosures, which was a seminal moment for me.

“The stories I heard were just horrific. And they bothered me to my soul,” she explained. 

When she returned to Ottawa, the Canadian Capital and seat of Government, the leadership of the military had changed as Vance took over from Lawson.  

Vance immediately decided to bring together all the senior leaders across the military for a conference in Ottawa. 

“My job during that was to make it real, not that he (Vance) gave me that job, I gave myself that job. I needed to do it, because I knew that there were these two thirds of people that had to be convinced because they were on the fence and then there was the third that that really didn’t get it.

“So I took a sample of 22 of those stories that I heard – and I started the session with, ‘I want you to hear what I have heard’.

“And I have to say you could hear a pin drop, there was a sense of disbelief, that things could have been that bad under their watch,” she explained. 

On disclosing her findings Whitecross said that it was clear that what was needed was a clear and unequivocal use of language to describe what had happened. In her address to officers she decided not to use broad, official-sounding terms like ‘sexual misconduct’ but to instead identify each alleged offence in simple language – recording, for instance, whether a claim amounted to ‘sexual harassment’ or in the most extreme scenarios, ‘rape’.

Making it real

She also discovered that there was a broader issue in command whereby senior officers were not dealing effectively with complaints. 

“It really was a matter of making it real, making it their problem and making it a problem that everyone had to deal with and that it wasn’t just for somebody else to deal with it,” she added. 

Whitecross said that speaking to retired officers where problems were identified they all said they had not seen what was happening to the victims while they were in command. 

“This is part of the problem. In trying to eradicate this behaviour people need to be cognisant of how their words and how their actions affect other people.

“Words and actions that are not addressed at the very beginning, allow behaviours that get out of control. And they end up being permissive behaviour. As soon as something becomes permissive – it’s now a standard that is allowed.

“And so the idea is to address the behaviours at the onset, so they don’t grow and become more and more violent, more and more offensive. Which is part of the reason for the huge engagement strategy,” she added. 

At that time, in 2017, Whitecross was elected to take up a post as the commandant of the NATO Defence College in Rome – the first woman to hold the post. 

While she was away from Canada the issue it descended further and reached crisis point under Vance as he was identified in allegations. 

She looks back at that time and has now a solid overview of the issues and is certain that  abuse in the ranks makes militaries ineffective. 

“If somebody in your group is being harassed, or not treated well, it literally reduces your operational effectiveness, which puts everybody in danger,” she explained. 

former-supreme-court-justice-louise-arbour-and-minister-of-national-defence-anita-anand-middle-release-the-final-report-of-the-independent-external-comprehensive-review-into-sexual-misconduct-and Alamy Stock Photo Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, and Minister of National Defence, Anita Anand, middle, with Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre at the publication of her report in May. Alamy Stock Photo

Whitecross said that one area which was not covered but is now being looked at is identifying people who may offend. 

“The notion of red flags, which is, previous behaviour is an indication of future behaviour. I don’t think we’ve taken that to heart but I know they’re talking about it now. And I like to applaud what’s happening now,” she added. 

Whitecross said that she believes there is a way of dealing with the problem before it develops by identifying behaviours.

The Canadian military are now employing methods to spot these behaviours, particularly around the promotion of officers to higher ranks. 

One key measure being used is so-called 360s – these are reports about managers from fellow management staff, their co-workers and sub-ordinates to build a picture as to the suitability of a candidate. 

“They’re doing more reflective looks at the senior leaders and they’ll eventually reflect that down the ranks because they’re starting with the very senior leaders,” she explained. 

It is a revolutionary approach and it is the first year it has been done in the Canadian military. While Whitecross believes it is not a “panacea” to the abuse issues she believes that it could be part of the solution.  

Besides that the former Lieutenant General believes that there is a lot can be done to change the culture including training courses around personal biases and other character aspects. 

“I honestly believe in the goodness of people. And I seriously believe, and I do it myself, I say to them, ‘you’ve just crossed the line, or you’re crossing a line’.

“And I say ‘I think you need to think about what you’re just saying, and you should tone it back a bit’.

“I’d say, 95% of the cases, they stop, and they think, ‘holy cow, I didn’t intend it to be like that, I thought I was being funny’, or whatever. And so that allows them to self correct,” she added. 

Key consideration

One key consideration supported by Whitecross, which has been recommended by the Arbour report in Canada, is that all allegations should be investigated by civilian police. 

At present militaries in many jurisdictions, investigate sexual misconduct allegations in house through the military police and court martial system.

Recently the Defence Forces have recommended people to go to the gardaí with allegations. 

“Bringing it to civil police I think is a huge step forward – I believe it’s a far better thing, because it is civil society.

“They have the resources, they know what to do, they have special teams that deal with rape.

“There’s a whole support system that is available there that the military don’t necessarily have. And so there’s those sorts of changes that are happening,” she added. 

There is one key solution for Whitecross and that is to root out those who are not willing to adjust the culture.

“So to me, it’s almost like you just need to get rid of those dinosaurs and the reality is you don’t have to be old to be a dinosaur.

“You need to identify who those people are and we need to hold them to account and we need to show that they’re being held to account so everyone around them sees that this is what’s happening.

“Then you need to be transparent and you need to be talking about it and never stop the dialogue.

“I just see the groundswell behind us now and we have a generation that is far more open and honest and respectful than we’ve ever seen before. I think the future’s bright,” she concluded.  

Irish Defence Forces

Following our discussion with Whitecross and her experience of trying to deal with the crisis in the Canadian forces we contacted the Irish Defence Forces to learn what measures they were taking in response to the Women of Honour scandal here in Ireland. 

In a lengthy statement they provided a statement from Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Seán Clancy.

“Inappropriate or toxic behaviour in the Defence Forces is simply not acceptable and will not be tolerated.  Members of our organisation have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace and we are committed to ensuring that all personnel, regardless of their background, gender or beliefs, are provided with a safe and positive working environment,” he said.

Ambassador credentials 008 Leah Farrell Irish Army soldiers in a guard of honour. Leah Farrell

A spokesperson said that the Defence Forces would co-operate fully with the independent review.  

They said that in October the Chief of Staff convened an Immediate Actions Group (IAG) to co-ordinate the implementation of a series of measures to contribute to behavioural and cultural change in the Defence Forces.

These measures included the establishment of a multi-disciplinary response team which has seen briefings delivered to personnel across all workplaces.

They said that the department introduced interim support measures for members of the Defence Forces impacted by “unacceptable behaviour in the workplace”.

They also put in place a Confidential Contact Person (CCP) and this can be used by serving and former members.

“The confidential contact person is independent and outside of the chain of command. Their role is to listen to the caller, assist them in documenting their allegations, and provide guidance on follow-on options,” the spokesperson said. 

In December, 2021 the Defence Forces said the Chief of Staff also established a more “enduring structure to maintain momentum and drive positive cultural change within the Defence Forces, the Organisational Culture Standing Committee”.

These committees extend directly down to unit structures and are tasked with implementing a cultural change programme. In April they launched their “It Stops Now” anti-bullying campaign. 

They also have been running a confidential round the clock service for all serving members. 

“Whether recent or historic, those who may have suffered serious wrong of a criminal nature are urged to report their concerns to An Garda Síochána, who have lawful authority, skills and resources to investigate such matters.

“Óglaigh na hÉireann reflects the society we serve, and wants to attract future members from all backgrounds in order to ensure we are a modern inclusive military force,” the  Defence Forces said in a statement. 

The spokesperson said that a more diverse workforce would create “a more innovative, problem-solving, culture with new approaches and fresh perspectives”.

It added that Óglaigh na hÉireann was “committed” to prioritising the dignity and safety of members by implementing the measures and reforms deemed necessary to achieve this goal.