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Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice and author of an inquiry into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, speaks at a news conference in Ottawa, 30 April 2015.

So We Speak: Language and Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces

by Gerson Flor

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Since the inception of Operation Honour in 2015,1 the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have adopted a number of measures to move the topic of sexual misconduct from the shades of taboo to the forefront of daily workplace conversations. Following recommendations of the Report of the External Review on Sexual Misconduct in the CAF (Deschamps report),2 headed by the Honourable Marie Deschamps, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, the CAF recognized the existence of the problem and established an independent Sexual Misconduct Response Centre. In an effort to change the organizational culture, senior leaders have repeatedly stated that sexual misconduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the Canadian military, and reported incidents of sexual misconduct have been followed up with appropriate action. This short article will argue that in addition to all these essential initiatives, a successful, permanent cultural change depends upon tackling another key finding of the Deschamps report, namely, the role of language in preserving and perpetuating an environment conductive to sexual harm.

In the first part of this discussion, the findings of the Deschamps report will be reviewed. Second, the usage and effect of inappropriate language in civilian contexts will be examined. Finally, the need for the chain of command to address the issue use of language in the workplace will be advocated.

A Civilian Look into Military Life

In many ways, the Deschamps report was a ground breaking effort. It interviewed thousands of military members across Canada, offering different settings in which people could report experiences they faced or witnessed in the course of their careers. More importantly, however, was the fact that the report was produced by an external review authority, not a task force composed of military members.

The relevance of this last point cannot be overstated. As the report itself indicated, there was a strong resistance among the military to even accept the existence of a problem in the matter of sexual misconduct. Notable incidents were easily dismissed as the actions of a few individuals who did not fit in with the organizational culture. It was a problem of the Canadian society, not something specifically troubling among our military. For instance, “…the ERA [External Review Authority] found that many officers were quick to excuse sexual incidents in the CAF on the basis that this kind of conduct is a ‘reflection of Canadian society.’ Both male and female officers appeared to have become desensitized to the prevalence of sexually inappropriate conduct.”3 This allowed the organization to minimize the problem and treat victims and whistleblowers as people who were unable to adjust to military culture.

In commending the review on sexual misconduct to an external authority, the CAF took the risk of asking a member of Canadian civilian society to ‘look into the messy attics’ of our garrisons and ‘peek under the rugs’ where their darkest secrets used to be swept. This transparency before civilian society is a fundamental principle for the profession of arms, as the legitimacy and self-regulation accorded the profession by Canadians is based upon their trust that missions will be achieved in a professional manner,4 that is, in a matter that resonates with the values and expectations of civilian society.

What the External Review Authority found was not pretty, as one would have expected from the outset. The shock came from learning that the problem was not just under the carpets, but everywhere. In the eyes of a Supreme Court justice, the fine dust covering the furniture was seen, not just in the attics, but even in the dining hall. Much of what was taken for granted and seen as “just the way of the military” was called into question and deemed inappropriate or harmful, if not blatantly, at least potentially.

Not only did the inquiry confirm the reality of inappropriate conduct in the Canadian military, but it warned about the existence of “an underlying sexualized culture” in the organization that is “conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”5 The report called for a change of culture as a key to transforming the status quo, a challenge that the senior CAF leadership have accepted, reminding all in uniform of the ethical foundations of the profession of arms in Canada – to uphold the values of the society it serves in order to secure its support and justify its trust.

Here stands the main virtue so far of the effort to change the culture. It led to a more intentional and sustained dissemination of the professional values of the armed forces, of which not much was heard before the publication of the Deschamps report. In the words of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) himself, “…in the eyes of many in uniform if not most, [the CAF’s approach to addressing harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour] relegated the endeavor to secondary importance. The direct relationship between solving this problem, upholding the warrior ethos, and sustaining CAF operational excellence was not made strongly enough,”6 and again, “training on this issue was sporadic and disjointed.”7

DND SU12-22016-1062-001 by Corporal Michael MacIsaac

Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan H. Vance, addresses the audience during an Operation Honour Progress Review held on 30 August 2016 at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.

The publication of Duty with Honour was a strong statement of the positive relationship that the Canadian military seeks with all Canadians; it must be a document well known by every individual wearing the Canadian patterned uniform, and the pursuit of its ideals must be a capital factor in career progression if the current desensitization of the leadership to the issue of sexual misconduct is to be eliminated in the future.

Language Breeds Culture

Having noted the positive changes made so far in addressing the problem, there is at least one area where the effort must be stronger. One of the important findings of the Deschamps report, is that consultations revealed a sexualized environment in the CAF, particularly among recruits and noncommissioned members, characterized by the frequent use of swear words and highly degrading expressions that reference women’s bodies, sexual jokes, innuendos, discriminatory comments with respect to the abilities of women, and unwelcome sexual touching. Cumulatively, such conduct creates an environment that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and is conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.8

In its initial response to the Deschamps report, Operation Honour tackled the more critical incidents of sexual misconduct – clearly, sexual violence, touching, sexual jokes and the use of sexually charged terms with the purpose of humiliating or demeaning a person. In its second progress report, mention was at last made to a project to study the relationship between language and culture, “including the impact of language on culture and the impact of dehumanization.”9 The literature on the adverse effects of crude language in social behaviours is well-established. According to psychiatrist and author Dr. Sharyn Lenhart, an environment that is less overtly sexualized but where one can find obscene language, swearing, practical jokes, etc. is an unprofessional workplace where there is a greater likelihood of sexual harassment.10 Professor Dr. Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University, together with colleagues, found that teenager exposure to profane language on television and in video games was related to more supportive attitudes regarding the use of profanity, and that the use of profanity was clearly linked to relational and physical aggressive behaviours.11 The connection between exposure to violent or degrading language and violent acts has been noted among youngsters in urban communities.12

From a feminist point of view, author and activist Erin McKelle calls sexualized vocabulary a vocabulary of rape, warning that “every time we use this kind of language, we are a part of the problem.” She calls for the abandonment of sexually violent language as a necessary step in overcoming the culture of sexual violence against women:

Language like “f*ck you” and “suck my d*ck” is rape-permitting and normalizes sexual violence. It creates a society that is full of rape myths and rape, even though we never talk about it. It creates rape culture.13

McKelle’s argument resonates with the social semiotics of Dr. Jay Lemke, an American physicist and professor of education at the University of Michigan, who describes communities as dynamic open systems:

All of us, all the time, are meeting each others’ needs for social information, helping and coercing each other into the behavior patterns of our community. We do not learn these once and for all at some particular time; we are reshaped into them again and again by the features, including behaviors of our fellow humans, of the specific situations to which they are adapted. What persists in us, for the most part, is just a disposition toward certain sorts of behaviors when in these situations. We do not need a complete model of how to behave; the situational environment will fill in the details for us, will remind us, will constrain us, keep us on track.14

Lemke’s argument suggests that sexual misconduct – or any other interactional behaviour for that matter – is not necessarily brought into a group from outside by a few bad individuals. Rather, accepted standards in daily social interactions create a common culture to which members of the group tend to adapt in order to thrive, to be accepted, or merely to cope. This process is neither taught nor set in a written workplace doctrine, but intuitively learned from collective conventions, such as behaviour and language.

In short, the language employed by a group has a substantive impact upon its culture, and it will generate and sustain cultural beliefs and behaviours which may linger under the surface, dormant and undetected like an insurgent ideology, until the appropriate conditions for their manifestation propel them to the fore.

While addressing gross violations of human dignity by sexual misconduct in the CAF must be an absolute priority in the short term, the problem of the existence of a pervasive language that provides a niche for inappropriate sexual behaviour or conversations is one that must be addressed if the long term success of the operation is to be ensured. One may kill the mosquitoes, but new generations will pop up as long as the still water breeding ground is not dried up.

Navy divers communicating by hand signals.

DND IS05-2015-0008-12 by Corporal Éric Girard

Leadership Role in Language and Cultural Change

An ancient church principle says, Lex orandi, lex credendi. Literally, it translates, “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith,” meaning that the way people worship – their words (and actions) when praying – reflects, reveals, defines their beliefs. Evidently, any external behaviour that conflicts with someone’s alleged beliefs would be either an inconsistency or sheer hypocrisy – both objectionable traits.

The truth behind that old principle is applicable not only to faith matters. It can easily be transposed to any area of human society, and the profession of arms is no exception. The Canadian Forces Leadership Doctrine is clear when stating that, in order to ensure its legitimacy, the profession of arms in Canada must uphold and embody the same values held by Canadian civil society, whom it claims to represent and protect. In the same vein, the Canadian Armed Forces Ethics program strives to inculcate such values as integrity and honour, reminding our military that our actions should always pass the “front page” test, that is, they should be such as not to cause public outrage or disapproval if made public by the media.

For some reason, our military ethics does not seem to dare venturing into the realm of language. It will hardly come as a surprise to any reader that vulgar, inappropriate language is by no means uncommon among uniformed members. Some people, even senior leaders in the CAF, believe this to be normal, a part of the military culture. Not only is this appalling language standard used profusely by junior ranks in their casual conversations, but it can be heard being used by senior NCOs in giving directions to their sections, by instructors during the delivery of military courses, and yes, even by senior and commanding officers during orders groups, and in addressing the troops.

The problem is that this kind of language is not an accepted professional standard in any workplace in Canada. Besides the adverse effect upon public perception, it easily serves as a petri dish for harassing, abusive, and discriminatory attitudes. The CAF Code of Ethics’ first principle is the respect and dignity for all persons, and it imposes upon its members the expectation of “…helping to create and maintain safe and healthy workplaces that are free from harassment and discrimination.”15

What leaders in the CAF must understand is that this use of language has a devastating ripple effect upon the moral fabric of the organization. When the poor example comes from above, those who aspire to ascend the rank ladder, taking their cues from that behaviour, not only feel validated when using similar language, but are more likely to replicate the behaviour of their leaders in dealing with subalterns and peers, incorporate it into their own leadership style, and perpetuate a toxic culture for years to come.

Leaders ensure that the profession is constantly evolving to higher planes of effectiveness and performance. They set and maintain the necessary standards, and they set an example that inspires and encourages all members to reflect these standards in their day-to-day conduct. Above all, effective leaders exemplify the military ethos, and especially the core military values that are the essence of military professionalism. They make sure that all understand that their duty to country and colleagues is central to the profession of arms. They demonstrate that loyalty can and must be applied both upwards to superiors and civil authority and downwards to subordinates. Finally, leaders act courageously, both physically, but more especially, morally.16

Infantry soldiers communicating on exercise.

DND IS06-2017-0004-161 by Master Corporal Jennifer Kusche


It has been the argument of this short article that the CAF must address the issue of acceptable language used by those wearing the military uniform. As public servants entrusted with the use of lethal force if necessary, CAF members have a moral obligation to embody and inspire the best values of Canadian society.

The Deschamps report has identified the noxious impact of language upon military culture. Studies from different fields of science have suggested a correlation between inappropriate language and adverse, aggressive behaviour. The ethics of the profession of arms and the responsibilities of military leaders place on the organization the expectation of employing the moral courage and integrity that characterizes military ethos and values in order to deliver the organizational culture from its connection with sexual misconduct of all kinds.

Whatever excuses one could advance for using inappropriate language when in uniform, they should not be tolerated if our Canadian military is to be purged of sexual abuse and misconduct. To claim that the military is merely a mirror of Canadian society is to relinquish the duties and high ideals to which we are called. Of public servants, Canadians expect exemplary conduct. When government representatives or public servants use foul language in their communications with their peers or with the public, there is protest from society. Why should the profession of arms be content with a lower, reproachable standard? Leaders do not just blend in with the culture of their day; they embody its best values and highest ideals, inspiring others to emulate them and fashion a more harmonious society.

So we speak, so we believe, and so we become. Any serious effort to reform the perceived shortcomings of our military culture, particularly in what pertains to inappropriate sexual behaviour, is bound to fail if nothing is done to bar vulgarities from the accepted standard of language in which we conduct our business in the service of Canada and Her Majesty.

Padre (Captain) Gerson Flor joined the CAF in January 2009 after ten years as a pastor serving Lutheran congregations in Brazil and Canada. He holds a Master of Theology degree in Biblical Studies, and was a guest lecturer at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, from 2006 to 2008. As a military chaplain, he served at 8 Wing Trenton from 2009–2016, and deployed with OP Reassurance Air Task Force to Romania and Lithuania in 2014–2015. He is currently the chaplain of the 5 Combat Engineer Regiment at CFB Valcartier.

Aviators engaged in conversation in flight.

DND SW2013-0400-13 by Corporal Nedia Coutinho


  1. CANFORGEN 130/15 CDS 041/15 222041Z JUL 15.
  2. Marie Deschamps, External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. 27 March 2015. (Hereafter referred to as “Deschamps report.”)
  3. Deschamps report, p. 18.
  4. Duty With Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada. A-PA-005-000/AP-001, 2003, p. 66. (Hereafter referred to as “Duty with Honour.”)
  5. Deschamps report, pp. i-ii, 12-18.
  6. Gen. Jonathan Vance, The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, Addresses Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, in Canadian Military Journal, Vol.16, No. 3, Summer 2016, p. 9.
  7. Chief of Military Personnel. Canadian Armed Forces Progress Report Addressing Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour. 0 August 2016, p. 46.
  8. Deschamps report, p. 8.
  9. Chief of Military Personnel, p. 13.
  10. Sharyn A. Lenhart, Clinical Aspects of Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination: Psychological Consequences and Treatment Interventions. (New York: Routlege, 2004), p. 102.
  11. Sarah M. Coyne et al., Profanity in Media Associated With Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Profanity Use and Aggression, in Pediatrics 128:5, November 2011, pp. 867-872.
  12. Michael Traylor, Stop the Language of Violence, in Sojourners, 3 July 2012, at
  13. Erin McKelle, How Sexually Violent Language Perpetuates Rape Culture and What You Can Do About It, in Everyday Feminism, 26 February 2014, at
  14. Jay Lemke, Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1995).
  15. DND and CAF Code of Values and Ethics. AJS005DEPFP001, 2012, p. 9.
  16. Duty with Honour, pp. 54-55.