Danic Parenteau is an associate professor at Royal Military College Saint-Jean and holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne). He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, and he joined the faculty of Royal Military College Saint-Jean in 2008, where he served as associate dean for university programs (2016–2019), notably working to reopen the institution’s university training component. His main research focuses on political ideologies, Quebec politics and, more recently, the intellectual development of officers.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is currently undergoing an unprecedented cultural shift. Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan, the first person to hold the new Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture position, has been given an ambitious mandate to address issues related to “systemic misconduct [including] sexual misconduct, hateful conduct, systemic barriers, harassment, violence, discrimination, employment inequity, unconscious biases, and abuse of power in the workplace.”Footnote 1 This initiative is aimed at transforming the organizational cultureFootnote 2 of the CAF and recognizing that these various problems will not be solved by a few individuals being identified, reprimanded, or even fired. Rather, the issues are more deeply rooted in a culture that continues to tolerate unacceptable behaviour.
In private circles, this approach is not without its critics. Some members of the military feel that, although the situation within the CAF is problematic, it is basically no worse, and in some respects is actually better, than what is happening in civilian society in general, as shown by the results of the latest Survey on Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces.Footnote 3 Others feel that this issue is taking up too much space and, however noble the intent, is distracting the CAF from its fundamental mission of maintaining a high level of readiness to defend the country. In our view, the current situation seems to be particularly favourable to finally tackling these persistent problems. On the geopolitical level, there is no serious or immediate threat to the security of the country right now. In addition, since the adoption of the Strong, Secure, Engaged policy four years ago, the CAF will have a certain amount of institutional stability in the short and medium term. This is a particularly favourable environment for such an undertaking, which will affect generations to come.
We believe that these cultural changes within the CAF will not be possible without the strong leadership of officers––all officers––at all levels of the military structure. The success of this endeavour will depend in large part on how well officers are able to fulfill their role as the primary agents of cultural change. To do so, however, we must first acknowledge a reality that has not been discussed very often to date, namely the relative loss of influence of the officer corps within the CAF in recent years. For some time now, officers have been affected by what might be called a “symbolic demotion” within the military community as a whole, compared to the social status they may have enjoyed in the past or even compared to the status that their counterparts in other Western armed forces continue to enjoy. To act as true agents of cultural change, officers will most definitely need not only all the powers they formally possess according to their position in the chain of command but also the informal levers of influence over which they have lost some of their grip over time.
Changing the Organizational Culture of the CAF: An Ambitious Undertaking
We must admit from the outset that achieving such a cultural transformation will be an ambitious undertaking. It would be unwise to draw inspiration from past awareness campaigns, which have been the main methods that the CAF, like other public organizations, has favoured to bring about certain cultural changes. Some examples include campaigns against harassment, racism, or inappropriate sexual behaviour, such as those organized since the 1990s in garrisons across the country, as well as those now offered online on platforms such as the Defence Learning Network (DLN) or GCcampus. Despite twenty-five years of effort, these campaigns have not yet succeeded in eliminating these problems within the CAF.
The fact that such an approach has so far been able to achieve little is partly due to the questionable premise that “raising awareness” is the best solution to racism (to take just one example). According to this approach, overcoming racism would require getting people to shed their prejudices, unconscious biases and negative judgments about people from cultures other than their own. While such a campaign can certainly help to raise awareness of cultural realities that some people have previously been ignorant or simply unaware of, thus helping to break down certain prejudices, its real impact on defusing a complex, tenacious and often deeply rooted system of thought such as racism appears to be limited, to say the least.
The other main weakness of such awareness campaigns is the nature of the target audience. This type of training is usually designed for a broad audience, that is to say, it is aimed at all members of the CAF, or even at all members of the extended Defence Team, indiscriminately. That approach is perfectly suited to training that is aimed at helping people acquire technical or intellectual skills (that are sometimes even quite complex), whether it is aimed at teaching people how to use software, for example, or learn a management method or foreign language. However, we feel that this approach is inadequate when it comes to achieving an objective such as the one targeted here, which is to transform an organizational culture. Its flaw lies in the fact that it implicitly suggests that all the people for whom such training is intended have a similar or equivalent role to play in achieving this objective. If we are to combat racism, then each individual, whether in uniform as an officer, non-commissioned officer or member of the troop, or as a civilian staff member of the Department of National Defence (DND), no matter the position, must of course be made to reflect inwardly on how they behave on a daily basis. But such work, from a strictly individual perspective, even if it were undertaken as seriously as possible by all members of the extended Defence Team without exception, would not in itself be able to definitively eradicate the values, beliefs and norms that have allowed racism to persist within the organization. Unfortunately, there is a risk that racism will re-emerge if the organizational culture that tolerates its existence is maintained.
Allow us to emphasize this point. The problem facing the CAF is profound in that it is rooted in an organizational culture that continues to tolerate behaviours, attitudes and actions that have long been officially decried, condemned or prohibited by the military chain of command and the civilian authority to which the institution is subject. Official values, norms and codes, such as those expressed in the manual Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada, which sets the high professional standards to which all military personnel are held, are not at issue. On a deeper level, the problem stems from the fact that, beneath this formal set of values, there persists an informal and discordant culture that is widespread within the organization at all levels and that continues to tolerate and even encourage such unacceptable behaviour. That finding has been confirmed by numerous reports over time, including the one written by Justice Marie Deschamps in 2015 following the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces or, more recently, in 2019, the one produced by the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.Footnote 4 One can be almost certain that the report currently being considered by Justice Louise Arbour will draw the same conclusion. Getting rid of this informal and discordant organizational culture once and for all will not be easy, as it seems to have resisted all the efforts made over time to eradicate it.
Strengthening the Professionalism of the CAF
The current cultural transformation effort resembles a similar effort undertaken by the CAF in the 1990s in response to the Somalia scandal. Following the Létourneau (1997) and Young (1997) reports, as well as the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia,Footnote 5 DND undertook to address persistent racism within the organization. That included the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment that had been the source of the scandal, the adoption of the first Statement of Defence Ethics, which is still in effect, a harassment and racism prevention awareness and training program, and the creation of the guide Duty with Honour – The Profession of Arms in Canada.Footnote 6 In the 1990s, we saw the beginning of a certain cultural change within the CAF, when practices that were no longer considered acceptable, such as initiations at military colleges, were outlawed. However, those changes did not succeed in eliminating this problematic organizational culture for good.
Bear in mind that those efforts were aimed at strengthening the “professionalism” of the CAF, meaning the requirement to get members of the military to meet a higher standard of ethical behaviour. Clearly, a professional soldier could not stoop to committing acts such as those that occurred in Somalia. While the issue of professionalism certainly implies the requirement for a high ethical standard of behaviour, it cannot be limited to that aspect alone. The question goes back to the fundamental thinking that was laid down over half a century ago by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, in what has become a classic and still indispensable work for thinking about this issue, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil–Military Relations (1957). In the 1950s, all over the West, but particularly in the political context of the United States of America, where this thinking originated, the challenge was to ensure that officers had a professional status comparable to that enjoyed by the members of other professions in society that were organized into orders, such as lawyers, represented by the Bar Association, doctors, organized into the College of Physicians, or engineers, grouped into the Order of Engineers. It was therefore a matter of recognizing that the body of officers forms a profession, as “managers of violence.” That status is linked to a clearly defined field of professional responsibilities grounded in a code of ethics, expertise and a well-established professional identity. In Huntington’s view, this symbolic recognition was the best way to ensure civilian control of the armed forces in a liberal democracy. In return for this professional recognition by the state, officers were called upon to refuse partisan political involvement more firmly than ever. The officer’s field of initiative and action was to be clearly defined within the confines of the armed forces alone, thus recognizing the need to maintain a relatively hard and fast boundary between this institution and the civil power or, more broadly, civil society as a whole, with all of this being consolidated by a kind of “moral contract” between the two parties.
With this brief reminder of the professional nature of officers, let us now attempt to better identify the crucial role that they play in the current initiative to transform the organizational culture of the CAF. We shall do that by raising three specific challenges.
Encourage Officers to See Themselves as True Agents of Cultural Change
We believe that this cultural transformation will be impossible without strong leadership from those at all levels of command in the military hierarchical structure. It will certainly require all officers to set a personal example in these matters, which is a responsibility that they share with NCOs. The members of the troop, who make up most of the military, will only be able to adhere to these profound cultural changes if they feel that the hierarchical chain of command wholeheartedly endorses it. Let us not delude ourselves, the adoption of such exemplary behaviour by all officers and NCOs will not by itself succeed in eradicating the organizational culture at the root of the problem. That will also require the successful dismantling of the mechanisms that have so far allowed it to persist within the CAF. It will not be a simple task, as these seem to be firmly entrenched in people’s mindsets. Once that stage has been completed, it will still be necessary to put in place a replacement organizational culture, which will be based on ways of being, acting and thinking that will henceforth make the expression of reprehensible behaviour impossible. It is the officers, as the main agents of cultural change, who will be responsible for those two important tasks.
In order to carry out this vast undertaking, officers will need strong institutional support, which will require that their lost symbolic status be restored. The officer corps has been weakened in recent years by an informal loss of influence within the broader military community. This phenomenon seems to impact junior officers most especially, although it affects the entire officer corps as well. In the 1950s, Huntington developed his model of civil–military relations to counter the loss of influence of officers within US society. What we are talking about here is somewhat different, in that we are referring to a loss of influence not within civil society as a whole, but within the Canadian military community. We do not mean to say that there has been a reconsideration of the corps’ professional status, which affects, among other things, the conditions of service and career progression of its members, or a weakening of its role or responsibilities in the command structure, or a re-examination of the legal authority it holds. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing the complex social dynamics that have slowly eroded the informal influence of officers within the CAF community as a whole in recent years. An officer’s real power is never based solely on the legal authority that they have as a person who holds a commission, as formally expressed through rank and position. It is also always based on the informal but very real influence that they can exert on non-commissioned officers and non-commissioned members. If the influence that a person can exert within a group is partly due to certain character or personality traits––including charisma, natural eloquence and quick-wittedness––it is also always the result of a social configuration governing informal relations among its members, which may or may not favour the expression of that influence by some of them. This is the case for officers in the CAF, who today must increasingly deal with a less favourable social situation.
This symbolic demotion of officers is rooted in several recent developments linked to the CAF, which it would take too long to describe in detail,Footnote 7 but which we cannot fail to mention briefly. Firstly, as the organization has become more and more bureaucratized, officers have seen their freedom of initiative and action shrink over time, particularly since they must, in the performance of their duties, submit to increasingly complex administrative procedures and a reporting process that has gradually become more and more all encompassing. This has led to a risk-averse organizational culture within the CAF, which may in the long run seriously undermine its operational capabilities in the event of a major armed conflict, but that is another story. Far from the leadership image with which they were once associated, officers today are increasingly seen as simply civil servants in uniform. Although this phenomenon of bureaucratization affects the CAF as a whole, officers are more impacted than non-commissioned officers, insofar as they are responsible for the main administrative functions within the organization. Secondly, there is a strong social trend throughout the West towards egalitarianism, the effects of which are being felt in a growing number of institutions and organizations in society (think of schools, for instance). Until now, the CAF has been partly spared this trend because it is relatively independent from the rest of society and its own institutional traditions carry a lot of weight. Now, however, it seems that it is no longer immune to this pressure, expressed through the stigmatization of all markers of inequality and hierarchy so as to more fully reject them in favour of an increasingly egalitarian vision of the world. From a broader social perspective, there is reason to welcome this trend, as it increasingly allows all citizens to realize their full potential and ambitions, free from the constraints of social status. However, from the point of view of the CAF, this social trend bumps up against the organizational principles on which the institution is founded. This helps to somewhat explain why the symbolic status of officers has weakened, when, for example, many recruits and officer cadets can no longer intuitively understand the justification for maintaining this fundamental structural difference between the officer corps and the NCO corps. Thirdly, this demotion is also evident in the “command team” approach that is now dominant in all units. This approach, which is perhaps more pronounced in the CAF than in other Western armed forces, contributes to a certain sense of equality, however artificial, between the two members of the team, namely the commander and their senior NCO, when in fact the areas of responsibility of the two are not comparable. However important the responsibilities and duties of a senior NCO may be, the commander alone is in command.
Therefore, in order to have an officer corps that is up to performing its expected role as cultural change agent, it will first be necessary to restore the lost symbolic status of its members within the CAF. All officers, from second-lieutenant to general, will undoubtedly need to use all the resources of influence at their disposal to accomplish this ambitious task.
An Eminently “Political” Approach
As cultural change agents, officers will have to take the full measure of the eminently “political” role expected of them. Let us add a few nuances to Huntington’s view of the apolitical nature of officers, as briefly mentioned above.Footnote 8 A school of thought in political science that goes back to the German thinker Carl SchmittFootnote 9 distinguishes between politics and the political. “Politics” refers to partisan politics, that is to say, the politics of political parties in the electoral game that we play in a representative democracy. “The political” refers to power, understood in its broader sense, which is expressed beyond the game of partisan politics. It concerns the power of which the state and its governmental structure are the institutional custodians. In that sense, the CAF organization is at the heart of the political, as the guarantor of one of the highest governmental functions of the Canadian state: territorial defence.
Thus, on the one hand, in order to fulfil their role as agents of cultural transformation, officers will of course have to stay away from “politics.” There is no need to belabour this requirement, as the apolitical reflex appears to be well established among officers today, as well as among non-commissioned members in general. On the other hand, it will be up to officers to understand the true political significance of this transformation. Being apolitical must not translate into officers adopting an impolitical stance, which would mean not allowing themselves to understand the political stakes and the forces at work in the current cultural transformation process. To fully grasp the implications of such a process will first require officers to understand the mechanisms that have allowed the problematic organizational culture to persist in the CAF, despite efforts over time to eradicate it. Officers will then have to familiarize themselves with the abundant literature that exists on the subject. Then, they must work on fully understanding why this cultural transformation is essential for the CAF, before being able to serve as educators for non-commissioned members. It will then be easier for them to understand how essential this cultural transformation is to an increasingly ethnoculturally diverse military community. A more inclusive vision of the organization will certainly contribute to the development of a sense of belonging and a stronger esprit de corps among those who continue to be marginalized or even excluded by certain cultural practices within the CAF and civilian society in general. Similarly, the officer will be better able to appreciate the merits of such an approach from an operational point of view. Indeed, since the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, several studies tend to show that a more ethnoculturally diverse armed force is more effective when it comes to conducting operations in irregular theatres, where victory often depends in large part on winning the hearts and minds of civilian populations.
Moreover, it is precisely because they understand the political nature of this undertaking that officers will be able to overcome some of the opposition and resistance that such changes inevitably engender. The scale of these cultural changes may be perceived by some CAF members as a direct attack on their institutional identity. Members are protective of the distinct identity of the CAF, which is nurtured by customs and traditions that stem in part from its historical and cultural heritage but that are also forged through a deliberate, symbolic demarcation from civilian society. That is not to claim that the culture of sexualization, racism or discrimination is an integral part of the institutional identity of the CAF––if it were, then we would be dealing with a truly “systemic” problem.Footnote 10 However, as agents of cultural change, officers will need to counter this impression by demonstrating how important it is for the CAF to rid itself once and for all of this organizational culture without sacrificing anything of its unique institutional identity; this culture is not only operationally counterproductive but is also incompatible with the mission of this institution in the service of the state.
The CAF faces major changes in the years to come. These changes will, of course, call for a review of socialization processes, including those to which recruits and officer cadets are subjected upon enrolment. It will require a review of the disciplinary framework, including the handling of complaints about sexual behaviour. It will likely also involve a review of the training system. But above all, this cultural transformation can only ultimately be achieved by placing a high value on education within the CAF. Education will always remain the key to making changes of the nature and magnitude expected here. If, in the immediate future, it is important to emphasize the essential role of officers as agents of cultural change, in the end, it is of course only through education that the CAF will be able to rid itself once and for all of a culture that needs to be banished and subsequently put in place a new organizational culture that respects everyone’s contribution, that is free of the most simplistic prejudices towards certain cultures, and that is capable of grasping the true complexity of the world through the most appropriate conceptual and analytical tools. That will involve fostering a culture of education for all military personnel, both for officers, notably through the programs offered by the military colleges and the Canadian Forces College, and for non-commissioned officers and non-commissioned members, through the Robert Osside Profession of Arms Institute. In addition, outside of the institutional educational frameworks, that will have to be done by encouraging intellectual curiosity, reading and reflection among all military personnel. There is no doubt in our minds that developing a capacity for critical thinking that is rooted in a broad general culture offers, among other advantages, the most solid way of making sure that the CAF does not fall back into a culture that more than twenty-five years of awareness campaigns has failed to eradicate.