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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 2022]
Profession of Arms

DND/CAF photo by Corporal François Charest/TM02-2019-0021-0001

Task Force members in Mali, together with German and French allies, participate in a CH-147F Chinook helicopter crash simulation exercise during Operation PRESENCE-MALI, 6 March 2019.

Dr. Nancy Taber’s research explores the ways in which learning, gender and militarism intersect in daily life, popular culture, museums, militaries and educational institutions, with a particular focus on women’s experiences in the Canadian Armed Forces related to organizational culture, official policies and informal everyday practices. She is a retired military officer who served as a Sea King helicopter air navigator. Dr. Taber is a former President of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education. 

In the fall of 2021, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) announced that, among other efforts to promote inclusivity and engage in culture change, it was working on a publication called the Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve, explained as a “renewal of the CAF Ethos [which] includes core ethical principles including recognizing and embracing the diversity of our team’s talents and perspectives, challenging unacceptable behaviour, and making difficult but necessary decisions to support and champion cultural change.”Footnote 1

Trusted to Serve is of great interest to me as a former military officer and current feminist academic with expertise in the gendered policies, practices and culture of the CAF. It should also be of great interest to military members, veterans and civilians alike, since any document that prescribes the core of military service is a powerful one. It presents the guiding principles, beliefs and actions that the organization values, nurtures and promotes. The ethos answers the question “Who is an ideal military member?” and there are concomitant implications for recruitment, retention, training, education and promotion, as well as policies, practices and culture.

This article describes the organizational context in which Trusted to ServeFootnote 2 was created and published; examines the ways in which its precursor, Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in CanadaFootnote 3, promoted a narrow view of military service; and engages with the contents of Trusted to Serve. I employ a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) lens, which is “an analytical process used to assess how different women, men and gender diverse people may experience policies, programs and initiatives”Footnote 4 that the government of Canada has committed to use in the “development of policies, programs and legislation since 1995.”Footnote 5 Although this approach has been rightly critiqued for the ways in which it can sometimes be construed as “compliance-seeking and box-ticking,”Footnote 6 it serves my purposes in this article because it is a process with which readers of this journal may be familiar and it is intended to assist in feminist intersectional analyses.

Setting the Context: CAF Culture

At the time of this article’s writing, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is engaged in a deep reckoningFootnote 7 of the ways in which its hypermasculine and sexualized culture is responsible for the discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault perpetrated against women and diverse peopleFootnote 8 in its ranks.

It may seem to some that this reckoning is of a contemporary nature, due perhaps to Canadian society’s attention to sexism, racism and colonialism as a result of the ongoing #metoo, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More movements. Undoubtedly, the current environment has informed the CAF’s critique of its culture and actions to change it. However, academics, advocacy groups, government commissions, legislation and journalists have called attention to issues related to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, homophobia and racism in the CAF for decades—in some cases, as long ago as 1970.Footnote 9 The CAF responded to this external pressure with research trials, reviews, policies and orders, but these were generally reactive and insufficient, and in many cases they were resisted at individual and organizational levels.Footnote 10

Since 2015, DND/CAF appears to have taken a more proactive approach to sexual harassment and assault in its ranks, including giving a mandate to an External Review Authority to “examine CAF policies, procedures and programs in relation to sexual harassment and sexual assault”;Footnote 11 creating Operation HONOUR “to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the CAF”;Footnote 12 requesting a Statistics Canada survey on sexual misconduct in the CAF;Footnote 13 and examining the issues through a GBA+ lens. These efforts also proved insufficient and encountered much resistance.Footnote 14

In 2016, two lawsuits (now collectively referred to as Heyder–Beattie) were launched, with claims of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct experienced by women as well as sexual harassment and sexual misconduct experienced by men in the CAF. Those lawsuits were settled in 2019, and the settlement included the establishment of consultation groups to proactively address culture change and sexual misconduct.Footnote 15 In 2021, allegations of sexual misconduct were filed against several male general/flag officers, including two Chiefs of the Defence Staff and two Chiefs of Military Personnel, who were directly responsible for eliminating sexual misconduct in the CAF. In addition, the commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, who had been criticized for his support of an officer accused of sexual assault, had nevertheless been appointed to review sexual misconduct files.Footnote 16 At that time, DND/CAF commissioned another external review to “take a broader look at how and why our existing workplace dynamics enable harmful behaviours, and make recommendations on preventing and eradicating harassment and sexual misconduct.”Footnote 17 Although much had changed in the CAF over the decades with respect to women’s inclusion and policies dealing with inappropriate conduct, much remained the same with respect to the CAF’s hypermasculine and sexualized culture.

Perhaps this is not surprising, as the CAF was created by and for white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men, with the expectation that female spouses would engage in organizational support and domestic work.Footnote 18 This creation is reflected in the organization’s policies, practices and culture, as well as its current demographics. In 2021, the CAF (Regular Force and Primary Reserve) included 16.1% women, 2.8% Indigenous people, 9.6% visible minorities and 1.2% persons with disabilities.Footnote 19 The 2021 census data is still being reviewed, but Statistics Canada 2016 data indicated that the Canadian population as a whole was 50% women, 4.3% Indigenous people and 19.1% visible minorities.Footnote 20 These figures make it clear that white able-bodied men are still overrepresented in the CAF.Footnote 21 Their overrepresentation is tied to the CAF’s “combat masculine heterosexual warrior identity”Footnote 22—which privileges those who are “male, masculine, and possessed of unique and superior moral and physical attributes including an aggressive nature and proclivity to violence”Footnote 23—and intersects with a culture that discriminates against women and diverse people.

Research demonstrates that, when gender and other forms of discrimination are present, sexual harassment and sexual assault are more likely to occur.Footnote 24 Therefore, it is crucial that the CAF’s policies, practices and culture be inclusive and equitable: in other words, not be based on the assumption that a CAF member is a white, masculine, male, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual man with a (female) spouse caring for the home and family. The CAF’s work to achieve this aim includes establishing the new position of Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC) to, among other things, “develop a professional conduct and culture framework that holistically tackles all types of discrimination, harmful behaviour, biases and system barriers.”Footnote 25 Work is also ongoing to eliminate the gender binary in dress instructions, introduce inclusive rank terminology, begin a Women’s Health Framework, create new compassionate leave sub-types, develop education for cultural change, further employment equity and implement a GBA+ analysis of promotion-scoring criteria.Footnote 26

It is within this context that the rethinking of the CAF ethos in the form of Trusted to Serve occurred. In order to understand and explore this rethinking, it is important to discuss the ethos’s precursor, Duty with Honour.

Precursor: Duty with Honour

Cover of 'Duty with Honour'

Duty with Honour was published in 2003 and updated in 2009.Footnote 27 It is just over 80 pages long and is divided into four parts: “The military profession in Canada,” “The statement of Canadian military ethos,” “The organization and functioning of the profession of arms in Canada” and “Adapting to future challenges.” As stated in the preface, signed by the CDS at the time, “Duty with Honour” was intended as a “cornerstone” and “defining document”Footnote 28 which, as the foreword explains, “presents the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of the profession, shows how in practice it serves Canada and Canadian interests, and codifies, for the first time, what it means to be a Canadian military professional.”Footnote 29 The aim of Duty with Honour was to “provid[e] an understanding and vision of the Canadian military professional. Intended to be both inspirational and educational, it therefore establishes the intellectual and doctrinal basis for all personnel and professional development policies in the Canadian Forces.”Footnote 30 The military ethos contained within is based on the ethical need “to respect the dignity of all persons, to serve Canada before self, and to obey and support lawful authority.”Footnote 31

The ethos itself

comprises values, beliefs, and expectations that reflect core Canadian values, the imperatives of military professionalism, and the requirements of operations. It acts as the centre of gravity for the military profession and establishes an ethical framework for the professional conduct of military operations. In establishing desired norms of behaviour, the military ethos acts as an active and unifying spirit.Footnote 32


the ethos is intended to…guide the development of military leaders…; create and shape the desired military culture…; establish the basis for personnel policy and doctrine; enable professional self-regulation…; and assist in identifying and resolving ethical challenges.Footnote 33

As such, Duty with Honour, with the ethos it promotes, serves as a “boss text” at the top of an “intertextual hierarchy”Footnote 34 because it regulates policies and practices within the CAF culture, with concomitant expectations for what members value and how they act, with specific expectations for military service.Footnote 35 The ethos—framed within a “warrior’s honour”—includes fighting spirit, discipline, teamwork, physical fitness, and accepting unlimited liability.Footnote 36

In my analysisFootnote 37 of Duty with Honour with its associated video (2003 version), I found that the document as a whole was based on the valuation of three concepts: duty, honour and service before self, with the expectations that military members display only duty to the mission, loyalty to the CAF, the integrity to put the mission first and the courage to be a hero. A first glance at these conceptsFootnote 38 may cause readers to assume that they should be the expected ideals of military service, and they may serve a purpose in certain contexts and situations. However, a deeper analysis reveals that the ways in which these concepts are operationalized promotes a warrior idealFootnote 39 that works in two interconnected ways:

  • it privileges the ideal military member as one who is hegemonically masculine,Footnote 40 i.e., members who identify as male, white, able-bodied, cisgender and heterosexual, are employed in operational roles, and have deployed internationally; and
  • it marginalizes members with disabilities, those who require time away from service for childbearing, childrearing, or elder care, those who worship, eat and pray in a manner inconsistent with a Christian schedule and calendar, people of colour, Indigenous people, those viewed as not performing masculinity and femininity in expected ways,Footnote 41 particularly LGBTQ2S+ people, and those in support roles (with intersectionality between these categories).

This military ethos—intended to promote professionalism—organizationally discriminates against women and diverse people. Therefore, it is a contributing factor in the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women and diverse people.

The CAF Ethos: Trusted to Serve

Cover of 'Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve'

Trusted to Serve is a 61-page document divided into three parts: “The importance of trust,” “What is the Canadian Armed Forces ethos, and how do I use it? (subdivided into “Ethical principles,” “Military values,” and “Professional expectations”) and “Ethos and leaders.” The preface, signed by the current CDS and Chief Warrant Officer, explains that, while Duty with Honour “emphasized the profession, organizational aspects and future challenges … Trusted to Serve is focused on expanding and refining our shared understanding of our military ethos.”Footnote 42

The ethos is positioned as “the most essential doctrine in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF)[, which] …. must guide our conduct and performance at all times,” with “military effectiveness and credibility depend[ing] on it.”Footnote 43 Furthermore, “respecting the dignity of all persons” is the “foundational ethical principle” which “serves as the basis for building the CAF Code of Professional Military Conduct.”Footnote 44 As such, Trusted to Serve is as much a boss text as Duty with Honour; however, the focus of the two documents and the ways in which the ethos itself is conceptualized, described and applied to the CAF differ.

The introduction states clearly that “the fundamental purpose of the Canadian Armed Forces remains the lawful application of military force as requested and authorized by the Government of Canada.”Footnote 45 CAF personnel are expected to “conduct themselves ethically and professionally,” including while off-duty (which is important because of the ways in which work and personal life blurs in the militaryFootnote 46), while “the CAF leadership and the Canadian government assume responsibility for their well-being and the well-being of their families.”Footnote 47 It also acknowledges that “military performance can quickly be overshadowed by inappropriate conduct” and states that “character is just as important, and indeed often more impactful, than competence.”Footnote 48 Although this last statement, made in an announcement by the CDS, General Wayne Eyre, ahead of the document’s release, drew some disdainful comments on social media, his explanation that “character has to lead, competence can follow”Footnote 49 is of crucial importance.

The current allegations of sexual misconduct against general/flag officers, combined with background information on their service, demonstrates that, in these instances and likely others (though certainly not all), competence and adherence to a warrior narrative too often led in promotion decisions, while character sometimes followed.Footnote 50 A central focus on character, through the ethos explained in Trusted to Serve, represents a quite different way of thinking.

The ethos comprises the following:

  • “ethical principles” – “respect the dignity of all persons,” “serve Canada before self,” “obey and support lawful authority”
  • “military values” – “loyalty,” “integrity,” “courage,” “excellence,” “inclusion,” “accountability”
  • “professional expectations” – “duty,” “accepting unlimited liability,” “fighting spirit,” “leadership,” “discipline,” “teamwork,” “readiness,” “stewardship”Footnote 51

The terms themselves are almost the same as in Duty with Honour, but the addition of “inclusion” and the exclusion of the use of “warrior”Footnote 52 signifies their different conceptualization in Trusted to Serve. The section on respect as an ethical value encapsulates Trusted to Serve’s overall approach:

As the foundation of military ethics, it [respect] also means an aspiration that all humans can live their lives in peace and be protected against unprovoked aggression, because we are all fundamentally equal and deserving of this ideal…. The equal dignity of all human beings is the logic of military ethics, diversity, equity and inclusion.”Footnote 53

Respect is defined as “appreciating the other person’s unique identity, skillset, perspective, history and experiences.” It is the “foundation for inclusion and trust” and thereby enhances the CAF’s “ability to perform more effectively in military service. Respect is a necessary condition of mission success.”Footnote 54 This definition of respect, which is tied to peace, is now at the core of expectations for CAF military service.

Inclusion as a military value is intended to “create an environment where everyone can bring their authentic selves to work”Footnote 55 to “enhance a sense of belonging and cohesion.”Footnote 56 Inclusion is an active, ongoing practice for which all personnel are responsible:

Those who are inclusive reject racism, sexism, heteronormativity, homophobia, xenophobia or any other form of hateful, discriminatory or hurtful behaviour, conduct or association. They take a proactive approach to prevent, stop and report such conduct and support those affected. Inclusive leaders and team members take deliberate steps to identify and challenge inequities both within their teams and within the institution.Footnote 57

This approach to inclusivity (although listed as the fifth military value) is interwoven with all the others. Loyalty not only includes “personal allegiance to Canada, its parliamentary democracy, the profession of arms, the chain of command, and the team” but also calls for personnel to “show respect, challenge unacceptable behaviour, [and] support their teammates in difficult situations.”Footnote 58 Courage is defined as “overcom[ing] fear and pain in pursuit of the mission”Footnote 59 as well as “helping others in following and championing our ethos.”Footnote 60 Excellence calls for continuous learning and being “curious, ask[ing] questions, and seek[ing] advice,”Footnote 61 allowing personnel to demonstrate uncertainty instead of fearing repercussions for not immediately demonstrating knowledge and taking related action.

Feminists working in the area of military studies have long argued whether efforts should be made to assist militaries in recruiting and retaining women and diverse people, due to the harm such members often experience in military organizations.Footnote 62 There is a stream of feminism, termed feminist antimilitarism,Footnote 63 to which I subscribe, that critiques military values and their related problematic binary approach to men/women, protectors/protected, military/civilian, friend/foe, us/them, with conflict winners/losers. What is a military without military values, one might ask, and how do they relate to a binary approach?

It is not the values themselves that are of concern, but how they are operationalized in military environments. In Duty with Honour, ideal military members always put duty first, defer to hierarchy, demonstrate a stoic, rational, uniform discipline in all that they do (except in relation to unlawful orders) and serve their country and their military at the expense of their personal and family lives. This approach is a narrow one that is based on traditional sex and gender roles, with homogeneous bodies and perspectives focused on a warrior ideal. Although “respect the dignity of all persons” is an element of Duty with Honour, it is embedded within military values that are intended to create a uniformity which resists and even abhors difference.

Trusted to Serve demonstrates that military values can paradoxically be, at least partly, demilitarized in the ways they are construed in an ethos, which may result in building an equitable organization and moving beyond binary thinking toward diverse thinking, with the end result of decreasing or, ideally, eliminating discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Throughout, the document balances conventional military requirements with an acknowledgement of the whole of diverse members’ lives, to the possible benefit of individuals, the organization and mission success. For instance, “serve Canada before self” still requires members to “prioritize service to the country, the military and their teammates ahead of themselves.” However, this expectation is paired with the role of leaders to “ensur[e] a healthy work-life balance for their subordinates” and support them in “stay[ing] true to their personal identities and attend[ing] to roles and responsibilities in their personal lives.”Footnote 64

The professional expectations set out in subsequent sections of Trusted to Serve can be read through an inclusive lens. In particular, fighting spirit “demands an unwavering will to succeed, [and] requires grit and the will to fight against all adversity.”Footnote 65 This spirit “is also present in our determination to change our practiced culture more closely to what is expressed in the CAF Ethos.”Footnote 66 Personnel are still bound to their duty, accept unlimited liability and maintain readiness, but it is through a “balanced total health and wellness approach.”Footnote 67

The expectation of unlimited liability deserves further discussion. In Trusted to Serve, unlimited liability means that CAF personnel “may have to injure or kill to achieve the mission and that we may suffer injury or be killed while performing our duty.”Footnote 68 This seems reasonable in a military organization, though doubtless there are those who would disagree. The section also includes the statement that “In specific situations, the CAF requires everyone’s total commitment to the military profession.”Footnote 69 The qualifier “in specific situations” may enable a demonstration of commitment to the military that differs among occupations and takes into consideration the health and well-being of personnel and families.

The ways in which Trusted to Serve intersects with other CAF policies is important to note here, particularly with respect to the Universality of ServiceFootnote 70 order and the “soldier first” principle, with the “requirement to be physically fit, employable and deployable for general operational duties,”Footnote 71 as well as the related Minimum Operational Standards.Footnote 72 Currently, personnel who cannot perform common or operational tasks or deploy (with some exceptions) have a limited period of retention. Therefore, someone who has a long-term disability, medical issues, familial commitments or religious restrictions may be involuntarily released from the military, which limits the CAF’s ability to be an inclusive organization and engage in transformative culture change. Adding an inclusive lens without removing the privileged forms of military membership is insufficient. The inclusion of the phrase “in specific situations” may be a useful way to reconceptualize commitment to the CAF, depending on how understandings of commitment intersect with the ongoing review of the Universality of Service order and how it is interpreted in related policies and practices.

Next Steps

As stated near the end of Trusted to Serve, the ethos “requires stewardship at the executive level to ensure that policies and programs are in line with the CAF ethos.”Footnote 73 While formal educationFootnote 74 will serve a purpose in officially teaching the ethos, its content also needs to be reflected in the everyday informal learning of CAF personnel. Trusted to Serve recognizes that the CAF ethos must be normalized through “socialization…an informal and continuous learning process.”Footnote 75 Situated learning theories can be helpful in conceptualizing how this socialization might occur. Through the lens of legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice,Footnote 76 newcomers enter an organization on a learning trajectory that, if they are deemed to fit into expectations, eventually moves them into central participation as old-timers. They learn not only occupational skills, but how to think and act in a way desired by the organization and frequently dictated by old-timers. Therefore, as newcomers move through mid-level management and gradually become old-timers, they are likely to reflect the norms they themselves learned, teaching these directly and indirectly to incoming newcomers, reproducing organizational culture through policies and practices. This learning can be positive, if it contributes to a sense of belonging within a culture of equitable policies, practices and expectations.

However, in the context of the hypermasculine and sexualized culture of the CAF, too often, what recruits (newcomers) learn from personnel at all rank levels of the organization, from other relative newcomers to old-timers—non-commissioned members, non-commissioned officers, junior officers, senior officers and general/flag officers—is to reproduce the privileging of a warrior ideal that marginalizes women and diverse people. Particular attention should therefore be given to what recruits internalize about the expectations of military service (who an ideal military member is) in basic training, entry-level courses and military colleges, as well as when posted to their first unit.

Those who feel that they do not fit into an ideal of military membership, for any of a variety of reasons—often tied to ability, gender, Indigeneity, race and sexuality—are more likely to voluntarily release before they become old-timers, because they see that their learning trajectory is blocked. As such, the release is not so much voluntary as indirectly forced. Those who continue on in the organization may be reluctant to challenge organizational norms, for reasons of personal safety and professional opportunities.Footnote 77 Others face involuntary release because they cannot demonstrate total commitment due to factors beyond their control, and therefore they cannot advocate for change from within the organization, even if that had been their aim.

By opening up understandings of who an ideal military member is, Trusted to Serve, as a boss text, has the potential to precipitate transformative and meaningful culture change in the CAF by changing what the organization values, how recruitment and promotion are approached, how policies are written and how educational curricula are developed and delivered, with concomitant changes to everyday practices and the situated learning of personnel. It can assist CAF members in engaging in inclusive practices that are not a current and central part of CAF culture to challenge the warrior identity and replace it with one that supports and values diversity. Discussions are already ongoing in the CAF—as demonstrated in the “Setting the Context” section above in relation to CPCC, dress instructions, ranks, women’s health, compassionate leave, education, employment equity and promotions—to align these policies and others with the new ethos.

However, as Peter Drucker famously stated, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In order for change to occur, personnel throughout the ranks must agree with and enact the ethos, so all learn that the ethos is the new heart of military service in the CAF. It remains to be seen how the ethos is incorporated throughout the organization; how personnel perceive, enact and informally teach the ethos; and, therefore, how effective Trusted to Serve, as a boss text, is at engaging the organization as a whole in cultural change. As well, the Universality of Service order remains a barrier to inclusive service.

Still, the differences between Duty with Honour and Trusted to Serve demonstrate that the CAF is willing to rethink what it values and how those values affect military service. The changes between the two signal a significant perspective shift, from a warrior model to a character-based inclusive ethos. An important step in engaging in culture change is changing how people think about military service, which Trusted to Serve is positioned to do. It is my hope that certain principles viewed as sacrosanct, such as total commitment, will continue to be reconsidered through a lens of inclusivity. If the CAF can eliminate organizational discrimination, it should be able to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault in its ranks.

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