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New defence minister vows to fight sex misconduct, warns battle 'going to take time'

OTTAWA — Anita Anand vowed to throw everything she has into eliminating sexual misconduct in the military as the former procurement minister who successfully obtained COVID-19 vaccines for Canada became only the second woman to hold office as the cou

OTTAWA — Anita Anand vowed to throw everything she has into eliminating sexual misconduct in the military as the former procurement minister who successfully obtained COVID-19 vaccines for Canada became only the second woman to hold office as the country's defence minister.

Yet Anand also warned that the fight will take time, even as the Liberal government faced fresh calls from opposition parties and others to finally establish more external and independent oversight of the Canadian Armed Forces to address its many problems.

“It is important to remember that there is no one magic solution for this issue. There is no one switch that we can turn on to change everything overnight,” Anand said in her first public remarks following an elaborate swearing-in ceremony for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet. 

“This is going to take time. And while that may frustrate some, I want to assure everyone that I will put in the necessary work for as long as it takes to get this done. As I have said, I am thorough, I am determined, I am dogged, and I am results-oriented. And I will be dedicating all of my energies towards this task in this position.”

Anand’s appointment ended weeks of speculation around who would take over from Harjit Sajjan, whose fate appeared all but sealed after overseeing a crisis of confidence in Canada’s military leadership over the past eight months sparked by allegations against several senior officers.

Trudeau spoke glowingly of his new defence minister, specifically noting Anand’s role leading Ottawa’s efforts to purchase vaccines and other supplies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic while touting her previous experience as an expert on corporate governance as directly relevant to her new role.

“One of the things people will be learning about Anita Anand in the coming months is that she is a world-class expert in governance, with decades of professional experience that she will bring to bear to make sure the Canadian Armed Forces … are worthy of the extraordinary women and men who choose to serve.”

Anand is only the second woman to serve as Canada's defence minister. Kim Campbell held the position for six months in 1993 before becoming prime minister.

Yet while Anand acknowledged her gender may have played a factor in her appointment, she said there are other qualities that she brings to the table.

Indeed, while Anand’s appointment was largely welcomed by opposition parties, experts and a victims’ group, many of which had been scathing in their criticism of Sajjan, it was also greeted with warnings that the arrival of a new defence minister — even a woman — isn’t enough to fix the military’s problems.

“I'm not one of those people that think just putting a woman into this position will magically make it solve the problems,” said Megan MacKenzie, an expert on military sexual misconduct at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

“She's stepping into that role at a time when we've had a prolonged crisis. And so I really hope she's supported so that she can do her job and is not expected to sort of fix the systemic problem without proper tools.”

MacKenzie also underscored the need for more independent oversight over the military, particularly when it comes to sexual misconduct, as was first recommended by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in 2015.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed that message during a news conference, saying that while having a woman as defence minister was remarkable, “they've had six years to bring in an independent process. And so that hasn't changed. And that to me is a big problem.”

Trudeau and Anand declined to commit to any new external oversight of the military, and instead pointed to an ongoing review of the problem being led by retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour. 

Anand arrives at a critical time for the Canadian military, which has been battered by months of troubling allegations that some of the military’s most senior officers engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour — with new allegations seemingly emerging every few weeks.

Trudeau this month blasted the top brass after it was revealed that a general who wrote a character reference for a soldier convicted of sexual assault was reassigned to a job overseeing some of the military’s work on sexual misconduct. Trudeau said they "simply don't get it."

Opposition critics, defence experts and victims’ support groups have pinned much of the blame for the ongoing scandal on the Liberal government and, in particular, Sajjan, who will now serve as the minister of both international development and economic development in B.C.

When Sajjan first took over the role in early November 2015, the former Vancouver police officer was widely seen as a positive choice, given his previous service as a lieutenant-colonel in the army reserves, which included stints in Afghanistan.

Yet Sajjan struggled to effectively communicate when it came to military matters, and was seen as being too deferential to those senior commanders such as then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, under whom he had served in Afghanistan.

Those concerns exploded into the public discourse in February after Global News reported several allegations of sexual misconduct involving Vance. It was later revealed that one was first flagged to Sajjan by the military ombudsman in March 2018.

Despite what amounted to a clear demotion for his longtime defence minister, Trudeau defended Sajjan as “someone who has been there to fight for the women and men who serve in our Armed Forces, and to push back against the culture that excludes, that marginalizes people.”

Sajjan for his part defended his record, which included introducing a new defence policy in 2017 that promised billions in new money for the military over 20 years.

As for changing the military’s culture, “we wish that we could have it overnight,” he said. “It doesn't happen overnight. But this but the steady work that needs to continue in the focus on it, our government has been absolutely committed to it.”

One of the key questions facing Anand is the degree to which she will be able to exert control over the Canadian military, which has a reputation for pushing back against attempts to rein it in.

While Anand’s role in procuring personal protective equipment, ventilators and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic has been praised, her work on corporate governance was noted by It’s Not Just 700, a support group for victims.

Sexual misconduct is far from the only issue facing the Armed Forces at this juncture, and the new defence minister will need to get quickly up to speed on a variety of topics, including the many missions underway around the world and the ongoing effort to buy new military equipment.

Anand has an advantage over many of her ministerial colleagues taking over new portfolios, in that her previous job included significant oversight of various military procurement projects. That includes the planned purchase of new fighter jets and warships.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried a headline that referred to Anita Anand as Canada's second defence minister.

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