Defence Minister Anita Anand says she is preparing the military to act quickly on retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour’s recommendations for eliminating sexual misconduct from the ranks, which could come as early as the spring.

Those preparations include laying the groundwork for an “independent oversight mechanism” for the Canadian Armed Forces, as victims and experts have long urged, though Anand says she will not decide the details until she sees Arbour’s final report.

“I am very open to the suggestions of Madame Arbour should they be forthcoming in this area,” Anand told The Canadian Press in an exclusive interview.

“I will not move to implement any such process prior to hearing from her. But I am certainly working to lay the groundwork to ensure there is some sort of independent accountability mechanism or body that can hear the complaints of survivors and complainants.”

The Liberal government tapped Arbour last April to lead an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct in the ranks, and to come up with a detailed plan to finally fix the problem after several past failures.

The review was launched in response to explosive allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by several senior military officers, as well as withering criticism of the Liberal government’s handling of the issue.

Anand, who took over as defence minister in October, said she is in regular contact with the retired Supreme Court judge and former UN high commissioner for human rights to ensure she is getting the information and answers she needs from the military.

“From those conversations, we are expecting her final report next spring, and we will move to act on it as soon as possible,” Anand said.

While few have questioned Arbour’s credentials, the Liberals have nonetheless been criticized for launching another review after another retired Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, conducted her own study in 2014-15.

#Military preparing to act quickly on Arbour's plan to fight sex misconduct: minister @AnitaAnandMP. #CdnPoli #SexualMisconduct

Opposition parties and others have instead demanded the government implement Deschamps’s key recommendation to set up an independent centre to monitor the military’s handling of sexual misconduct cases and hold it accountable.

Anand defended the government’s approach, noting Deschamps’s review was to uncover the extent of the military’s problems when it came to sexual misconduct. Arbour is instead focused on “pragmatically providing a road map regarding how to implement reform.”

In an interview earlier this year, Arbour painted a similar picture of the difference between Deschamps’s review and her own.

To illustrate the point, Anand pointed to her decision last month to accept Arbour’s call for the military to at least temporarily transfer the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases to civilian authorities.

Arbour included a list of actions and considerations for that transition, Anand said, “and I expect and hope that the final report of Madame Arbour will, with regard to all of her recommendations, contain a similar road map for implementation.”

The recent debate around the handling of sexual misconduct allegations by the government and military has seen numerous experts and victims as well as opposition parties demanding more external accountability and oversight to keep the Armed Forces in check.

Some have called for an office of the inspector general to be created that can investigate complaints brought forward by individual military members, or for the military ombudsman’s office to be strengthened by having it report to Parliament instead of the defence minister.

Yet the military has long resisted such calls and put up roadblocks to prevent such independent monitoring, including after the Somalia inquiry in the 1990s and the release of Deschamps’s final report in March 2015.

Such obstruction has at times come with the tacit approval of whatever government was in power, while at other times the military has been able to sidestep or convince its political masters that such oversight would hurt the Armed Forces.

Anand said greater accountability lies at the heart of her work as defence minister, and that she is “fully aware of the benefits of an independent oversight or accountability mechanism” thanks to her past experience as a lawyer and expert on corporate governance.

Asked how she will overcome any resistance within the military to needed reforms, Anand pointed to her work earlier this year leading the federal government’s effort to procure COVID-19 vaccines as evidence of her ability to get things done.

At the same time, Anand said she has sensed in her conversations with senior leaders and junior service members since her appointment “a desire for change in the Canadian Armed Forces, there is a willingness for reform to occur.”

She added: “My view is that in order for us to have an Armed Forces that can protect Canada and go out into the world … we need to have a force where recruitment is robust, where members feel that they can come and be safe and protected while they do their job.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2021.