Defence Minister Bill Blair says it’s unlikely the presence of alcohol can be banned in the military as part of efforts to tackle sexual misconduct among members, but acknowledged it needs to be “managed in a responsible way.”

Blair addressed the issue Wednesday as he provided an update on the government’s plans to implement the recommendations in former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour’s report on sexual misconduct in the military and the culture within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Yet Statistics Canada revealed last week that sexual assault rates in the military saw a “significant increase” in 2022 despite those promises of reform. The survey found 33 per cent of regular force members who were sexually assaulted last year believed it was related to the perpetrator’s alcohol or drug use.

Asked about the survey Wednesday, Blair said the findings were “concerning,” but would not say exactly how the presence of alcohol at Canadian Forces events or mess halls should be addressed moving forward.

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“I’m not sure we’re going to be in a position to ban the use of alcohol in the Canadian Armed Forces, but certainly making sure that it is managed in a very responsible way,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

“I think we have to listen to our members who clearly indicated to us that that is a concern and we have to address that concern.”


Click to play video: 'Blair addresses ‘significant’ spike in sexual assault rates in military'


Blair addresses ‘significant’ spike in sexual assault rates in military


Blair said the Statistics Canada findings also underscored the importance of implementing all of the 48 recommendations outlined in Arbour’s report to ensure that sexual assault and misconduct “cannot be tolerated at any time under any circumstances.”

“We have to make sure that in our military colleges, in our workplaces, at national headquarters, in deployments, out in the field, in our messes and mess dinners and social functions, in any aspect of the Canadian Armed Forces culture, we have to remove those toxic elements,” he said.

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The minister had previously told reporters in the wake of the Statistics Canada report that alcohol is a societal problem.

Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, the chief of professional conduct and culture, told reporters last week that there is typically a spike in sexual misconduct reports around December because of the large number of sanctioned and unsanctioned holiday events that feature alcohol.

But she said banning alcohol at military events altogether “may create other, bigger issues in the background,” like parties at private homes.

“This is a one-size-fits-all solution that does not allow us to do better,” Carignan said.


Click to play video: 'Sexual Misconduct Support and Resource Center mandate expanded and improved: Blair'


Sexual Misconduct Support and Resource Center mandate expanded and improved: Blair


Legislation coming in new year, Blair says

Blair said in the year since tabling its plan to respond to Arbour’s report, the government will have implemented 19 of the 48 total recommendations put forward to change the culture within the Canadian Forces.

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He said he plans to introduce legislation early next year that will codify one of the most notable recommendations, to move jurisdiction over sexual offence cases from the Canadian Forces to the civilian criminal justice system.

Blair’s predecessor, Anita Anand, issued a ministerial directive nearly a year ago to begin that shift, allowing police departments the time to adapt to the change and bring necessary resources into place. The legislation will codify the change into law, meaning any future changes to reverse that would also require legislative changes and not a ministerial order.

Blair told reporters he intended to introduce the legislation during the current fall sitting, but said that had “proven to be rather difficult.”

“As you’ve seen, we’ve been kind of busy in the House, but it remains a priority,” he said.

The government is also moving to formally abolish the definition of “sexual misconduct” from the defence department’s official policies — which Arbour found “lacked coherence and clarity” — and instead include the clearly-defined term “sexual assault” as a standalone definition in policy that links to the Criminal Code.

Those changes will cover Arbour’s first two recommendations in her report.

Blair also announced he was appointing Michelle Douglas as the military’s first honourary colonel for chief professional conduct and culture.

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Click to play video: 'Michelle Douglas appointed as 1st Honorary Colonel for Chief Professional Conduct and Culture'


Michelle Douglas appointed as 1st Honorary Colonel for Chief Professional Conduct and Culture


Douglas launched the 1992 legal challenge that ended Canada’s policy of discrimination against LGBTQ2 people in the military.

“She served as an officer in the CAF for three years (1986-1989), when she was honourably discharged, despite a distinguished service record, for being deemed ‘not advantageously employable due to homosexuality,’” according to the statement announcing her appointment.

“We are building a military where all of the people can reach their full potential, where young, diverse Canadians can feel respected, protected and empowered to serve,” Blair told reporters, adding there was more work to be done to implement all of Arbour’s recommendations and change the military’s culture.

“We will not ease up on these efforts. We will keep moving forward.”

The Statistics Canada survey found approximately 1,960 regular force members, roughly 3.5 per cent, reported they were sexually assaulted either inside or outside the workplace involving a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) or another military member.

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That rate marked a sharp rise from the rates reported in 2018 (1.6 per cent) and 2016 (1.7 per cent) when previous iterations of the survey were conducted, Statistics Canada said.


Click to play video: 'Canada’s military colleges are at a crossroads– what 2 graduates want now'


Canada’s military colleges are at a crossroads– what 2 graduates want now


CAF was described as a “broken system” that is a “liability” to the country by Arbour in her blistering report into sexual misconduct in May 2022.

Arbour’s review was formally launched a year before that — in May 2021 — in response to exclusive reporting by Global News into allegations of sexual misconduct among the highest ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Global News first brought to light in February 2021 allegations of sexual misconduct against senior leaders — the first of dozens of exclusive reports into such allegations and the military’s handling of them over the 18 months after that initial report.

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The federal government has promised reform, and said earlier this month that a highly anticipated review into Canada’s military college system — an “outdated” program with a “problematic leadership model” as described by Arbour — is “about to be launched.”

— with files from Global’s Aaron D’Andrea and the Canadian Press

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