A House of Commons committee heard a deeply personal story today of how the military's sexist double-standard on fraternization cut short the career of an accomplished woman — while a high-ranking male officer in a similar but separate case was allowed carry on.
Leah West — a former armoured officer, Justice Department lawyer and now counter-terrorism expert at Carleton University — testified that she was ostracized and essentially drummed out of the military after a consensual relationship with a member of equal rank from the U.S. military while on deployment in Afghanistan almost a decade ago.
She told the Commons Status of Women committee she was charged, convicted, fined and returned home to Canada, where she was given insignificant tasks in an isolated workspace.
"The message was clear — my career in the regular forces was over," West told the committee, which is investigating the impact of the sexual misconduct crisis on women in the military and veterans.
"My experience is an extreme example of the double standard women in uniform face every day."
Her experience stands in sharp contrast to that of Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates, who — while serving as deputy commander of NORAD — had a consensual relationship with a civilian woman serving with the U.S. military in Colorado Springs. He was allowed to continue at his post before being transferred home last summer to take over the military's joint operations command.
Coates was due to be transferred to the senior NATO post in Naples, Italy until news of the affair became public. The move was cancelled and he now plans to retire.
Military police investigated but said no regulations were broken.
West said that, in her case, she could accept the punishment for violating military regulations against fraternization while on deployment.
"However, what I no longer accept is that I was called demeaning names, told I was unworthy of leading soldiers and even threatened with violence by my commanding officer and repeatedly chastised by senior officers," she told MPs on the House of Commons Status of Women committee.
During today's hearing, Conservative MP Leona Alleslev put the military's new chief of professional conduct, Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, on the hot seat over that double-standard.
Carignan said she could not speak to the specifics of either case.
"What we have to ensure is that the same rules apply to everybody," she said. "And this is part of the work that we will be doing."
Alleslev said West's actions were nowhere near as serious as those of Coates, who held one of the most consequential posts in the Canadian military — but it was West who ended up on charges with a black mark on her record.
"We would like you to get back to the committee and clarify whether in fact no rules were broken in the case of Dr. West, or in the case of a still-serving lieutenant-general," Alleslev told Carignan.
The Liberal government recently appointed retired supreme court justice Louise Arbour to conduct an independent review of sexual misconduct in the military and draft recommendations on how to implement recommendations from a previous review six years ago.
Prominent among those recommendations was a call to set up an independent centre where victims of misconduct could go to report what happened to them without the fear of reprisal.
West said she believes Arbour's findings can be implemented as she does her work — that the government doesn't have to wait for a final report.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.
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