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  • Writer's pictureDoug Matthews

Military Ethos, the Realities of Life, and Sexual Misconduct at Canadian Military Colleges

Well, it's a top news story again. This time the government is reviewing the future of Canada's military colleges.

Recent high profile cases of sexual harassment perpetrated by some of Canada's top generals, many of whom attended one or more of Canada's Military Colleges, begs the question, "What is going on there?" As a proud graduate of the Royal Military College in the 1960s, I would like to share some personal thoughts.

Justice Arbour, in her recently released report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, clearly states, “Despite the abundance of doctrinal and training materials, events have demonstrated that ethical education in the CAF continues to fall short of its objectives. There is an obvious disconnect between rhetoric [i.e., following a military ethos] and reality.”[i] Before Arbour, Justice Deschamps found the same thing.[ii] Subsequently, Operation Honour was created to address this problem and from Arbour’s discussions, appears to have been largely unsuccessful.

This is not a new or modern-day problem. Every country that has an army—or navy or air force—has a military ethos. It is invariably wrapped up in a code of conduct defined by such noble ideals as honour, bravery, patriotism, loyalty, discipline, and in the case of the Canadian militarycolleges – truth, duty, and valour. Some ideals such as honour “summon a deep-seated ethic to moderate an inherently violent profession.”[iii] It has guided warriors throughout history, including the extreme bravery of the Spartans, the chivalry of medieval knights, the ritual suicide of Japanese samurai when reputation was compromised, and the early-modern concept of duels between “gentlemen officers.” Indeed, that has always been the purpose of the military ethos – to act as a moral and ethical guide for soldiers.[iv]

However, for over two millennia, there has been a disconnect between a stated military ethos and the reality of military life, particularly in war. There are thousands of examples of this disconnect. One is the US Army, which has a set of core values intended to guide a soldier’s life­–loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage­–whether they are on the job or off. On March 16, 1968, in the village of My Lai, South Vietnam, those core values fell apart as a company of US soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley slaughtered over 500 innocent civilians, including young girls and women who were raped and mutilated before being killed. It took years for the Army to recover even a modicum of public respect following the crimes.[v]

But the US Army has not been the only perpetrator. The Greeks, Romans, Huns, Mongols, Vikings, Turks, Spanish, Irish, British, Chinese, Japanese, Australians, Germans, French, Cambodians, South Koreans, and Indonesians have all committed their fair share of similar atrocities (e.g., rape, murder of civilians) over the centuries.[vi] Canada has not been immune from war crimes either.[vii] The Russians have been especially violent. They literally raped and pillaged Berlin and Germany in WWII, Afghanistan in the 80s, and lately Ukraine. The Russians also have serious abuse problems within their ranks, like so many other countries.[viii] And, of course, we have continued to suffer the same disconnect as the other countries both within the CAF subculture and the military colleges. Interestingly, during the First Crusade, rape by Christian mercenaries was not common, perhaps a lesson from which present-day armies can learn.[ix]

Efforts to date to eradicate sexual misconduct are commendable but the problem is not going to disappear easily or quickly. As I said, this is a culture that has been millennia in the making and the notion, even though it may be subconscious, that women are sexual objects and/or part of the “spoils of war” will continue to be part of the thinking of young military men for a long time.

In the case of the Canadian military colleges, I believe it can be traced back to the indoctrination process, what we who went through the college system have always called Recruit Term. Once we stepped off the bus at the beginning of our first year (in the 1960s in my case), the entire purpose of the following six weeks was to change our schemas, to turn us into warriors. David Kertzer, in his excellent book on ritual and politics, explains what these cognitive structures called schemas are.[x] Our brains tend to take everything that is absorbed through our senses and organize it into patterns of thought that are then used to form our belief systems. We interpret what we encounter in daily life in terms of these pre-established schemas that tell us what to expect. However, we tend to ignore information that conflicts with our schemas, unless it is emotionally interesting and presented in concrete, vivid detail. In fact, history gives us an extreme example of how this can happen in the form of the Nuremburg Rallies of late 1930s Nazi Germany. With the marching of tens of thousands of soldiers at the rally events in the arenas, plus marching through Nuremberg’s old streets with banners and flags waving from all the buildings, and with the nationalistic music of Wagner blaring everywhere, it would have been impossible not to get swept up in the emotion of the day. Cap it off with Zeig heils every few minutes during these parades, and the schemas of all red-blooded Aryans could hardly resist being converted to Nazi thought.

I don’t think many will argue that the information presented to us in Recruit Term was not in concrete and vivid detail, especially when presented to naïve, impressionable young men (at least in my time) who were still forming their schemas.

What I have personally come to realize is that this information was presented in two versions, one formal and one informal. The formal side presented our college ethos – truth, duty, valour. Along with that came pronouncements that we had been chosen because we were the best of the best. Continuously stressed were the importance of discipline and blind obedience, the importance of teamwork, the need to look well turned-out, the need for hard work, and so many other positive human attributes. Most of us came away more confident and better able to handle the trials and tribulations of life. Our schemas had started to change in a positive way, to form us into better people based on the positive pronouncements we were being fed. It was the beginning of our transition into professional soldiers (or airmen or seamen). It was this formal information that eventually shaped not only ourselves but also shaped the positive public perception of the colleges.

Problems arose with the informal information presented to us partly by staff, but mainly by other cadets. It was the beginning of the “seedy” side of traditional warrior culture. This is what I believe did damage to our schemas, although it may not have affected everyone equally.What do I mean when I say “did damage?”

I will present two examples. The first is the well-meaning and much-beloved skylarks. Presumably, the notion behind these was that creative solutions as opposed to blind obedience were sometimes required for leaders in the field. On the surface, this is and was a noble idea worthy of examination and practice by cadets. However, there were two undertones lurking below this surface, both generally unspoken and definitely unwritten. One was the objective of not getting caught (while doing it), the other of not “ratting” on your fellow participants/cadets. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that those cadets who participated–if eventually known­, which they always somehow were–and particularly those who led the skylarks, were assessed better by senior cadets and by squadron officers, thus encouraging and perpetuating these types of events.

While I cannot confirm through research other than my own observations how this affected the conduct of cadets in social situations, I would posit that the continuing emphasis on creative pranks could easily have contributed to sexual harassment that caused some cadets to put females­–or gender-elusive males­–in embarrassing situations. In turn, the perpetrating individuals would be further encouraged–by their skylark training no less–to do their utmost to avoid getting caught or reporting on others whom they witnessed sexually harassing other cadets or civilians. Good cases in point here are the several general officers have recently been under investigation for sexual misconduct who, by what I have read and heard, must have learned their skylark secrecy lessons well.­ They have certainly provided proof that the bastardized version of TDV that we say with a wink and a nod–“Trudy, Ruth, Valerie, and don’t get caught”–lives on. The question we are left with is then, “Should this form of cadet activity be continued in its present form, discarded, or modified so that it does not place any emphasis on secrecy and does not reward participants?”

The second and more disturbing example is the continuous emphasis on treating women as sexual objects by our fellow cadets, our peers. Of course, we were no different than “warrior classes” from every other culture on earth since prehistory. Women, after all, were part of the “spoils of war,” were they not (see previous arguments)? Regrettably, it was never pointed out to us at that time that this was an anachronistic and morally repugnant attitude.

We all came from different backgrounds, some strongly religious and some completely atheistic. Once amalgamated, though, most of us sank to the lowest common denominator, which I would classify as bordering on a mindset of sexual predation. Here are just a few of many examples of common sayings which regularly made the rounds of locker rooms and peppered our conversations:

  • “It’s not the face you’re fucking, it’s the fucking you’re facing.”

  • “Rape is inevitable; lie back and enjoy it.”

  • “Four and twenty virgins, down from Inverness, and when the ball was over there were four and twenty less.”

Plus numerous similar verses from the “North Atlantic Squadron,” a ribald rugger song.

The fact that staff did nothing to discourage this and no doubt considered it part of simple male bonding rituals, is troubling. Whatever residue might have been left of good moral upbringing amongst us, was soon put aside thanks to the persuasive, morally relative arguments of our more outspoken peers who oft opined that “who cares what you do as long as nobody gets hurt.” It reflected what the world has come to expect. “Traditional standards of sexual morality, which were based on the assumption that there is a rationally discernible order by which we can judge our sexual desires to be properly or improperly directed, have been overthrown by the assertion, repeated until it has come to be widely accepted, that nothing but our feelings count when it comes to sex.”[xi] Some of us–perhaps many–translated this to mean getting away with as much as possible with the opposite sex (i.e., in those days civilian girls, so watch out all you girls from Victoria, Kingston, and Montreal!). It was, quite simply, very strong peer pressure to accede to this negative influence on our schemas.

Even over fifty years later, I cannot say that these discussions and locker room tales of conquest contributed to my becoming a better officer or person overall. In fact, I attribute this peer pressure to creating a false motivation in my brain that I had to strive for more sexual conquests or “notches on my belt,” if you will, in order to be considered a successful military officer.

Does this attitude still exist in the colleges? From the Deschamps Report and the findings of Justice Arbour, it looks like it does, although much has been done in terms of educating cadets about sexual misconduct and its consequences.[xii] Should more drastic action be taken that could restrict the freedom of cadets? For example, would such things as blocking pornographic web sites on all computers, smartphones, and tablets on college grounds help to discourage sexual misconduct?

For that matter, what else can be done?

Justice Arbour makes the statement that “sexual misconduct is a conduct deficiency.” This is only partly true. More than anything, sexual misconduct is a moral deficiency. The word “morality” was not mentioned a single time in either the Deschamps Report or the Arbour Report that I could find. This is a failure on their part to fully grasp what is going on.

The reason I described what I and other recruits of my time experienced during Recruit Term and in First Year was to point out that these experiences changed my perception (my schema) of what was morally acceptable behaviour. In effect I abandoned any sense of right and wrong when it came to sexual relations and succumbed to the more socially acceptable notion of hedonism.

In the past, a lot of this might have been handled by telling cadets to buck up, attend church, and get their lives in order. At this point in time, however, trying to ram religion and its strict moral code down the throats of cadets would be counter-productive. They must, through education and in addition to what they learn now, still be taught exactly what a moral life is. They must be taught just how important such a life is to personal and professional success, not to mention to a clear conscience. They must be taught that sexual conquests do not an honourable person make, but rather an idiot make. While such education should cover the consequences of crossing the line into sexual harassment–and indeed already does–more importantly it should cover the history of morality in war and what constitutes war crimes, compared to morality in today’s normal society. It should cover the wrong-headedness of macho male bonding based on sexual conquests. It should explain what moral relativism and moral absolutism are and why there are so many problems in interpreting as an individual what constitutes sexual harassment. It should be a compulsory first year course given ideally by a psychologist with guest lectures by other experts, including religious experts. Perhaps the course might have a title such as Morality and Military Life.

I would like to finish my commentary by addressing two of the recommendations from theArbour Report. They are the following.

  • Recommendation #28: The Cadet Wing responsibility and authority command structure should be eliminated.

  • Recommendation #29: A combination of Defence Team members and external experts, led by an external education specialist, should conduct a detailed review of the benefits, disadvantages and costs, both for the CAF and more broadly, of continuing to educate ROTP cadets at the military colleges. The review should focus on the quality of education, socialization and military training in that environment. It should also consider and assess the different models for delivering university-level and military leadership training to naval/officer cadets, and determine whether the RMC Kingston and the RMC Saint-Jean should continue as undergraduate degree-granting institutions, or whether officer candidates should be required to attend civilian university undergraduate programs through the ROTP.

In the interim, the CPCC should engage with the RMC Kingston and the RMC St-Jean authorities to address the long-standing culture concerns unique to the military college environment, including the continuing misogynistic and discriminatory environment and the ongoing incidence of sexual misconduct. Progress should be measured by metrics other than the number of hours of training given to cadets. The Exit Survey of graduating cadets should be adapted to capture cadets’ experiences with sexual misconduct or discrimination.

These are the equivalent of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Recommendation #28 indicates some misunderstanding on Arbour’s part of the way in which the military colleges work. The Cadet Wing command structure is one of the best hands-on methods of teaching leadership skills to cadets without placing life or death pressure on them if they make mistakes. From my recollections, it has absolutely nothing to do with perpetrating sexual misconduct. Individual cadet leaders may err occasionally on different matters, but to blame the entire structure for sexual misconduct problems is plainly an overreach. If not in the military colleges, then where would young cadets get the chance to practice, and gain the confidence of, genuine leadership? Waiting until they are posted to the field as junior officers is a sure route to disaster, and would feed into their being ridiculed by senior NCOs.

Recommendation #29 steps beyond what I believe was Arbour’s mandate. How many more studies must be done, magazine and newspaper articles completed, and books written that prove the value of the military colleges in producing outstanding Canadian military and civilian leaders? As with any organizations, there are tough times, and we are going through our share now, but to even make this recommendation is totally out of the realm of the task Arbour was given. Furthermore, recommendations #28 and #29 were based on no more than virtual visits and interviews with staff and cadets at RMC, although Arbour did visit CMR. I would label her research leading up to this recommendation as totally inadequate. To even contemplate making it, she should have spent at the very least several days–preferably weeks­–living and breathing college life.


[i] Arbour, L. (2022, May 20). Report of the Independent External Comprehensive Review of the Department od National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. Retrieved July15, 2022, from

[ii] Deschamps, M. (2015, March 27). External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. Retrieved July15, 2022, from

[iii] Mansoor, P.R. (2014, Summer). The Evolution of Military Ethos over the Ages. Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Volume: 94. Issue: 2.

[iv] Mansoor. (2014).

[v] Ciampaglia, C.A. (2019, March 29). Why Were Vietnam War Vets Treated Poorly When They Returned? History. Retrieved September 11, 2020, from

[vi]Wikipedia contributors. (2022, July 11). Wartime sexual violence. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:34, July 11, 2022, from

[vii] Price, J. (2012, June). Buried Atrocities. Literary Review of Canada. Retrieved July 11, 2022, from

[viii] Gresh, J. (2021, April). Professionalism and Politics in the Russian Military. Kennan Cable, 67. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from

[ix] Holt, A. (2015). Rape and the First Crusade. Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, AHA Annual Meeting. Retrieved July20, 2022, from

[x] Kertzer, D.I. (1988). Ritual, Politics and Power. Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press. pp. 77-101. [xi] Holloway, C. (2014, May 5). Moral Truth: A Lesson from the Donald Sterling Affair. Public Disclosure. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from

[xii] Walsh, M. (2022, May 30). Military has ‘failed’ to keep women in uniform safe from sexual assault, former justice Louise Arbour finds. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from

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