By Richard Shimooka, May 13, 2021
Exactly 25 years ago, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) were in the midst of a profound crisis with troubling news emerging daily from the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia. Originally convened to investigate the brutal murder of Shidane Arone in Canadian custody during operations in Somalia three years earlier, it quickly uncovered evidence of mass hazing of soldiers and other troubling incidents, as well as a brazen coverup by senior officials at National Defence Headquarters. It ultimately resulted in the chief of the defence staff resigning after being implicated in manipulating documents for public release two years earlier, and a sweeping set of reforms to the military.
As the government announces a second independent review of sexual misconduct in the Forces, the Somalia commission and its outcome provides some useful lessons for this new review’s ultimate success or failure. The Somalia commission’s immediate challenge was to reform the culture of the CAF. It was effective at weeding out the immediate problems localized within the airborne regiment and significantly raised the military’s overall professionalization. However, the military is now facing a second, larger and far more diffuse crisis with deeply ingrained cultural roots. It points to broader systemic issues around leadership and accountability within the Forces that the Somalia inquiry tried, and failed, to address.
The Somalia affair was, in reality, two separate scandals — first, the immediate atrocities committed by the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia and its toxic culture, and second, the broader coverup that occurred afterwards. At every step of the way, senior officials sought to diminish the problem and obscure its reach, until it became impossible to do so. Overall, it highlighted a leadership failure within the CAF that pervades the forces to this day.