A culture of harassment at National Defence

Warning – descriptions of sexual and racial harassment may be triggering for some readers

One member’s fight to protect her fellow workers and organize survivors to action

For years, Kristina MacLean experienced sexual and racial harassment at work. She tried to brush it off, was told to accept it and move on.  

As a racialized woman – MacLean is of mixed South Asian descent – working as a naval dock worker in B.C., she was constantly subjected to harassment by her colleagues and even the tugboat captain who was supervising her.  

Read Kristina MacLean’s full story on CBC 

She endured the discrimination for years until she decided to break her silence in 2011. Kristina turned to her union for support and filed numerous grievances and complaints.  

Eventually, MacLean received a settlement for her ordeal, but she faced further retribution and delegitimization at work.  

Now, MacLean is firmly focused on the future – towards making National Defence a better and safer place to work for women and for Black, racialized and Indigenous workers.  She has watched managers get promoted who knew about the harassment and did nothing to fix the culture, and she wants to see that change.  

“The military mindset is perfection. No one misses a step,” MacLean said. “Managers are afraid to acknowledge anything out of line because they fear not getting promoted. They make problems go away. They tried to make me go away.”  

She wants to see a shift away from ignoring problems and toward solving them. “What if promotions go to people who roll up their sleeves, acknowledge things need to change, and set about to do the challenging work to change them?”  

Kristina likens the change that she would like to see to a cup of tea. “The department needs to embrace Therapy, Education, and Accountability (T-E-A). “ 

Although all public service workers have benefit plans that include access to mental health care, when Kristina requested therapy, she faced procedural struggles, repeated stigmatization, and questioning.  

Kristina also wants to see more mandatory anti-oppression and anti-harassment training that is led by survivors across the department.   

June Winger, national president for the National Defence Employees, says the toxic workplace culture at National Defence is rampant and needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.  

"It's a crisis of leadership – of accountability," said Winger. "Only the leaders can stop this."  

Kristina’s story is not the first. It has similarities to retired UNDE/GSU member Bonnie Robichaud’s landmark Supreme Court victory in 1987. Robichaud fought back against sexual harassment in her DND workplace, took her case to the highest court in the land and won, setting a national precedent that all employers are responsible for ensuring their workplaces are safe and free from harassment.   

“It’s been a long time for consciousness to catch up with the struggle,” said Robichaud, looking back on her fight. “I just kept showing up. They finally figured out that I wasn’t going away and wasn’t crumbling. They called me a problem. They might call Kristina a problem, but she’s not. She’s a solution.” 

PSAC and UNDE will have a big role to play in the sweeping investigation into sexual misconduct and workplace harassment in Canada’s military recently launched by the federal government. From Bonnie's successful fight in the eighties, to Kristina's work today for the members of the future, Winger said her union and their members will continue to be united against harassment of all forms in their workplace.  

"Our 20,000 members proudly provide services to the Canadian Armed Forces, and we expect to be heard and respected in return,” she said. “We will take an active role in the review that is currently taking place and we will fight for the needs of our members.” 

Going forward, MacLean hopes to mobilize survivors who have come forward to be part of the solution.  

“A group of survivors — an advisory panel, a ‘Survivor-Ship’ — will know where the holes are in the ship, why it is sinking, and will know what needs to be done so that it floats again.” 

December 1, 2021