LGen Maisonneuve’s Speech
Back in mid-November 2022, there was a great deal of media churn surrounding a speech made by Lieutenant-General (LGen) Michel Maisonneuve (retired) delivered on 9 November 2022, at a gala dinner in Ottawa, where he was the recipient of the 30th Anniversary Vimy Award for 2020. [The presentation of the award was presumably delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.]
I believe that I can safely posit that the speech by LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) has been polarizing.
It was even raised during a Round-table discussion led by LGen Jennie Carignan, the Chief of Professional Conduct and Culture, on 16 November 2022.
The speech was reported by a variety of news media, running headlines that reflected their narrative bent. David Pugliese, of the Postmedia Network, ran an article in the Ottawa Citizen entitled “Canadian Forces officers applaud speech slamming Canada’s climate change policies, cancel culture, weak leaders”. On 16 November 2022, John Robson offered comment in the National Post (owned by Postmedia Network): “The retired general who spoke truth about Canadian wokeness”. On 17 November 2022, LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d), himself, offered an OpEd piece to the National Post entitled “’Making Canada better’: Excerpt from ex-general’s anti-woke speech that caused an uproar”.
It did not take long for both supporters and detractors to take to social media to argue the merits of his speech.
And recently, on 1 December 2022, LGen Maisonneuev (ret’d) wrote yet another Op-Ed article – again published by a Postmedia Network newspaper and entitled: “Clearing the air about my anti-woke speech” – offering further explanation about his speech, including his comment “… before I get cancelled …”. Perhaps an alternative title could have been: “What I meant to say was …”.
One thing is clear: the speech was a divisive issue for the Canadian Forces (CF) and veteran communities. Those who view the speech as a validation of their own personal views rushed to support both Michel Maisonneuve and his speech. Those who disagreed were quick to condemn both the speech and anyone who applauded it.
Many people attending LGen Carignan’s round-table discussion on culture change in the CF, on 16 November 2022, were noticeably part of the latter group. Some went so far as to suggest that “… something should be done about CF personnel who, in uniform, applauded the speech …” or words to that effect. To my ears, that ‘something’ was clearly meant to imply adverse, even disciplinary, consequences.
I debated whether I would offer commentary on an issue in which I perceived that both LGen Maisonneuve’s (ret’d) supporters and detractors were taking unreasonable positions. I am accustomed to having one ‘group’ or another take issue with what I write. In the present circumstances, there is potential for several groups to take issue with what I write.
Then again, that has never stopped me before.
The continuing furor over the speech – and misrepresentation of a variety of factors – is such that I am inclined to offer some commentary in this Blog.
Normally, I focus on matters of military law, including the Code of Service Discipline and other aspects of the statutory administration of the affairs of the CF. I also comment on the application of civil law when there is a connection to, or nexus with, the administration of the affairs of the CF. On a few rare exceptions, such as the apparent abandonment of our Afghan allies (Bringing Afghan Interpreters and Translators to Canada, 13 July 2021; Canada Failed Our Afghan Allies, 26 August 2022), I have ventured commentary on topics that are not directly related to military law.
The commentary that follows is informed by elements of military law; however, it ventures into other aspects of military culture. And, be forewarned, Dear Reader, there may also be some tongue-in-cheek, or even sarcastic, statements that are not often found in my legal commentary.
I will, start with some caveats:
First, I was not present at the dinner at which LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) delivered his speech and did not hear the speech. Then again, several others who were also not present have not hesitated to comment on his speech. So, for the purposes of discussion below, I am limited to the information that is publicly available – principally Michel Maisonneuve’s own OpEd pieces. And, since I am not naïve, I am well aware that there is potential for selection bias when relying on such a source.
Second, I am not going to address his entire speech. My focus is on what Michel Maisonneuve said regarding dress and uniforms. I adopt that focus because that portion of his speech is the source of much of the ongoing debate about its merits. I am also prompted to do so because of comments from some of my colleagues and acquaintances along the lines of “… there’s not much that I disagree with in this speech …” (or words to that effect).
When I read Michel Maisonneuve’s speech, there were aspects with which I agreed and aspects with which I disagreed. Perhaps, more accurately, in relation to the latter, there were aspects that I viewed as disingenuous criticism.
In short, I found that I was not in the ‘camp’ lauding LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) for his ‘straight talk’; nor was I in the ‘camp’ calling for his censure and for anyone who applauded his speech to be ‘dealt with’ (whatever was meant by that vague, yet ominous, expression).
And, while my comments may seem like hyperbole, I have seen a fair bit of hyperbole in social media regarding this speech. One thing that I can safely say is that the desire to seek to be outraged is not unique to any one segment of the CF or veteran communities.
Uniforms are no longer uniform
The paragraph that prompted me to write this Blog post stated:
The military — being in the service of one’s country — used to be a most highly regarded profession. Today, I see a military woefully underfunded, undermanned and under-appreciated; a force where uniforms have become a means of personal expression rather than a symbol of collective pride and unity: uniforms are no longer uniform. The idea of serving in our armed forces is getting little traction. Could it be because the moral contract under which our military serve is broken?
I have taken this directly from LGen Maisonneuve’s (ret’d) OpEd piece. I have left it in the narrative context in which it is presented. And I suggest that my comments below do not misrepresent the context in which they are presented. Nor does LGen Maisonneuve’s (ret’d) second Op-Ed alter the text that he presented in his first Op-Ed piece.
The complaint that “uniforms are no longer uniform” is empty rhetoric – a shibboleth of a complaint.
To coin a phrase I often heard in my youth, the uniformity of uniforms has been observed in its breach since ‘centurion’ was a rank, not a tank. [And, my apologies in advance, Dear Reader – there are going to be a couple of ‘Dad joke quality’ comments uttered in this Blog post. I did warn you.]
When I was a young officer, whenever I was wont to look out on a parade, I was struck by the differences as much as the uniformity. And I was a junior officer 30 years ago, long before the term ‘woke’ was used as a negative epithet.
Uniforms have always been an expression of personal achievement. Some people have commented that CF personnel have increasingly started to “… wear our UER (Unit Employment Record) on our chests (or arms) …”. And that was the case long before the so-called woke movement.
CF members wear qualification badges, medals, ribbons, and other insignia as an expression of their individual accomplishments. [Although, as of 1 December 2022, they won’t be doing so if they appear as an accused before civil courts of criminal jurisdiction. They will still wear them before courts martial. But not medals. Mustn’t wear medals …]
And these are sources of pride.
Think about the maroon beret of the now-defunct Canadian Airborne Regiment, or the maroon beret of the ‘para companies’ of the 3rd battalions of the Royal Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, or the Royal 22e Regiment. Consider the sand beret of the Canadian Special Operations Command (CANSOFCOM) – or, for that matter, the markedly different uniforms of CANSOFCOM. [NB: Even though CANSOFCOM is not, strictly speaking, an ‘element’ of the CF, they have their own ‘Distinctive Environmental Uniform’ and do not even wear the same combat uniform (CADPAT) as the rest of the CF.]
“Ah-ha!”, you might proclaim, Dear Reader, “those uniforms are still uniform within the specific units, sub-units, or commands. And they reflect specific, operationally-relevant achievements!”
What’s that? A caveat? Tsk, tsk.
My point is that a person may only wear specific medals, ribbons, insignia, etc. upon ‘earning’ the right to do so.
But that doesn’t change the fact that uniforms, inherently, are not entirely uniform.
If LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) wants a truly uniform CF, we can go back to the post-unification uniform commonly referred to as ‘CFs’ (for Canadian Forces). Everyone wore the same coloured uniform and rank names were universal. Hey, we can even resurrect work dress and the linden green work shirts.
All in favour? Huzzah!
[Again, Dear Reader, I did say that I was going to employ elements of humour, extending to sarcasm.]
Personal Expression is ‘Bad’ …
But it is also rather clear that Michel Maisonneuve was not actually talking about unforms. He was alluding to the recent changes to the CF Dress Instructions (which are still not published in PDF format). He was talking about the fact that CF personnel are now permitted to have facial tattoos, piercings, differently coloured hair (including multi-coloured hair), etc. They may even choose the nature of Distinctive Environmental Uniform (DEU) they wear.
So, strictly speaking, he wasn’t talking about uniforms – he was talking about appearance while in uniform. And that’s where he lost support from me. Because the sentiment that he appeared to be expressing was a disingenuous reactionary expression from someone who has failed to grasp what those changes to the CF Dress Instructions actually signal.
And I will provide you with some comparative context, Dear Reader.
When I joined the CF in the late 1980’s, I had occasion to observe photos of CF personnel from the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. The amount of pomade used by the men in those photos could lubricate my personal vehicle for the next decade. And I hadn’t seen sideburns like that since Elvis had died.
Consider the facial hair issue. When I was a young officer, some of my fellow soldiers were clean shaven, like me. Some had big, bushy, ‘Ned Flanders’ styled moustaches, including one colleague who looked a lot like Ned Flanders (and you know who you are!). Some even sported a ‘cookie-duster’ that would have made Lanny MacDonald jealous, while others sported a thin Errol Flynn ‘stache. I encountered more than one NCO who proudly wore an immaculately groomed handle-bar moustache. And, yes, I was a little bit jealous.
But heaven forbid that people be permitted to have any form of personal expression while in uniform that might cause them to look different than others.
And, what about beards? Permitting people to grow beards adversely affects uniformity. Unless you were in pioneer platoon. When I was a young ‘subbie’, I aspired to command Pioneer Platoon. I never got the chance. Perhaps my CO knew, deep down, that I’d never be able to grow the requisite beard that my friend and colleague Randal sported when he was in command of the Pioneers. Granted, it may also have been because my CO doubted whether I had the requisite abilities or aptitude in relation to Pioneer tasks. But, fair props to Randal, his beard was far better than what I could have grown, then or now.
That’s different, you may proclaim, that’s tradition! (Cue the song and dance from Fiddler on the Roof!) The current irony is that the only persons prohibited from growing beards are those posted to operational positions embarked on His Majesty’s Canadian Ships (due, I understand, to requirements involving firefighting equipment). Thus, the ‘service’ that traditionally permitted beard-growing due to the nature of the work (at that time) no longer permits the practice.
So much for tradition. And don’t forget what Winston Churchill allegedly stated about tradition in the Royal Navy.
I guess times change.
Consider this, some of my follicly-challenged colleagues shaved (and shave) their heads for appearances sake. Sure, back in the 1990’s there were concerns about doing so, because of allegations (including hyperbole) of ‘skinheads’ in the CF. But not all follicly challenged men shave their heads. I have encountered some guys who prefer to employ a ‘comb-over’ technique. And, again, I am not judging. Most men wind up at that decision-making crossroads, and I suspect that I will too, eventually.
My point is that, even before the recent changes to the CF Dress Instructions, we were all free to make our own choices regarding personal grooming, to an extent. And the ‘extent’ to which such choices may be made is the subject of portions of the CF Dress Instructions. If the CF is going to dictate grooming standards, in order to make them enforceable, precision is required. And precision requires detailed instructions. And those instructions must be defensible at law.
And, for those who lament the broader permissiveness of grooming standards now, consider what the war-time grooming standards were. Take a look at photos of the “Greatest Generation”, or earlier generations, when they were in service of Canada. Some of those photos reveal some outstanding specimens of Canadian service. I freely admit that, on my best day, I would not look as awesome as many of our forebears did during their war-time service. I am equally confident that many of the hair styles they sported would not have complied with the grooming standards of the 1990s.
And the individual personal preferences of a commanding officer, a Regimental Sergeant-Major, or an Officer Commanding a Command are largely irrelevant. Because, when they are enforcing any ‘grooming standard’, they are not doing so personally, or based upon some inherent right to dictate how another person should look. They are doing so as statutory actors.
I remember when the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and CF Chief Petty Officer announced the (then) upcoming changes to the CF Dress Instructions. My first reaction was not dissimilar to that of many people: the irony of two bald guys talking about new permissible hair styles was not lost on me.
But, there ensued all manner of memes and comments that anticipated that people covered with facial tattoos, multiple piercings, and other ‘weird’ appearance would join the CF and, presumably, turn the armed forces into a visual joke.
The presumption being that people with so-called ‘weird’ personal preferences and standards would join the CF. This was the modern-day derision of the ‘hippies’ of yesteryear.
Think about that for a second. What are the chances that someone who professes bohemian attitudes, who doesn’t like authority, or who considers a regimented lifestyle to be anathema to their personal preferences, would join the CF?
That’s what I thought.
And what if someone had the skills and aptitude that would make him, her, or them an asset to the CF and would assist the CF in accomplishing its missions? Provided those personal preferences did not undermine operational effectiveness – and I mean actual operational effectiveness, not some narrow-minded perception that a guy with a ponytail would undermine operational effectiveness – then what is the problem?
Once the CF acknowledged that it would not undermine operational effectiveness for a woman to have long hair, or a man of a particular ethnicity to have long hair due to religious or cultural reasons, quite frankly, it was unlikely that a grooming policy that dictated that certain men could not have long hair would withstand scrutiny under s 2 of the Charter or sections 3 and 10 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA). After all, it would be difficult to rely on the exception at subs 15(9) of the CHRA.
The same is true for many of the changes that have been made to the CF Dress Instructions. Many of the rigid rules were increasingly indefensible in a modern society governed by the rule of law, and not by narrow-minded whim.
The sentiment that appears to arise from that portion of LGen Maisonneuve’s (ret’d) speech was that allowing people to express themselves in such a manner undermines the cohesion of the CF. And that’s where the irony kicks into overdrive (or after-burner).
When LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) finished his speech, he was allegedly applauded by many CF personnel who were present in uniform. Some of those who were offended by (or at least disagreed with) his remarks have called for action to be taken against anyone who applauded his speech. And, even if some may have backtracked on such sentiments, their initial reaction is telling.
The irony is that both LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) and some of his detractors have demonstrated an intolerance for individual expression. Furthermore, I suspect that both his detractors and his supporters will cite the same general reason for that intolerance: personal, individual expression by a person with whom I disagree is somehow harmful to the cohesion and morale of the CF.
LGen Maisonneuve (ret’d) did make some meaningful remarks in his speech – at least the portions of his speech that he has made public. He voiced concerns that merited support. However, he also implied that the individual expression of people who wish to have blue hair, or piercings, or a skirt, is harmful to unit cohesion and morale. Objectively, rationally, that is difficult to support.
Meanwhile, those who condemn the people who applauded LGen Masionneuve (ret’d) likely allege that such expression of solidarity, presumably regarding multiple issues that he raised, is harmful to positive culture change.
Both camps wrap themselves in their own respective mantles of righteousness and condemn the ‘other’.
And, frankly, I am more than fed up with both.
If you cannot look past someone’s appearance and focus on their ability to perform their role and be part of a team, you are of no use to the CF.
If you unreasonably expect that everyone will think about issues the same way that you do, and must be punished if they do not, you are of no use to the CF.
If you wish to condemn people based upon subjective, values-laden views, rather than objective and reasonable standards of conduct that are evaluated in a transparent, justified, and evidence-based manner, then you have no business exercising statutory powers.
If you are going to be ‘massively triggered’ by fellow military personnel who have different views than you profess, perhaps you should rethink your profession. (And some people may wish to rethink whether you should be carrying a loaded firearm.)
If you need to take a day off because someone said something with which you disagree, are you robust enough to prosecute an armed conflict alongside comrades-in-arms?
And for those of you who are prone to be outraged by the foregoing – because ‘outrage’ appears, increasingly, to have become the ‘coin of the realm’ – it should go without saying that I, like most reasonable people, draw a distinction between disagreement on issues in which reasonable people might disagree, and speech that is truly, objectively, harmful, based upon articulable criteria.
I have mentioned in several previous blogs that objectivity has increasingly been absent from statutory decision-making in the CF. It has been replaced by a rush to be seen to be acting decisively, even if such actions might not be reasonable, objectively justified, transparent, or even effective.
I suggest that it is time for people to take a knee, take a pause, and think critically about why they are reacting to statements or actions with which they disagree. Are they reacting out of personal pique and emotion, or are they reacting out of reasoned, objective, and meaningful analysis?
A colleague whom I respect greatly recently posted a useful comment from the late Bertrand Russell, and it bears repeating here:
Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts not many years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion.
The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.
These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.
The opinions for which people are willing to fight and persecute all belong to one of the three classes which this scepticism condemns. When there are rational grounds for an opinion, people are content to set them forth and wait for them to operate. In such cases, people do not hold their opinions with passion; they hold them calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly. The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.
― Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (1928), Introduction: On the Value of Scepticism, p. 12
As is clear from my blog posts, I hold my views on military law passionately. Nevertheless, I endeavour to express them logically, rationally, and objectively. Russell reminds us that views expressed calmly, rationally, and logically are often the most compelling. When I see people quickly take umbrage with something that is said or done with great passion supported principally by expressions “I feel that …” or “… as a [insert demographic characteristic here], I believe that …”, I will, often reflexively, question the merit of their opposition, particularly if personal belief is the sole, or principal, basis of their opposition. I suspect that I am not alone.
We would do well to remember that decision-making – particularly statutory decision-making and decisions that have significant impact on others – is best pursued calmly, rationally, and logically. And that includes respecting the expression of others who adopt a similar approach to the expression of their views.