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Anita Anand misses academic life — but says she’s the one to finally tackle sexual misconduct in the Canadian military


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Anita Anand misses academic life — but says she’s the one to finally tackle sexual misconduct in the Canadian military

OTTAWA—Three years in federal politics has Anita Anand pining for her former life.

When she was a law professor, she could enter her quiet office alone each morning and ruminate in the realm of ideas. But as an elected politician and cabinet minister since 2019, Anand’s work has been of an altogether different order — urgent and tangible, the stuff that separates human suffering from fairness, even life from death.

First, she was appointed procurement minister, a relatively obscure portfolio that caught fire during the pandemic, when she was tasked with securing medical supplies and millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses in a desperate scramble with the entire world. Then, in 2021, she became national defence minister, charged with finally solving the persistent crisis of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military.

And that was before Russia invaded Ukraine and forced Canada and its allies into a posture of potential war with the West’s Cold War foe.

“Everybody says, ‘Tell us where you’re going next so we know what file is going to blow up,’” she laughed Wednesday during an hour-long interview with the Star’s editorial board.

That sense of responsibility for crisis after crisis might explain why Anand misses what she called “the solitude of academic life.” But it doesn’t mean she has one foot out the door of federal politics. For despite the weight of her role in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet — in both gravity and the personal demands it surely makes — the Anita Anand who visited the Star on Wednesday seemed to be having fun.

Often, at news conferences and media scrums, the defence minister is unwaveringly serious, her rhetoric peppered with legalese and technical jargon. Ever the professor, Anand used the phrase “multivariate regression analysis” on Wednesday to explain why the military has a recruitment problem. (Translation: she believes there are a bunch of factors at play, from the impact of COVID-19 to the increased cost of living.)

But she also described herself as “gregarious,” was excited to discuss plans for her family Christmas presents, and made clear she feels uniquely positioned to finally resolve the cultural problems that spawned the military’s chronic mishandling of sexual misconduct.

Asked about rumours that she holds leadership ambitions for a post-Trudeau Liberal party, Anand didn’t rule it out — although she spoke about yearning for her professor’s office and the importance of her four children in her life.

She stressed that she feels the Canadian military is at a crossroads moment, and that — while “trying to be as modest as possible” — she alone is in a position to shepherd the armed forces through the cultural transformation the government, pressed by years of political pressure and reports from two former Supreme Court judges, deems necessary.

That’s why she got emotional at a news conference on the subject this week, after Anand’s department agreed to implement all of the recommendations from the most recent report by former justice Louise Arbour, who continues to pressure the government to move faster on her desired reforms.

“We are at this pivotal moment. I feel like, if I can’t do this now, I don’t know who can,” she said.

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“This is the moment. We have the leadership that is aligned. We are taking every recommendation so seriously and on board. We have a game plan for every single recommendation and more.”

But Arbour remains critical, telling MPs at a committee this week that the government can implement changes quicker, such as her call for sexual misconduct allegations involving Canadian soldiers to be investigated and tried by civilian police and courts, instead of through the military justice system.

Anand said Wednesday that some provinces — she didn’t say which ones — raised concerns about handling additional cases, and that the transfer will require a legislative amendment. Overall, Anand said, it will take “years” to finalize this change, but the government is committed to pushing forward as quickly as possible with an “implementation-oriented” focus on all of Arbour’s recommendations.

“And I’ll just say I understand skepticism. This is what I’ve been hearing basically all year on culture change in the Canadian Armed Forces. I understand it. Look at the history of the organization,” Anand said.

“At the same time, I have to continue working to ensure that this change occurs and the confidence that needs to exist in the Canadian Armed Forces as an institution is absolutely central.”

On that score, Anand said she wants to transform the military’s reputation so it can recruit a more diverse group of new soldiers — more women and racialized Canadians.

“I often say, ‘Why aren’t you guys using me as someone who should be speaking in your ads? I am a racialized minority woman, and I believe strongly in the Canadian Armed Forces and the benefit that they’ve offered to our country,’” she said.

In her short time as a politician, Anand said she has also been struck by the general cynicism that pervades our political culture.

“The public doesn’t know that parliamentarians actually care about the policy outcome and have integrity and are honest,” she said.

“I am constantly saying to myself … ‘Why don’t people believe me?’”

With her promises to fix what’s broken in the Canadian military, Anand now has a chance to prove that they should — even if she’s dreaming of old her professor’s chair.

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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