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Military members who report sexual misconduct still say they’re being dismissed by chain of command: report

Five years into the Canadian military’s formal crackdown on sexual misconduct, some victims still report being bullied, harassed and singled out by superior officers, according to a new study by an agency of the Department of National Defence.

In at least one instance, a female artillery officer reported she was threatened with public humiliation and called a “liar” by her battery sergeant major after laying a complaint against another member of the unit.

The sense many who report abuse  have of being abandoned by the chain of command — despite high-profile assurances to the contrary from both senior military leaders and the Liberal government — is one of the most disturbing findings in a study quietly completed earlier this year by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

“Unfortunately, many participants in this study described feeling unsupported because of interactions with individuals in their chain of command following an incident of sexual misconduct, regardless of whether the incident took place before or after Operation HONOUR,” said the report.

Operation HONOUR is the military’s formal name for a series of policy initiatives and punishments meant to eliminate sexual misconduct in the ranks.

“In fact,” said the report, “the overwhelming majority of participants described feeling unsupported by at least one supervisor or leader because of their reactions or responses to these incidents.”

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Then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance launched Operation Honour in 2015. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The campaign against sexual violence and harassment in the Armed Forces has seen the creation of a number of initiatives and institutions to support victims, including the Sexual Misconduct and Response Centre.

The number of reports of abuse — including cases brought to light by bystanders — has increased dramatically. So has the number charges.

Top commanders insist the rules on appropriate behaviour in the military are more clearly defined and understood now. And military leaders have said repeatedly the treatment of victims by the chain of command and by military prosecutors has improved.

An atmosphere of disdain

The report, which interviewed 67 current and former members — all of whom experienced sexual assault or misconduct — said that while  victims experienced some moments of humanity and compassion when reporting incidents to their superiors, an atmosphere of disdain persists.

“The nature of these interactions also varied, but participants described feeling dismissed, ignored, or not believed by their supervisors and other leaders,” the survey said.

“In a few cases, these interactions included reports of bullying, harassment and being singled out by their chain of command.”

The survey was completed last February but, unlike ongoing Statistics Canada research — such as a recent survey of sexual misconduct at military colleges — it was not released in a public manner.

Marie-Claude Gagnon is a member of It’s Just 700, a support group for victims of sexual assault or abuse in the military. She said she came across the DRDC report through a Google search and had to request a copy — even though she had been asked to help recruit participants for the survey and had been assured that the findings would receive a public airing.

The 16-page analysis, which is described as a “scientific letter” by the defence research arm, is set against a backdrop of broken promises, stalled initiatives and uncertainty for victims within the military’s justice system.

The findings underscore the sense that victims don’t believe they are being heard, as well as the need to reinforce victims’ rights, said Gagnon.

“It is one more reason [that demonstrates] where law matters and where rights matter,” Gagnon told CBC News.

The defence department, in a written statement, said the survey prompted senior leaders to remind commanding officers of their duty to “respond appropriately, fairly and consistently” when incidents are reported.

“We acknowledge there are many ongoing barriers and challenges, and we will continue to listen and learn from those affected and actively seek guidance from subject matter experts to ensure we take the appropriate steps to support them,” said the statement.

Still waiting on victims’ rights

The government pledged a few years ago to consult survivors when the Liberal government overhauled the system and enshrined a set of victims’ rights into military law.

That consultation never happened and while testimony was invited before a parliamentary committee, the victims’ rights legislation — coming as it did before the last election — was mostly cast in stone, much to the frustration of Gagnon and other survivors.

More than a year after Bill C-77 was passed, the Department of National Defence (DND) recently acknowledged that major provisions — including all of the enhanced rights for victims — have yet to come into force because the underpinning regulations have not yet been drafted.

A spokeswoman for DND’s legal branch could not say when the process will be completed.

“We are currently consulting with stakeholders, including victims’ rights groups, as we draft the accompanying regulations,” said Maj. Catherine Larose in an email. She went on to list several department initiatives meant to ensure that victims are supported.

‘It’s been a year now’

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, a military legal expert who championed the introduction of the victims bill of rights into the code of service discipline, said he can’t understand why it’s taking so long to draft the regulations.

The military justice overhaul has been back and forth in front of Parliament for over five years (the former Conservative government tried and failed to pass its own legislation in 2015) and Drapeau said much of the heavy legal lifting should have been done already by the dozen-plus lawyers in the military justice branch.

“A couple of competent drafters should have been able to come up with regulations. I’d give them two or three months,” he said. “I might even extend that to six months, but it’s been a year now. And not only don’t we have the regulations, we don’t even know when these regulations will come about.”

Drapeau said he’s been told the internal DND estimate says that “it could take up to three years” — a timeline federal officials would not confirm. 

Even worse, said Drapeau, is the fact that the old system of military justice remains largely in place — as though Parliament had not spoken at all.

“The victims are still going through the process without rights,” said Gagnon.

Depending upon what the regulations say, victims may still be left out in the cold to a certain extent when it comes to their rights to information about the cases in which they’re involved.

Frustration, disappointment

The situation is causing stress, says the defence research report. 

“Several participants also expressed frustration with delays in various processes, and disappointment with the level of information they were receiving or had received from CAF representatives, particularly with regards to getting updates on the progress of their case, or explanations for subsequent decisions and outcomes related to investigations,” said the study.

Gagnon said it’s a major problem and she knows of victims who had to find out the results of their cases through online searches.

The cornerstone of the new legislation is the move to replace the military’s summary trial system with a swifter non-penal, non-criminal system of justice.

Once the regulations are in force, victims will have the automatic right to information during criminal proceedings in front of courts martial. They have not been given the same guarantee for the new summary proceedings, which is where many misconduct cases could end up.

“In order for people to report [misconduct], they need to know there’s a system for them, there’s rights for them, and the system is there to help them through it and that they’re not abandoned,” said Gagnon.

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