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The military cadet program is wrestling with its own systemic sexual misconduct problem

A lawyer and veteran representing former cadets in a class-action lawsuit says the Canadian cadet program, run by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), is grappling with the same sexual misconduct issues as the military.

Michael Blois, a partner at the Toronto personal injury law firm Diamond & Diamond, said plaintiffs have described a culture in the cadet program that includes grooming, rampant sexual harassment and innuendo, and a lack of follow-up within units and summer camps when cadets have raised sexual misconduct claims with superiors.

Blois and his colleagues filed a $300 million class-action lawsuit last year. In the statement of claim, they said the federal government has failed when it comes to “systemic sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination” in the cadet program. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Cadets, who are aged 12 to 18, are not CAF members but CAF members supervise the program. The most senior cadet instructors are commissioned officers in the military’s reserve force, and CAF members often participate in cadet training, especially at summer camps. The Canadian Cadet Organizations (CCO) is the body formally responsible for the cadet program.

“If you have a sexualized, discriminatory environment within the Canadian Forces, without a doubt it’s going to leak into the cadet organization,” Blois told CBC News.

“There is overlap between some members of the Canadian Forces and cadet units, either as volunteers or within the structure of the training … especially at the summertime in the different camps.”

The most recent statistics DND would provide are from a 2020 military police report, which shows there were 257 “founded” incidents of sexual abuse in cadet units and camps over a four-year period from 2016 to 2019. “Founded” means law enforcement had enough evidence to substantiate that the incidents occurred.

Of the 257 incidents, military police classified 215 as sexual assaults, 19 as sexual offences against children and 23 as other sexual-related offences.

The cadet program’s purpose is to “help develop skills that will help youth transition into adulthood,” the Department of National Defence (DND) says on its website

CAF said in response to CBC inquiries that the cadet program consists of 46,000 youth and over 8,800 military and civilian members. Approximately 16,000 cadets attended summer cadet training centres in 2019, but in-person summer training was cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Around 3,000 cadets attended summer training centres in 2022, CAF said.

The cadet program is not meant to streamline cadets into the military. But Blois, a Canadian Army veteran who spent 11 years in the CAF, said sexual misconduct issues in the cadet program may deter cadets from pursuing a military career.

“If they are a victim, that’s probably steered them away, and that’s a real shame,” he said.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre arrives to appear before the House of Commons standing committee on National Defence in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre says the military is facing a massive recruitment shortfall. One lawyer says sexual misconduct in the cadet program may be discouraging young people from signing up. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The military is struggling to meet its recruiting targets. Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre estimates the CAF is short 10,000 regular force members.

Several high-ranking officers in the military are facing allegations of sexual misconduct, and a report last year from former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour called for changes in the CAF’s culture and practices to address the issue.

Blois said sexual misconduct in the cadets won’t improve until the CAF makes changes.

“Without a wholesale culture change in that regard, there’s going to be no change really for the cadets,” he said.

Hilary Lockhart, a representative plaintiff in the class action, alleges a cadet instructor groomed her after she joined the cadets in 2008 at age 14. The class-action statement of claim said Lockhart reported the instructor’s behaviour to a superior, but the cadets took no further action.

After Hilary’s mother found explicit texts from the instructor on Hilary’s phone, she reported them to the police. Police later charged the instructor, who was convicted.

“I never thought that the cadets program would be the worst thing to ever happen to me and my family,” Lockhart said in a news conference last year, which was posted to YouTube.

Lockhart called for more transparency on sexual misconduct in the cadets.

“The fact that this dark history in the program is not divulged to parents is extremely negligent, and, quite frankly, irresponsible,” she said.

A DND spokesperson said it cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

Sexual misconduct ‘not tolerated’ — CAF spokesperson

Maj. Jenn Jackson, the senior public affairs officer for the cadets and Junior Canadian Rangers, said the protection, safety and welfare of cadets is the program’s top priority.

“We do not tolerate sexual misconduct involving cadets, their instructors, or anyone involved in the cadet program, and this includes not only unwanted physical contact, but also extends to comments, behaviours, all sexual contact involving minors and written text,” Jackson said in an email statement.

Jackson said any potential criminal offence is reported to police and the alleged offender is suspended from cadet activities pending the outcome.

“Cadets are taught that unwanted sexual contact of any kind is unacceptable, and they are encouraged to report any incidents regardless of whether the offender is a peer or superior,” Jackson said.

“Counselling, chaplain, police, instructors and other resources are available to cadets who have experienced unwanted sexual touching.”

Jackson added that adults working with cadets are required to go through a number of screening processes — including a police records check — every five years. The program also requires that adults go through training to identify and address grooming and luring behaviour, sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour.

Expert says hierarchical institutions vulnerable to abuse

Dr. Michael Seto, a psychologist and Forensic Research Director at the Royal Ottawa Healthcare Group, said he’s not surprised at the amount of sexual misconduct in the cadets. Seto compared the problem with reports about the culture in junior hockey and child sexual abuse controversies in certain religious organizations.

Seto said that institutions with strong hierarchies ⁠— including adult supervision of children ⁠— can be prone to sexual abuse.

“We know that when there’s those kinds of hierarchies in place, it can potentially increase the likelihood of this kind of behaviour,” Seto told CBC News.

Victims and witnesses may also be discouraged from reporting sexual misconduct, Seto said.

“If they disclose it, they might be less likely to be believed. They ⁠— quite rightly ⁠— might believe that there’s repercussions if they do or say anything,” he said.

Seto said there are ways the cadet program could address the issue. They include establishing clear and accessible reporting processes with appropriate follow-up action, better bystander training and a system that ensures more than one adult is present with cadets at all times.

Blois said he hopes change will start with the cadet leadership.

“I think that clouds a lot of these young cadets views on what they should do or what’s appropriate, what’s right or what’s wrong,” he said.

“Because the person who’s either assaulting them or grooming them … is an authority figure that they look up to and are taught is an ethical, reasonable, right person because of their rank or their position.”

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