Canadian Forces can’t sweep sexual assaults under the carpet, again

National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, right, and General Tom Lawson, Chief of Defence Staff

Two weeks ago, L’actualité, and its sister magazine, Maclean’s, broke a major story on sexual assault in the Canadian Armed Forces. The numbers were stunning: it estimated an average of five assaults every day. What was worse, the victims reported being intimidated into not making or dropping complaints, being harassed if they persisted, and assailants getting off scot-free. The Minister of National Defense immediately ordered an investigation. Senior officers claimed to be shocked by the report.

Even I was surprised. The figures must be too high, I thought. They mean that a little over 2.6% of members would be assaulted in any given year – a rate about two times higher than that estimated for the general public, depending what figures are used. But a review of statistics from the U.S. and a lengthy conversation with a journalist convinced me that it was accurate. I also recalled a conversation with a colleague who said that he believed every woman in the Forces deals with either serious sexual harassment or assault at some point.

The military brass cannot have been surprised – or, if they were, they were negligent. Statistics must be reported up the chain. They must certainly have heard – or perhaps dealt with – cases that never faced a formal charge.

As former Maclean’s writer Jane O’Hara observed, this is all so déjà vu. She broke the story of sexual assault in the military in 1998, which resulted in a series of promises and the creation of the military ombudsman. The description of reprisal against victims in the recent edition of Maclean’s is almost identical to those of the women whose stories broke 16 years ago.

The barriers to reporting sexual assault in the Forces are significant. There is a culture of machismo and making sacrifices for the team that has been perverted into a tool used against victims of sexual assault. Because of boys-will-be-boys attitudes, women come to accept behaviour which would have the police arrive within 15 minutes in any other work setting, and which erode professionalism and team cohesion. There are also men who are assaulted (U.S. figures indicate that men make up more than half of victims, which is still makes women far more likely to get assaulted on a percentage basis). For them, the cultural barriers are even stronger. Men aren’t supposed to be victims in the military – they’re supposed to fight back, and win. If they can’t, well, then, there must be something wrong with them. So reporting by men is, I suspect, even lower than that of women.

But man or woman, the outcome appears to be the same. The command structure seems to close ranks, isolating the victims as the enemy for exposing a fundamental problem in the system. Perpetrators, predictably, often re-offend.

It could be said, of course, that the internal review ordered by General Tom Lawson, Chief of Defence Staff, is a step in the right direction. But from years of experience with whistleblowers, Canadians for Accountability knows it likely isn’t. Such reviews are a standard organizational response to accusations of serious misconduct. They are intended as a whitewash from the start. The organization controls the purse strings, which gives it great leverage with any outside contractors, will control what questions are asked, who is interviewed, and even what conclusions are drawn. The result might be a report that says, “Yes, there may be a problem. But it’s a small one that has been blown out of proportion. And these small fixes should take care of it. We’re still a great organization.” There are humble apologies and promises of reform. And it often works: the news cycle moves on and the issue fades into history.

But this must not happen now. The Forces had its chance, 16 years ago, and it clearly didn’t understand – let alone fix – the problem. There must be an external inquiry, one completely out of the hands of the command structure. Perhaps a royal commission is in order. Senior military commanders will resist, but need to be reminded of their place as subordinate to civilian authority.

There also needs to be consequences for the perpetrators and compassion and compensation for victims. Most members of the Forces are dedicated, hard working, honest men and women who don’t deserve to suffer under this cloud of embarrassment and shame. They would never think of sexually assaulting a fellow soldier, sailor, airman or woman. But there are some who need to learn what the consequences of sexual assault will be in future. For that to happen, they must see justice being done. They must not be allowed to think that they can count on their peers, or a deployment, or even resigning from the Forces to escape the law. They must know they will be charged, imprisoned, dishonourably released from service, and that any future employer will know of what they have done. Their arrogance – which the Maclean’s story demonstrates – is much too strong right now. It must be shattered.

The Forces must stop also re-victimizing the targets of sexual assault, especially kicking tough cases out at first opportunity. At best, one could argue the assumption behind this practice has been that Veterans Affairs will pick up the pieces. At worst, that this has been a cynical and morally bankrupt effort to wash its hands of the damage it has done without a second thought about long-term consequences for the human beings involved. If a member must be released because he or she is so badly psychologically injured, then there should be compensation from the Forces itself, and support in obtaining compensation from perpetrators (to which other Canadians are entitled). Those that have already been released should be allowed to return or be compensated.

This effort mustn’t just look forward, either: it should make it possible for victims to report all assaults that have occurred, whenever they happened – be it yesterday or forty years ago. Victims must be given the support they need and deserve. And perhaps most the most important – and challenging – task will be to change the culture of the Forces so that all its members understand that when it comes to sexual harassment or assault, they are held to a higher standard than the rest of Canada.

There is no question that the Forces can recover from this embarrassment. It could likely even weather the storm and do as it has in the past – sweep the problem under the carpet. But it must not be allowed to do so. Its leaders (or failing that, Parliamentarians) must insist the problem be rooted out and the implementation of the repair work closely monitored. If this doesn’t happen, more victims will suffer needlessly, the best and brightest will avoid military service, operational capacity will be eroded, and – ultimately – the whole thing will blow up again in ten years or so.

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on May 5, 2014.

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