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Letter addressed to the Honourable Harjit Sajjan on the hostile sexualized culture of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the creation of an independent oversight body for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct

 

March 26, 2021

 

The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan
Minister of National Defence
101 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa ON, K1A 0K2

Cc      The Honourable David Lametti, P.C., Q.C., Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

 

Dear Minister Sajjan,

I am writing to you in my role as Federal Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime1 to express my ongoing concern about the hostile sexualized culture of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and to reiterate my support for the creation of an independent oversight body for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct within the CAF is a well-known systemic issue that continues to be reported by current and former CAF members, experts, and advocates alike. Sexual misconduct is also a gendered issue, as women in the Regular Force are about four times more likely than men to be victims of sexual assault, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada; and it is understood that this issue is rooted in a military culture of toxic masculinity and misogyny.

Despite these known facts, interviews conducted in 2017 by the Director General of Military Personnel Research and Analysis (DGMPRA) revealed that Operation HONOUR initiatives, established to address sexual misconduct in the CAF, remain inadequate. As the conducive culture persists, service members remain fearful of reprisal when they come forward to report sexual misconduct to their superiors, as well as a lack of respectful and sensitive interactions. This perpetuates victims and survivors’ lack of trust in the system, and results in a consistent underreporting of incidents.

Amidst reports of bullying and harassment for coming forward, the DGMPRA interviews also revealed that a lack of accessibility to health and mental health care persists, as well as frustration with the investigative, judicial, administrative, and informational responses to reports of misconduct. I recommend permanent operational funding for peer-led and peer-run support groups for survivors of military sexual trauma that help survivors to navigate care options, break isolation and find meaningful support when they are victimized by sexual violence.

It also remains very concerning to me that those who report sexual misconduct within the CAF go through the military justice system without substantive rights. Bill C-77 was given Royal Assent in June of 2019 to enhance victims’ rights in the military justice system. However, to date, none of its major provisions relating to victims have come into force, despite it being specifically stated by the Department of National Defence (DND) “provisions related to victims’ rights will come into force at a later date.” There has been no indication to date as to when these provisions will come into force. Victims and survivors have continued to voice their frustration with delays in processes and disappointment in the level of information they receive from CAF representatives pertaining to their case.

My Office recently released a Progress Report on the Canadian Victims’ Bill of Rights (CVBR) that provides fifteen evidence-based recommendations that would serve to strengthen the legislation. Among these are the need to equip victims with enforceable rights and legal remedies if their rights are violated, as well as guaranteed access to health and support services. DND has stated that the ‘Declaration of Victims’ Rights’ as part of Bill C-77, “mirror those found in the CVBR” and “aligns the victims’ rights available in the military justice system with those available in the civilian criminal justice system.” I therefore believe that the recommendations made in our Progress Report should be given consideration with respect to Bill C-77.

My Office also recently called for a Parliamentary Review to strengthen the CVBR, in line with the five-year parliamentary committee review mandated in the Act itself. I believe a Parliamentary Review of the CVBR presents a window of opportunity not only to make improvements to the existing legislation, but also to Bill C-77, in order to ensure victims within the military have adequate and enforceable rights. It is time to provide all CAF victims and survivors – who ultimately suffer the physical, emotional, psychological, and financial consequences of the sexual misconduct perpetrated against them – with guaranteed rights and access to the compassionate care they need and deserve to support their healing over the long term.

In light of recent high-profile investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the CAF, I recommend the creation of an external, independent office to oversee the implementation of Operation HONOUR initiatives (or similar) and to address allegations of sexual misconduct within the CAF. Unlike the current sexual misconduct response centre (SMRC) established in 2015, such a body should be completely removed from the military’s governing structure.2 This independent office could also provide for “restorative engagement”, which was promised as part of a settlement agreement in 2019 with survivors of military sexual misconduct who had filed a class-action lawsuit. Providing survivors, who wish to, the opportunity to seek accountability, address the harm they have suffered, voice their experiences to the perpetrator or senior military leaders and move towards possible reconciliation and healing, instead of the formal punishment-focused military discipline system is needed.

In the DGMPRA report referenced above, some participants stated that as superiors in some cases, their perpetrators were in charge of delivering Operation HONOUR briefings. I cannot express how concerning this is from the standpoint of trauma – and provides further evidence that the current structure leads to inadequate responses to the very serious damage caused by sexual misconduct. I further recommend all training initiatives be victim-centred and trauma- and violence-informed to ensure they are delivered appropriately, and in a manner, that prevents triggering and/or re-traumatizing service members with experiences of sexual misconduct. Experts on sexual violence, trauma and victimization from outside the CAF should be an essential part of training initiatives aimed at stopping sexual misconduct and transforming military culture.

I firmly believe that transformational systemic change within the CAF begins with effective oversight and accountability. This must be coupled with enforceable rights for victims, so that those with lived experience of sexual misconduct within the CAF feel truly supported to come forward. Rooting out sexual misconduct requires survivors to be empowered; not silenced by fear of career reprisals or the requirement to report through the chain of command. I offer my support to efforts to empower victims and survivors in the CAF and would be pleased to meet with you and your officials at your convenience.

 

Sincerely,

 

Heidi Illingworth
Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

 

1The mandate of my Office is to help ensure that the rights of victims and survivors of crime are respected and upheld and that the federal government meets its obligations to victims. In addition to our ongoing efforts to help individual victims, we also have a responsibility to identify and bring forward emerging and systemic issues that impact negatively on victims of crime at the federal level. In doing so, we work closely with victim service providers and a host of other government and non-government stakeholders on our common goal of building a justice system that better serves everyone in Canada.

2 This was recommended in 2015 by retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps in the ‘Recommendations’ section of her Report: “External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces”: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/sexual-misbehaviour/external-review-2015/recommendations.html

 

 


Response


April 12, 2021

Good afternoon Ms. Illingworth,

I want to personally thank you for your initial correspondence of March 26, 2021, while also expressing my gratitude for the time that you provided for a direct discussion this week.
As I said during this meeting, I appreciate receiving your very thoughtful input and hearing your experienced perspective on the critical issue of sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence.

From our discussion, I also believe that we share many similar pathways of thought in how to make the essential culture change real within the Defence Team. A change that will ultimately create a workplace where victims and survivors can feel safe coming forward to reveal the misconduct they have lived and endured, either currently, or in the past. At the same time, that culture change will assist in preventing misconduct in the first place – which we both agree must be the ultimate goal. My office will follow up and ensure that you are connected to Officials within the Department and the Forces, so that your input and experience can be brought to the table as we map out our way forward.

In the meantime, thank you again for reaching out to me and taking the time for our initial discussion this week. I look forward to hearing from you further as we move onward in correcting the problems that exist.

Regards,

The Hon. Harjit S. Sajjan, PC, OMM, MSM, CD, MP