Ottawa moves to settle sexual misconduct class action lawsuits against Canadian Forces

After facing criticism over arguments its lawyers made in court, the federal government is moving to settle proposed class action lawsuits filed by members of the Canadian Armed Forces who allege rampant sexual misconduct, racism and gender discrimination within the military.

Plaintiffs allege a 'general culture of objectification of women' in the military

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan at a press conference with Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in Ottawa on Wednesday June 7, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

After facing criticism over arguments its lawyers made in court, the federal government is moving to settle proposed class action lawsuits filed by members of the Canadian Armed Forces who allege rampant sexual misconduct, racism and gender discrimination within the military.

"I am pleased to announce that the government and plaintiffs of several class action lawsuits filed on behalf of members of the Canadian Armed Forces relating to sexual assault, racism, harassment, and discrimination have agreed to suspend the current litigation processes," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement Friday.

"This will allow discussions to begin in order to potentially resolve these matters outside court."

Government lawyers had sought to end the class action lawsuit by arguing the government does not "owe a private law duty of care to individual members within the CAF to provide a safe and harassment-free work environment, or to create policies to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault."

Those lawyers also argued the government has no duty "to create policies to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault which are already prohibited by the Canadian Human Rights Act," according to documents filed in late December with the Federal Court.

Earlier this month, when asked about the arguments advanced by those lawyers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the language was "of concern."

"I've asked [Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould] to follow up with the lawyers to make sure that we argue things that are consistent with this government's philosophy."

Five lawsuits from across the country — all of which allege rampant sex-based discrimination in the military — have been working together. The Federal Court was to decide if the cases could proceed as class actions in July.

Systemic harassment, bullying, assault

Glynis Rogers, the plaintiff in one lawsuit originally filed in Nova Scotia, has argued she and other female service members were subjected to systemic gender-based discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual assault by male members of the CAF.

In her statement of claim filed in March 2017, she said the federal government breached her right — and the rights of other class-action members — to be free from sex-based discrimination, as guaranteed by Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"It was common for Ms. Rogers to receive or overhear offensive comments from male members, including her superiors, that demeaned and belittled women. Ms. Rogers was personally called a 'slut' by male Members on numerous occasions, and witnessed the same in relation to others," the statement of claim reads.

"Ms. Rogers experienced a general culture of objectification of women. On various occasions, Ms. Rogers overheard male members conversing and debating about which female members were attractive, ugly, and whether the male Members would have sex with them or not."

None of these allegations have been tested in court.

The lawsuit also claims Rogers and other female members faced derogatory language about their physical prowess and their intelligence, sexual jokes and innuendo, and offensive comments when they became pregnant and went on parental leave.

There are also allegations of outright sexual assault. Rogers alleges a male service member raped her while watching a movie.

Rogers and others allege senior-level male members, including non-commissioned officers and those with oversight responsibilities, did not reasonably supervise male members or take reasonable measures to prevent sexual misconduct. When they did take action, they pursued inadequate or incomplete investigations into allegations of discrimination, Rogers alleges.

Gen. Jonathan Vance has overseen Operation Honour, a mission to route out sexual misconduct in the armed forces, since he took over as Canada's top general in 2015. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The armed forces, under the leadership of Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country's top general, have sought to address harassment in their ranks through Operation Honour, a mission to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

The military also launched a sexual misconduct response centre, which has fielded hundreds of complaints and conducted investigations into allegations of impropriety since it was established in 2016.

The centre was created in the wake of a damning report from retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, who found there was a highly "sexualized culture" in the armed forces coupled with inadequate support for members facing harassment.

Sajjan said Friday Operation Honour is a testament to just how seriously senior military leaders are taking such allegations.

"Members are gaining the confidence to come forward as they see incidents being dealt with in a serious and professional manner by the military police investigators and the chain of command," he said.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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