Military police conducted 135 sexual assault and misconduct investigations last year, a one-third increase from 2014, CBC News has learned.

Only a fraction of the complaints — 17 of them — were directed from the newly established crisis response centre at the Department of National Defence.

That organization was set up in the aftermath of a scathing report last year by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps, who documented what she described as an "endemic" culture of sexual harassment in the military.

Last summer, the country's newly appointed top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, embarked on a wide-ranging effort to eliminate abuse, harassment and assault within the Canadian Armed Forces.

He organized it like a military operation, with tasks, timelines and objectives to expedite the cultural shift.

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Gen. Jonathan Vance said in February eight cases of sexual misconduct were being investigated following complaints to a crisis response centre created last September. The number of those cases has grown to 28, part of an overall increase in investigations. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Many complaints lodged last year are still under investigation, as are fresh allegations made this year.  

'Nothing ... has changed'

The military says the increase represents a growing awareness of the issue and willingness on the part of victims to come forward.

"The increase in reporting may well be an indication that awareness of, and confidence in, these support options has increased," said Capt. Jean-François Lambert.

But a military legal expert, retired colonel Michel Drapeau, said there are many disincentives that prevent victims coming forward, not the least of which are the possible career implications, and the fact that the alleged attacker could face a summary trial within the confines of the same unit as the alleged victim — or a court martial, where many people within the unit would be aware of the case.

"There is nothing that has changed, unfortunately, in a substantive way," said Drapeau, who has been an outspoken critic of the reforms.

He believes, among other things, the crisis response centre should be completely independent of the military.

Drapeau said his experience dealing with victims of sexual assault is that they "do not trust their chain of command, do not trust the military police and hence do not come forward."

Crisis centre complaints lead to charges

In February, Vance released the department's first progress report in implementing Deschamps' recommendations and said that calls specifically to the crisis centre had prompted eight military police investigations since its inception in September 2015.

That number has increased to 28, most of them launched in 2016.

In a statement, the department said 10 complaints have been concluded and nine of those have resulted in criminal charges under the military justice system.

One complaint was considered unfounded, and military police spokeswoman Capt. Joanne Labonte said the remaining 18 cases are still under investigation.

Emma Phillips, a Toronto lawyer who acted as counsel to the Deschamps commission, said she wasn't surprised by the increase.

"I think it's a good thing because it hopefully means that those individuals whose incidents and alleged incidents are now being investigated (and) will find some resolution," she said.

Phillips said the idea of the centre was to give alleged victims a safe space to come forward.

Further study

To get a better understanding about how widespread sexual misconduct might be, the defence department last month asked Statistics Canada to undertake a survey, which was conducted until May 13.

The voluntary and confidential study asked Canadian Forces members a variety of questions about the issue that has consumed the institution since the publication of a series of allegations and ongoing cases in Maclean's and L'actualité magazines in the spring of 2014.

The defence department is also attempting to refine its definition of what constitutes inappropriate sexual behaviour — something that was suggested in the aftermath of the Deschamps report.

The military said last week it is still coming up with the definition, but in the interim there is a directive that applies to all members and it includes more straightforward explanations of a "sexualized culture, harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, abuse of authority and consent."


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Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that military legal proceedings for sexual misconduct allegations could include a summary trial or a court martial.
    May 24, 2016 11:12 AM ET