Military probing racism, assault allegations by Inuk soldier Esther Wolki

The Canadian army is launching an investigation into allegations by an Inuk soldier who says she is leaving the military after facing racism, harassment and a sexual assault.

'It's a failure within the system, it's a failure within the chain of command,' ombudsman says

Military probing racism, assault allegations by Inuk soldier Esther Wolki

8 years ago
Duration 2:06
The Canadian Forces is launching an investigation into allegations by an Inuk soldier who says she is leaving the military after facing racism, harassment and a sexual assault.
The Canadian Forces is launching an investigation into allegations by an Inuk soldier who says she is leaving the military after facing racism, harassment and a sexual assault.
Esther Wolki looks through photos at her home, which she plans to leave and return home if her discharge comes through. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Experts have described the case of Bombardier Esther Wolki, 30, based at CFB Shilo in Manitoba, as a "failure" by the military.

"The chain of command takes the allegations of [Bombardier] Wolki very seriously," CFB Shilo public affairs officer Lori Truscott told CBC News by email, adding that the 3rd Canadian Division would be co-ordinating the investigation out of Edmonton.

"The things that I've seen or things that happened to me — [I] can't erase. I suffer with it every single day," said Wolki, who served in Afghanistan. 

The soldier describes the early days of artillery training as the best in her career.

Military ombudsman Gary Walbourne calls stories like Wolki's a 'failure within the system.' (CBC)
"It was the most amazing time of my life," said Wolki, who is originally from Paulatuk, N.W.T. "I was very confident when I did the job. I did it correctly and moved fast and my sergeants and them, they were so proud of me."

Then came the insults.

"I was stereotyped as a native," said Wolki. "So I was automatically known as not very smart. Probably have kids. A drain on the government. People made remarks and stuff every day once they found out who I was. It never went away, they just continued with the insults."

Wolki points to a number of examples where she claims her chain of command failed to help. She said a male colleague tried to "manhandle" her after she refused to date him. When she wrote a letter requesting to be moved out of her battery, Wolki said a superior "looked at it for a second and he ripped it up and said, 'No, I'm not going to entertain this.'"

She had made up her mind to leave the military, and that decision was cemented by a sexual assault she alleges took place about seven months ago. 

Wolki said she went to a bar with some friends and met a guy who invited her to a party with other military members in Brandon.

"Throughout the night, there's a couple of guys trying to get in my pants. The guy that I went to go see, he was really drunk and he tried to take control of me in the washroom," she said.  "Another guy that I had asked to try to watch me over the night because he was sober — he took advantage of me in that situation."

She said her mind has "shut down" parts of what happened that night. She can't remember what one of the men looks like, but said, "I know it happened. Being told to do something and then trying to get out of there."

Wolki said Brandon police and her chain of command did not take her complaint about the sex assault seriously.

."My chain of command, they didn't care what had happened to me, they only cared about the fact that I was drunk and I got in trouble and I got these other soldiers in trouble."

Sgt. Kevin McLean with the Brandon police confirmed officers attended a call that night and said five men were questioned. He said no charges were laid, and Wolki's complaint was determined to be unfounded at the time.

Counselling help

Wolki said she made the decision to end her life in November, after talking to a superior about the alleged sexual assault.

"They gave me no compassion, no help or anything," said Wolki.

Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross met with Wolki on a recent visit to Winnipeg. (CBC)
She said she attempted to kill herself by cutting her arms on the base. She called her sister in Paulatuk, who called the RCMP, who then alerted base commanders. 

She ended up getting 43 stitches in her arms.​

Wolki is currently receiving counselling from the military, but admits she is just not open to it.

"It's not really good because I don't want the help. The person has to want people to help them for themselves to get better."

'Failure within the system'

Military ombudsman Gary Walbourne can't investigate cases of sexual assault or harassment - it's outside of his mandate and must be passed on to policing authorities - but says his office still receives those 'heart-wrenching' calls.  His office does, however, encourage members to come forward to his office as a point of information.

The scars on Esther Wolki's arms are still healing after a suicide attempt in November. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)
"It's a failure. It's a failure within the system, it's a failure within the chain of command," said Walbourne of the message stories like Wolki's sends.

"For any young Canadian who decided to commit to service in this country and then through no fault of their own find themselves having to leave this institution because the mechanisms or the recourse avenues were not in place to help that person, that's a failure."

Wolki's story comes in the wake of an independent report by Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice, who found a misogynistic culture in the military. The report called for 10 recommendations to improve how cases of sexual misconduct are handled. Last week, details revealed by a CBC report questioned the sincerity of the Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson to implement some of those recommendations, prompting the defence minister to promise an independent centre to investigate cases.

The response team, which is studying Deschamps' report and in order to make recommendations, is being led by Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, who visited Manitoba earlier this month and met with Wolki.

"The honest truth is I don't know her full story," Whitecross said while in Winnipeg, "But when we do understand better what happened, then we can take that information and make sure that we're creating the environment for reporting and we're creating the environment for the chain of command to take action."

Commanders needs to take action on fully embracing diversity in the military, some critics say.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, said while there has been progress, diversity is still measured in what he calls "spreadsheet diversity."

"We put the number of checkmarks into boxes and demonstrate how many women we recruited this year and how many aboriginals we recruited and we're not, I think, as good as we could be at understanding the particular challenges and alienations that these individuals face."

Considering the time and money invested into Wolki as a soldier, Leuprecht suggested the military "arguably failed her particular situation."

Packing up, moving out

Wolki is packing up her home in Manitoba.  She received a medical discharge in mid-May and hopes she could be home in Paulatuk by mid-June. 

She says she will still have access to sessions with a mental health worker, and will get help paying for her move and future schooling. Wolki thinks she could get a job fixing vehicles or in carpentry.

"I don't think it's real right now because it doesn't feel like anything is happening," she said, "When I actually land in Paulatuk I'll know that it's happening."

Fraser Logan, a media operations officer with 3rd Canadian Division Headquarters in Edmonton, described the summary investigation as a "fact-finding process" that is internal and administrative to the Canadian Armed Forces.  It can not find civil or criminal liability and would be suspended for further police work, if necessary.

Logan added that the report will be shared with the chain of command, but will not be made public.

Wolki says she does not plan to participate.

"I didn't know how to tell them it's too late, why do they care about helping me now?" she said, "I'm not going to get anything out of the investigation.  They just want to do it to save military face."

Wolki is asked what she would say about joining the military to an 18-year-old woman from home.

"I'd think about it very hard," she said, "I would tell no one to join ... I wouldn't want anybody to go through any of this."

With files from Cameron MacIntosh and Karen Pauls