Canadian Forces face human rights complaint over sexual harassment allegations

Former Armed Forces member Paula MacDonald says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing months of sexual harassment in the military. Now she's filing a human rights complaint against the Forces.

Canadian Human Rights Commission agrees to investigate complaint filed by former member of military

Paula MacDonald, a former recruit, filed a human rights complaint against the military after she said her superiors ignored her concerns. (CBC)

When Paula MacDonald joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2014, she wanted to use her training as a social worker to help service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What she didn't expect was having to deal with a PTSD diagnosis of her own, suffered after what she said were months of sexual harassment from other recruits and superiors.

The harassment continued, she said, despite repeated complaints to her chain of command.

"I would keep reporting it, and they wouldn't do anything about it," MacDonald told CBC Montreal.

"[One superior] said, 'This is just how men behave in the workplace.'"

MacDonald, who was honourably discharged in January 2016, is now bringing her complaint about harassment in the military and a sexualized work environment to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The commission has reviewed her complaint and has agreed to investigate.

In taking her complaint before the commission, MacDonald is joining a growing number of ex-Forces members who are turning to the legal system to address claims of sexual misconduct in the military.

A group of former service members is seeking to launch a $1-billion class-action lawsuit in Ontario Superior Court. Their statement of claim, filed Monday, says the military couldn't control the behaviour of its members.

MacDonald is part of a proposed class-action lawsuit in Nova Scotia against the federal government that claims systematic discrimination against female service members. A third class-action lawsuit has been initiated in British Columbia.

None of the claims in the lawsuits have been proven in court. Class-action lawsuits need to be certified by a judge before they can proceed.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, has said the military needs to address its high number of sexual misconduct complaints. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Complaints to superiors allegedly ignored

MacDonald's career in the military began in 2014, when, as a non-commissioned reservist, she attended weekly training sessions at the Barrack Green Armoury in Saint John.

She told CBC News that she was exposed almost immediately to inappropriate jokes and sexual comments. MacDonald said she plans to detail several instances of sexual harassment at Barrack Green before the commission.

The comments include a male private joking about rape in a group setting and another private talking about his intention to go on vacation with four prostitutes. MacDonald said she was told by a superior that someone would try to get into her cot while she was sleeping and that during a human anatomy presentation the female reproductive system was referred to as "the fun zone."

"It was like walking into a 17-year-old boys' clubhouse," MacDonald said.

According to MacDonald, her superiors said her complaints about sexual harassment proved she wasn't a good fit for the military and that she should deal directly with her alleged harassers.

Paula MacDonald says this report appeared on the back of an instructor's clipboard. (CBC)

After several months, MacDonald filed an official grievance over her treatment, and the Forces launched an investigation.

But she said the military eventually dismissed several of her complaints because the reported behaviour was not directed specifically at her.

Her superiors told her they would follow up on the remaining allegations, she said. But she has not been told what corrective measures, if any, would be taken.

After a year at Barrack Green, MacDonald was transferred to the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., to undergo basic training.

"I was really sure it was going to be different, because I really believed that there wasn't a culture of sexual harassment [in the military]," MacDonald said.

"I believed that these people were going to fix what was going on."

Mocked by superiors, ex-recruit says

But it wasn't long before the course instructors at the recruit school began to sexually harass her, she said.

In her three months at the school, MacDonald alleges, she was asked about her sex life by her superiors, attended classes where instructors bragged about their own sex lives, was told by a superior that "30 years ago, men used to own women" and was present as superiors talked about her breast size.

​MacDonald also said that one instructor had taped a satirical "hurt feelings report" on the back of his clipboard.

Among the report's "instructions" is the suggestion that "if you feel as though you need someone to soothe you please call this number: 1-800-CRY-BABY or 1-888-SIS-GIRL."

In light of this, MacDonald once again took her concerns to her chain of command. According to MacDonald, no corrective action was taken.

Instead, she said, a warrant officer threatened to have her placed in a mental health facility in retaliation for her sexual harassment complaints.

A month after being honourably discharged from the Armed Forces, MacDonald said, she began to experience panic attacks. She consulted a psychologist, who diagnosed her with PTSD.

Investigation underway

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is currently investigating MacDonald's complaint.   

At the end of the process, the commission may dismiss the complaint, send it to a conciliation process or refer the case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

In cases where the tribunal finds that there has been discrimination, it has the power to order organizations to take corrective measures, including changing its policies or practices.

The Department of National Defence refused to comment directly on MacDonald's allegations, but a spokesman said it was aware of her complaints to the commission.

The Forces are under pressure to address the perception that female service members are routinely subject to inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Nadine Schultz-Nielsen, who served in the navy between 2001 and 2013, is part of a class-action lawsuit launched this week in Ontario Superior Court. (Submitted by Nadine Schultz-Nielsen)

A Statistics Canada survey, released last month, found that 79 per cent of regular Forces members were exposed to "inappropriate sexualized behaviour," including sexual jokes, comments and discussions about their sex life.

"Harmful sexual behaviour is a real problem in our institution," said Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff, after the results were released.

"We know it, and we're trying to tackle it head-on."

But MacDonald said she felt she had to go to the Human Rights Commission with her allegations because the Forces were not taking them seriously.

"That was the only way to have my situation properly investigated," she said. "Otherwise, it's not going to get done."

With files from Rachel Cave