Nova Scotia

HMCS Athabaskan sexual assault report of sailor sparks investigation

Military police are investigating the alleged sexual assault of a sailor, by another sailor, on board HMCS Athabaskan, CBC News has learned.

Alleged assault occurred 3 weeks ago while ship was at sea

Alleged assault occurred 3 weeks ago while ship was at sea 2:03

Military police are investigating the alleged sexual assault of a sailor, by another sailor, on board HMCS Athabaskan, CBC News has learned.

The incident happened Nov. 10 and was reported that same day by the alleged victim through the chain of command, military police said Thursday. They also said the alleged attacker is a sailor.

The warship had been deployed since September and was on its way home to Halifax after participating in Trident Juncture, a NATO exercise off the coast of western Europe, when the sexual assault allegedly occurred.

HMCS Athabaskan deployed on Sept. 8 and returned to Halifax on Nov. 20, said the Royal Canadian Navy.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, a special unit of military police, is handling the file.

The investigation includes interviews with shipmates. Some 300 crew serve aboard the Athabaskan.

No charges have been laid.

A military police spokesperson says information about counselling has been provided to the complainant, but did not say if he has used the help.

Rear-Admiral John Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, said Friday he's trying to create an atmosphere where victims can come forward.

"We have two members of the same sex, but that doesn't change one thing in our response to the support to the victim," Newton said. "It does not change anything."

That includes separating the sailor who reported an assault from the alleged perpetrator and protecting him from re-victimization, Newton said.

Rear Admiral John Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic, says the allegations underscore the need for the military's drive to end inappropriate behaviour in the ranks. (Royal Canadian Navy)

The sexual assault allegation arises months after a scathing report by a former Supreme Court justice that called sexual misconduct in the military "endemic."

It also follows the military strategy Op Honour. Its mission is to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the Armed Forces.

Senior military leaders expected "a bit of an uptick in reporting" following the operation's start, but Newton said he hasn't seen that in his jurisdiction. 

"Since we started Op Honour — pushing the education, the discussion, the leadership at all ranks, a better understanding of systematic or systemic sexualized culture and how it influence behaviour perpetrators — we have been seeing, I think, a really improving situation," Newton said.

"I despair when I hear cases, and I am a realist, too. It just causes us to redouble our efforts and stay on the operation."

Victims can feel shame and betrayal

Harassment and assault are underreported in the military, according to John Whelan, a psychologist who works with veterans and first responders in Halifax.

An ex-navy member himself, Whelan said that of the hundreds of people he's treated in the last decade he has met and treated 10 male military members who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse and violence while serving.

John Whelan, a psychologist who treats veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder, says male victims often feel shame and a sense of betrayal. (CBC)

"It could be what would be termed in my day 'hazing,' certainly sexually loaded or certainly of a sexual nature, right up to and including rape," Whelan said.

"In a culture where respect, values and discipline are highly prized, it's upsetting to hear. It's upsetting to work with."

Most victims feel shame about not having prevented the attacks and betrayed by perpetrators who are colleagues and supervisors, he said.

"'Did I give off some sign that I was sexually interested as a man in another man?'" Whelan said men often ask. "That can be a real mental struggle."