Politics

Military recorded more than 500 sexual assault reports during five-year effort to stamp out misconduct

In what might turn out to be Operation Honour's epitaph, the Department of National Defence (DND) has tabled new figures in Parliament that show there were 581 reports of sexual assault in the Canadian military over the last five years.

Conservative critic calls attention to large number of administrative penalties

New figures released to the House of Commons track the number of reported sexual assaults in the military while Operation Honour was in effect. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

In what might turn out to be Operation Honour's epitaph, the Department of National Defence (DND) has tabled new figures in Parliament that show there were 581 reports of sexual assault in the Canadian military over the past five years.

Another 221 incidents of sexual harassment were logged over the same period by the tracking and analysis system set up as part of the military's effort to stamp out inappropriate behaviour in the ranks.

Operation Honour — which has been running for five years and was intended to address sexual misconduct in the military — is in the midst of being dismantled after recent allegations of misconduct against senior leaders left the effort discredited and in disarray.

The new figures, which capture reported assaults and harassment from April 2016 to March 2021, represent the most up-to-date data. They also present a wide-ranging snapshot of the scale of the crisis within the Armed Forces.

The information was tabled in the House of Commons this week in response to a written question from Conservative MPs, who wanted to know both the number of cases and how they were handled by the military law enforcement and justice system.

Some of the reported incidents of assault and harassment took place before 2016 — prior to Operation Honour's launch — making them what defence officials call "historic" cases. The tracking system is set up to log reports when they are made, not the date on which the incident occurred.

The numbers don't tell the story, says rape victim

The numbers still left one survivor of sexual assault in the military — who has been campaigning for accountability and change since 1990s — upset and discouraged.

Dawn McIlmoyle said she doesn't believe the tracking system tells the whole story, given that 4,600 people — both women and men — have signed up for redress through the recent federal class-action lawsuit settlement for survivors of sexual assault in the military.

And there are also those who never came forward to report sexual misconduct in the military, she said.

Dawn Mcilmoyle, a survivor of sexual assault in the military. (Dawn Mcilmoyle/Twitter)

"I had one lady tell me, 'Well, I was only assaulted once, so I'm just going to let it go because other people had it much worse,'" said McIlmoyle, whose 1993 rape by a military colleague made national headlines.

"And I'm like, 'Excuse me? That one assault should never have happened. You should have been in a safe work environment.'"

Since her assault and the military's attempt to downplay it, McIlmoyle has dedicated much of the last 25 years to helping other victims while still trying to process the trauma of her own experience.

It has been surreal and disturbing to watch how sexual violence in the military has faded in and out of the national conversation over the years, she said.

'It's been hell'

She said that one part of her was angry every time the issue resurfaced — angry that the kind of violence she experienced was still happening to others, despite all the promises and institutional action plans.

McIlmoyle said she lives with a lingering sense of guilt — a suspicion that her actions in speaking up in the 1990s did little to protect others.

But she draws solace from the survivors themselves, she said — the people she's personally guided back from the edge.

"I am grateful for the whole process, even though it's been hell," she said, adding she still holds out hope for meaningful reforms to military justice and the toxic culture in the ranks.

Conservative MP James Bezan stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, June 19, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said that while the overall number of reported assaults under Operation Honour is disturbing, more alarming are the statistics on courts martial — and the fact that 216 of the cases of assault and harassment that were prosecuted resulted in simple administrative actions.

Many of the survivors of military sexual assault who have appeared before the House of Commons Status of Women have remarked on how the military justice system is unique because it allows for cases of sexual misconduct to be "pleaded down" to lesser administrative offences.

Bezan said the Liberal government needs to address that issue in its yet-to-be released strategy to deal with inappropriate behaviour and sexual violence in the Armed Forces.

"When you are prepared to give a slap on the wrist rather than having true consequences for sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, you're not going to change the culture," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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