Senior military commander under investigation after being accused of sexually assaulting subordinate
Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson is now on indefinite leave with pay
WARNING: This story contains graphic content and could be distressing to some.
The military's head of personnel — one of the more prominent leaders in the Canadian Armed Forces — is on indefinite leave with pay as he faces a military police investigation over an allegation of rape that dates back almost three decades.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service opened a file on Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson after CBC News notified the Department of National Defence (DND) that it was about to release a story featuring on-the-record remarks by the woman involved.
The allegations against Edmundson are the most serious to be levelled recently against a senior leader in the Forces.
Former military member Stéphanie Viau said she was a 19-year-old steward in the navy when Edmundson, a superior and lieutenant commander in 1991, started exposing his genitals to her onboard a navy ship deployed to the Pacific Ocean for an exercise.
Viau said she yelled at Edmundson and told him it was unacceptable behaviour. Days later, she said, the misconduct escalated and Edmundson sexually assaulted her onboard HMCS Provider in early November, 1991 while the ship was docked in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.
"He wouldn't let me go," Viau told CBC News. "I can't say that it was a violent situation, but he sort of pushed me to the wall and he started undressing me.
"Then he turned me around and he raped me. There's no other way to say it ... My body just froze. I didn't know what to do. I was terrified."
Viau said she didn't report the assault at the time because she was afraid to speak up against the third-highest ranking officer on the ship. She described a pervasive culture of silence surrounding sexual misconduct, a lack of support from the chain of command and fear of career reprisals.
WATCH | Stéphanie Viau shares her story of alleged sexual assault:
Edmundson denies the allegations
Viau said she is sharing her story publicly for the first time in an effort to heal. She said she now wants an independent investigation and charges laid.
I categorically deny that I have ever had non-consensual sex with anyone...ever- Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson
DND told CBC News today that Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, has referred the matter to military police.
"The Canadian Armed Forces are very troubled by these allegations and, above else, are concerned for the well-being of the victim who has been carrying this burden for 30 years," wrote the department in a statement.
Edmundson denies the allegations.
"I categorically deny that I have ever had non-consensual sex with anyone ... ever," wrote Edmundson in a statement sent to CBC News.
CBC News contacted Edmundson Tuesday afternoon and asked him to reply Wednesday afternoon to a detailed 12-point list of the allegations, including the location and timeframe for the claims. Edmundson said he was not provided with "sufficient particulars" and the "time necessary to respond to the allegations in any detail whatsoever."
DND said Edmundson "will be on leave until further notice."
A 'systemic' problem
Viau's allegations add to a pattern of claims of inappropriate behaviour involving Edmundson already reported by CBC News earlier this month — a pattern that does not seem to have affected his career arc.
Naval colleagues gave Edmundson the nickname "Mulligan man" in the late 1990s because a military investigation into claims of unwanted sexual comments, predatory behaviour and inappropriate relationships with subordinates under his chain of command cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Sources described the probe as flawed since not all witnesses and complainants were interviewed.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office said it asked Eyre to look into the claims involving Edmundson after CBC News' first story.
DND confirmed that Edmundson took leave after CBC's first story was published but his job status did not change. Edmundson retained the title of commander of Military Personnel Command, which gives him authority over career consequences for sexual misconduct cases.
WATCH | Military's human resources commander was investigated for inappropriate behaviour:
Megan MacKenzie, the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University, said Edmundson's case shows the military does not have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual assault in the ranks.
She said Edmundson should have been asked to step aside temporarily until the allegations were properly investigated.
"It's just such a sign of the systemic nature of this problem," said MacKenzie, who is part of an international project focused on sexual assault in the military.
"I think it's so disappointing and it weakens the claim that this is being taken seriously."
Sajjan's office said Eyre "has been handling the matter directly" in cooperation with military police and military personnel and noted that Edmundson is on leave "and not currently serving in his role of Military Personnel Command."
In a media statement, the minister's office said it was made aware of the sexual assault allegations yesterday and has asked officials to provide Viau support. That support, said Sajjan's spokesperson Todd Lane, "includes assisting her to obtain the appropriate police investigation that she requests."
Edmundson named in class-action application
Last year, Viau named Edmundson as one of her alleged abusers in her application to join the military's sexual misconduct class action settlement, according to documents viewed by CBC News.
Viau claimed she was also sexually assaulted by two other superiors during her first two years in the military before the alleged incident involving Edmundson. Her class-action claim is currently under review.
"How ironic that HE was placed in such a position," Viau wrote about Edmundson in the claim dated July 22, 2020. "We will not be able to fix this tolerated sexual misconduct culture with the same people that nourished it."
Viau wrote in her application that there was an underlying culture of misogyny onboard HMCS Provider in the early 1990s. She described male colleagues playing pornographic videos in the lounge of the ship, men walking in on her while she was showering, and men frequently making unwanted sexual comments about her appearance.
She said one of her responsibilities on board was to quietly wake up officers for duty without disturbing roommates or turning on bright lights (to avoid compromising their night vision).
Viau said when the ship was at sea during an exercise called "NZAUS SOPLOY" from Sept. 4 to Nov. 20, 1991, Edmundson started sleeping naked and exposing more and more of his body to her. Viau said she also believes he pretended to be asleep at times so that she'd have to spend longer trying to wake him.
"The last time he did that, I went to wake him up and he was on his back completely naked," said Viau. "And he was waiting for me. I was so angry.
"I just flashed the white lights and I started yelling, 'I can't take this any longer. I can't believe this is what I have to do for work. I mean, this is unacceptable.' And I just burst out.'"
Days later, Viau said, when the ship was docked in Hawaii, she went looking for another member's glasses at the front of the ship so they could go to Waikiki Beach.
'I didn't know how to get out of that situation'
Viau said Edmundson saw her and asked to speak to her in his cabin. Viau said she assumed he was going to apologize for exposing himself — but when she entered his room, the lights were off and she immediately felt uncomfortable.
"I was extremely nervous and I didn't know how to get out of that situation, and I thought to myself, 'Just apologize and get the hell out,'" Viau said.
Viau alleges she told Edmundson her friends were waiting and she had to leave, but he "penetrated me against my will," according to a copy of her class-action claim.
CBC News interviewed an individual who confirmed that Viau went missing during the time of the alleged assault.
"I do remember going to look for her and I remember calling her name," said the woman, who asked not to be named because she fears it could undermine her career.
Viau said that while Edmundson was sexually assaulting her, she tried to call back to her friend, but Edmundson put his hand over her mouth.
Viau said she was later reprimanded by the chain of command and given a recorded warning in her file for speaking French aboard ship rather than English.
Viau said she was told to be on her best behaviour for the subsequent six months and was warned that she faced dismissal from the Canadian Forces. She said she wasn't given any prior verbal warning and believes it was an attempt to keep her quiet.
Two other members who served with Viau back up claims
Edmundson is just one of the military members named in Viau's 10-page class-action claim. The document contains a series of sexual assault allegations ranging from inappropriate comments to being forced to model bathing suits on stage to nonconsensual sex with superiors during Viau's career in the Forces between 1989 and 1997.
Viau alleged that she woke up to a master corporal sexually assaulting her in her barracks cubicle in Feb. 1990 during basic training at Saint-Jean Garrison in Quebec. Viau also alleges her direct supervisor with the military police raped her at the Connaught military range in Ottawa when she was on temporary duty there in the summer of 1990.
Veterans Affairs Canada approved her claim for disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder on Nov. 23, 2020, according to government documents viewed by CBC News. Viau said her trauma is connected to the sexual assaults.
WATCH | 'She had nobody': Woman who served on ship in 1991 said Stéphanie Viau couldn't have reported alleged sexual assault:
CBC News also reviewed Viau's employment history, personnel record and certificate of service, all of which confirmed her timeline of events.
A copy of a "cruise book" from NZAUS SOPLOY viewed by CBC News also contains a series of photos placing Viau and Edmundson on that ship during the relevant period of time, and verifies the dates and routes Viau detailed in her allegations.
CBC News interviewed two people who served with Viau who corroborated much of her story; CBC has agreed to keep their names confidential because they fear damage to their careers. They both said that, based on everything they know, they believed Viau's version of events.
'She had nobody'
They both also said the military culture at the time would not have supported Viau reporting the alleged sexual assault. One said the chain of command would have brushed it off.
"She had nobody that she could trust to talk about it, or to make a complaint," said one of the individuals who served with Viau at sea in 1991. "She had nobody. I think that was the biggest struggle back then — you couldn't trust anybody."
A second person who served with Viau and was told about the alleged sexual assault last year said it took "a lot of bravery and courage" for her to go public.
"For her to expose herself and her family to this, it's huge. Based on that and her integrity, there's no chance that there's a hole in this."
Both individuals told CBC News they also were sexually assaulted during their time in the military. One said she did not report it because of the prevailing culture in the Canadian Forces at the time. She also said her alleged attacker spread rumours leading others to publicly mock and humiliate her.
Viau calls on PM to order independent investigation
Viau said she wants Edmundson charged with sexual assault.
There is no time limitation on sexual assault reports, said retired colonel and military law expert Michel Drapeau, adding that a victim can come forward and report the crime decades after it happened.
I want justice for me. But I also want justice for others.- Stéphanie Viau
It would be the military's responsibility to investigate, he said, since the incident is alleged to have happened aboard a military ship.
But Viau said she wants an independent investigation because she doesn't trust the military to properly investigate and prosecute her case. The military has its own police and usually handles sexual assault charges through its separate justice system.
CBC News' The Fifth Estate reported this month that a former military police investigator said the military's judicial system is "ill-equipped" to handle such crimes. The former investigator said he dealt with commanding officers interfering with sexual assault cases, and prosecutors who were reluctant to move forward with charges.
Statistics from 2014-2017 show that sexual assault conviction rates in the military were well below those in the civilian justice system.
Viau said she has no faith in the military's ability to conduct an investigation in part because she alleges a military police officer sexually assaulted her in the past.
She's now calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help.
"I'm asking Justin Trudeau to change that so that it makes it possible for people like me to disclose and also to seek justice," said Viau.
"I want justice for me. But I also want justice for others."
After the military investigates, it has the option to lay charges in civilian court if the victim requests it, said Drapeau.
In a media statement, the Prime Minister's Office did not comment specifically on the case. The PMO said that Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that those who serve in the military must have a "safe work environment and have the resources and the supports needed to come forward with any concerns or allegations."
"As the Prime Minister and Minister Sajjan have said, we will continue to move forward on measures to ensure that we are not only giving those supports to people who come forward, but also ensuring that we're putting in place independent mechanisms to put an end to these deeply troubling allegations and this behaviour once and for all," wrote Alex Wellstead, a spokesperson for the PMO.
Give military sexual assault cases back to civilian courts: Drapeau
Decades ago, the civilian justice system handled sexual assault cases involving military members. But in 1998, the Department of National Defence asked for a change to the National Defence Act to remove sexual assault from the list of serious crimes that fall outside of the military's jurisdiction, said Drapeau.
WATCH | Senior military commander accused of sexual assault:
Overnight, he said, military police and tribunals were put in charge of those cases without any prior experience.
"I have long argued that jurisdiction for sexual assaults should be returned to civilian police and the civilian criminal court," said Drapeau.
Mackenzie agreed the military is not equipped to deal with sexual assault allegations "well," especially when it comes to high-ranking officers. The system is built on the assumption that high-ranking members won't commit misconduct, she said — and the current crisis in the military shows that isn't the case.
Former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and his replacement, Admiral Art McDonald, are both facing military police investigations over sexual misconduct allegations.
Vance spoke with Global News after the allegations against him first surfaced. He declined to offer comment to CBC News. McDonald has not responded publicly to the investigation involving him.
Two parliamentary committees are conducting their own inquiries into what the Liberal government knew about the allegations against McDonald and Vance, and when.
Viau said she hopes the committees will look at Edmundson's case as well.
"The military has to stop handing sexual misconduct in-house," she said. "The consequences should be the same for every Canadian."
With files from Murray Brewster