Military making slow progress against sexual misconduct, says report

Seven of a former supreme court justice's 10 recommendations to stamp out sexual misconduct in the Canadian military are “not yet fully achieved” — four years after the judge's landmark report shook the institution to its foundations.

Seven of ten recommendations in ex-judge's report still MIA, says defence report

A Canadian flag patch is shown on a soldier's shoulder in Trenton, Ont., on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Seven of a former Supreme Court justice's 10 recommendations to stamp out sexual misconduct in the Canadian military are "not yet fully achieved" — four years after the judge's landmark report shook the institution to its foundations.

That admission is contained in the latest report by the Department of National Defence (DND) tracking the status of Operation Honour, the military program which was meant to combat a rising tide of sexual assaults and abusive behaviour within the ranks.

While members of the military are more aware now that inappropriate behaviour won't be tolerated, the report, released Tuesday, expressed the worry that "subject matter fatigue" is starting to set in among soldiers, sailors and aircrew.

'Content fatigue'

Military members have been hearing the same internal messages about sexual misconduct — and have watched the number of courts martial rising as a result of the military's renewed focus on it. "However, in some quarters anecdotal evidence suggests that fatigue with the content is occurring," said the report.

Military members aren't tired of hearing about the issue — but they are getting impatient for solutions, said the executive director of the military's sexual misconduct report centre.

"People understand the importance of it," said Dr. Denise Preston. "It's the way the message is being delivered ... that it's been delivered in a very repetitive way for the last three years. So, people are looking for a different way to have the message conveyed to them and conveyed in greater depth."

Commodore Rebecca Patterson runs DND's sexual misconduct strategic response team. She said the institution has made progress, but it has been slow and deliberate.

"Tackling this problem that doesn't just exist only within the Canadian Armed Forces, but within society at large, is extremely complex and we don't have a road map," she said in an interview Tuesday. "While we certainly have used lessons observed from other nations for Canada, there is no other equivalent. So we have absolutely been learning as we go along." 

The report contains updated statistics which show that, between 2015 and September 2018, 74 members of the military were booted from the ranks after being found guilty of sexual misconduct.

The number of incidents of sexual misconduct (including, but not limited to, sexual assault) appears to have held steady since 2016, according to the data tracking and analysis system set up by the military. There were 479 reports in 2016/17, 420 in 2017/18 and 149 in the first four months of the 2018/19 fiscal year.

The report also expressed in blunt terms a sense of frustration at DND's inability to come up with clear definitions for what constitutes inappropriate behavior.

"The principal reason for the delay in the approval of the modernized definitions is a bureaucratic failure — the approval process for policy and definitions is laborious, with legal and institutional ramifications," said the report. "Nonetheless, the Operation HONOUR-related definitions should have been finalized by this juncture."

The absence of a clear definition is "causing confusion about terminology" and making it difficult to track the extent of the problem, said the DND authors of the report — who also said they're optimistic about the prospect of the definitions being finalized by this summer.

Drafting clear definitions of misconduct was one of the things former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps recommended in her milestone April 2015 report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. Her report concluded that sexual assault, harassment and bullying were endemic in the military — and that senior leadership tolerated it.

'Duty to report'

One of Deschamps' other recommendations — still considered a work in progress — is to make the sexual misconduct response centre fully independent and able to track and evaluate the military's efforts.

It's something defence department officials have resisted, but Emma Phillips, a Toronto lawyer who acted as counsel to the Deschamps commission, said Tuesday's report shows DND is backtracking and the centre will now be independent.

"It's unfortunate that it's taken four years for that model to be implemented, but at the same time I'm glad that it's finally happening," said Phillips.

Another recommendation is to allow victims to report incidents "without triggering a formal complaint process."

While the military does provide for anonymous complaints, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson noted with concern last fall that there were cases of misconduct being flagged to authorities by people other than the alleged victims, under a legislated provision known as "duty to report."

That, the late auditor general said, led to unintended and unhappy consequences. "Victims were therefore required to report inappropriate sexual behaviour whether or not they wanted to, or were ready," Ferguson said in his last report in November.

"This discouraged some victims from disclosing for fear of being forced into a formal complaint process, which contributed to underreporting."

The military said it plans to issue "updated direction and guidance to clarify CAF members' obligations" under the law.

The auditor general also found that the systems and services put in place for victims contained "gaps," were not "well co-ordinated" and were not designed with victim support in mind.

Today's DND report counted the military's "ability to assist and advise victims" and respond to complaints among its accomplishments.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the military has made great strides, but Tuesday's report demonstrates there is more to do when it comes to eliminating misconduct. 

"We owe it to our women and men in uniform to get this right and will continue to work toward the elimination of all forms of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces," Sajjan said in a statement. 


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.