Ex military members go to court alleging sexual assaults, misconduct

The Canadian military is facing a lawsuit by former members, claiming their sexual assault allegations were swept under the rug and they were intimidated into keeping silent. The class-action case came on the same day Statistics Canada reported the Department of National Defence is not making headway to stamp out inappropriate behaviour.

As many as 45 individuals waiting in wings to join lawsuit, says law firm handling case

Nadine Schultz-Nielsen, who served in the navy between 2001-2013, is part of a class-action lawsuit launched this week. (Submitted by Nadine Schultz-Nielsen)

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Canadian military by former members and alleged victims over the ongoing sexual misconduct scandal, CBC News has learned.

A notice of action, involving three former members of the Forces, was registered yesterday in Ontario Superior Court, the same day Statistics Canada released a scathing report suggesting the Department of National Defence is struggling to get a handle on the number of abuse and assault cases in its ranks.

The plaintiffs — Nadine Schultz-Nielsen, Larry Beattie and Amy Graham — have yet to file a statement of claim with specific allegations about their treatment while in uniform, but documents filed on Monday suggest they will argue the federal government failed "to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment and misfeasance."

The military is accused of "condoning sexual assault and battery," as well as "intimidating the plaintiffs" and other members from reporting their cases. The suit further alleges there was retaliation against those who reported assaults and a failure to adequately investigate claims.

At the moment, the case involves former members of the military, but is expected to be expanded to those still serving, particularly in light of the Stats Canada report.

"I believe it is extremely important for those of us who've been released to fight for those are still serving and cannot speak," said Schultz-Nielsen, who added she was medically released in 2013 after acknowledging she suffered sexual harassment and trauma. "Instead of hearing us out, they pushed us out." 

Beattie, a former member of the navy who alleges he was sexually assaulted in 1979, said he believes if he voices his thoughts now it will help other men to come forward.

"What happened to me in '79 was unheard of," said Beattie, who never filed a complaint with military police. "I started drinking as my coping mechanism. It's cost me three marriages, so far." 

He said he never acknowledged it, or spoke about it until he was in therapy a decade after leaving the military.

"We should be able to give people a safe environment to work," Beattie said.

No damage figure is contained in the notice of action, obtained by CBC News. 

The plaintiffs will be seeking compensation as well as a "systemic remedy" to ensure that sexual misconduct ends once and for all, said one of their lawyers, Andrew Raven.

The Ottawa law firm Raven, Cameron, Ballantyne and Yazbeck has been in contact with upwards of 45 people who it says have the potential of joining the suit — both male and female.

Schultz-Nielsen said she takes issue with the fact that many of those accused of sexual misconduct are dealt through the military's administrative justice system, rather than in criminal court. 

Beattie said he is hoping for broad-based reforms in the military justice system, including the transfer and prosecution of all sexually based crimes to the civilian court system.

The latest case is separate from a proposed class-action lawsuit filed last week in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, which has yet to be certified.

Follows StatsCan findings

The Statistics Canada survey, commissioned by the military, found 960 full-time members reported being victims of sexual assault within the last year.

The results are significant because the alleged assaults — including unwanted sexual touching, sexual activity without consent and sexual violence — occurred amid the defence department's high-profile Operation Honour, which was meant to stop such behaviour.

The majority of the complainants were women, who were more likely to identify their supervisor or some other superior as the perpetrator.

Roughly one-quarter, 27.3 per cent, of women who said they were assaulted in the last year also said they have been victims of sexual assault at least once in their military career.

At least 79 per cent of those surveyed also said they've witnessed inappropriate sexual and discriminatory behaviour in the workplace.

An online support group for victims of sexual misconduct in the military, It's Just 700, said the Statistics Canada survey results are incomplete because it wasn't open to former members, young recruits, or personnel who are posted on training courses.

"[Young recruits] are the most vulnerable to sexual assault, whether it is a man or a woman," said Beattie. "They are the most vulnerable because they are the most scared."

Marie-Claude Gagnon started the group following last year's publication of the Deschamps report that concluded there is a highly sexualized, abusive culture within the military.

The group's name was meant as a challenge to groups and individuals in uniform who dismissed the findings of Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice, by saying only 700 individuals were complaining, Gagnon told CBC News.

The website shares stories and information.

"We've put blogs up so people don't feel alone," said Gagnon, who left the naval reserve in 2005 after years of alleged abuse and found there was little peer support for former members. "There was nothing for us. And it was really difficult." 

There has been no comment from the military or Liberal government about the class-action case.


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.