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Most military cadets say they've seen unwanted sexualized behaviour at college

Nearly seven in 10 Canadian military college students have witnessed or experienced "unwanted sexualized behaviours" in the past year, according to new research from Statistics Canada.

Vast majority of students surveyed say they've avoided intervening in such incidents

A graduating class of officer cadets stand in the square at the Royal Military College of Canada during a graduating ceremony in Kingston, Ont., Friday, May 20, 2016. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Nearly seven in 10 Canadian military college students have witnessed or experienced "unwanted sexualized behaviours" in the past year, according to new research from Statistics Canada.

The StatsCan report, released today, also found that the vast majority of those students — 94 per cent of men and 91 per cent of women — reported choosing not to intervene in such incidents in the past because they didn't think the incidents were serious enough, or because they felt uncomfortable.

The military's campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct, Operation Honour, depends on members speaking up and reporting incidents when they see them.

The report conflicts with the results of a review conducted by an internal military panel almost four years ago. That review concluded that there was no culture of bullying and sexual misconduct at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, Ont.

That study specifically examined a number of troubling incidents, including three suicides, which the panel blamed on leadership tensions, negative role models, academic pressure and some cadets being afraid to ask for help.

The new StatsCan survey, conducted among officer cadets at both of the country's military colleges, also uncovered serious complaints in addition to questionable behaviour.

"Overall, 15 per cent of women [Canadian military college] students indicated that they had been sexually assaulted in the post-secondary environment during the previous 12 months, a proportion more than four times higher than men (3.6 per cent)," the report said.

That's the finding that stood out for Marie-Claude Gagnon, founder of It's Just 700, a group of volunteers dedicated to helping current and former members of the Canadian military cope with work-related sexual trauma.

"I think it's troubling to see that (during their college experiences) female cadets are almost twice as likely to experience sexual assaults compare to the national average of all Canadian post secondary institutions," she said Thursday. 

"Cadets are the future officers in our military. They will soon be entrusted with power to enforce the law, here and around the world, and work with vulnerable populations. The perpetrators must be held to a higher standard. Victims must be adequately cared for so they can have the choice and the ability to keep thriving in their military careers and do the hard work that will be expected of them."

Unwanted sexual touching was the most common form of sexual assault reported by both women and men last year, according to the survey of cadets.

From jokes to contact to assault

The report defined "unwanted sexualized behaviour" as unwelcome sexual attention, comments and jokes, as well as unwanted physical contact — including sexual assault.

"Many students who personally experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours indicated that they experienced them on more than one occasion," said the report, written by researcher Ashley Maxwell.

Overall, 68 per cent of students said they had seen or experienced "unwanted sexualized behaviours" since 2019.

The survey said the most common type of behaviour "witnessed or experienced by both men and women was sexual jokes."

Gagnon said the only bright spot in the report is the fact that bystander intervention appears to be higher at military colleges than the national average for all post-secondary institutions.

"It shows that many cadets understand that the onus to fix sexual misconduct in the CAF is everyone's mission," she said.

In terms of degree of offensiveness, military college students indicated that the most offensive type of behaviour was repeated pressure for dates or a sexual relationship, the report said.

The survey of Canada's two military colleges — the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. and the Royal Military College Saint Jean, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu — was conducted online from February to July 2019 and involved 512 cadets.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he was "deeply concerned" by the findings.

"This report shows that too many officer-cadets have experienced sexual misconduct or discrimination," Sajjan said in a media statement.

"Even one instance of sexual misconduct or discrimination is one too many. That is completely unacceptable and has no place in our institutions or our country."

He pledged to take "all action necessary to ensure that these educational institutions are safe and inclusive for everyone."

Despite the concerns, the survey found officer-cadets generally felt safe on and around their military college campuses, but women who experienced unwanted sexual behaviour, were less likely to feel safe.

Many of the findings of the StatsCan survey echo complaints about the Royal Military College that date back years and decades.

Before the military review panel produced its separate report in 2017, the college was the scene of several cases of sexual misconduct, including one where an officer-cadet received a severe reprimand and a $2,000 fine after pleading guilty to one charge of assault that involved touching a fellow cadet without her consent on several occasions in March 2013.

In 2017, the auditor general found fault with the institution and questioned whether future officers would get better training at civilian universities.

"Overall, we found that the Royal Military College of Canada did not provide officer cadets with adequate training in leadership and in the proper conduct expected of future officers," said then-auditor general Michael Ferguson. 

"While the Royal Military College of Canada took action when incidents were reported, we found that the number of misconduct incidents that involved senior officer cadets showed that the Royal Military College of Canada had not prepared them to serve as role models for their peers."

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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