Veterans with sexual trauma turned away from peer support counselling, watchdog says

The country's veterans ombudsman says it is unacceptable that veterans who have experience sexual trauma are being turned away from peer support counselling. The Department of Veterans Affairs requires those survivors to seek help at the Department of National Defence's Sexual Misconduct Response Centre — which does not offer that kind of support.

Veterans are being told to seek help elsewhere, report says

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

Veterans Affairs Canada has a policy of denying survivors of sexual trauma in the military access to peer support programs and forces them to seek help elsewhere, the country's veterans ombudsman says in a hard-hitting new report.

Nishika Jardine said it's an unfair practice that must end.

"This is a systemic issue that affects many veterans and definitely needs our attention," Jardine told CBC News.

Prior to Jardine's appointment last fall, the ombudsman's office began an investigation into a complaint filed by a sexual assault survivor who already was receiving peer support counselling through the Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) program, which is jointly administered by the Department of National Defence (DND) and Veterans Affairs.

Once the complainant disclosed she was a victim of sexual misconduct, said the report, program coordinators told her to seek help from DND's Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) and community supports such as rape crisis centres.

"However, the SMRC has no mandate to provide services to veterans, and many veterans who have experienced [military sexual trauma] indicate that counselors at rape crisis centres lack an understanding of military culture," said the report, which was released today.

In responding to the specific complaint, Veterans Affairs officials told Jardine's investigator that the rationale for the policy is that most peer support coordinators lack experience in dealing with survivors of sexual assault.

Peer support has been proven to help victims with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and veterans researchers in the U.S have long recognized the need for separate treatment of survivors of sexual assault in the military.

Some veterans diagnosed with PTSD have turned to a 5-day residential retreat in eastern Ontario for help. CBC News has reported that veterans who experienced sexual offences in the military said they were re-traumatized after learning their peer mentor at Project Trauma Support was himself a registered sex offender.

The incident at Project Trauma Support raised questions about the lack of government oversight of registered charities offering PTSD care. The Mood Disorders Society of Canada was one of the program's major suppliers of funding, using hundreds of thousands of dollars provided by Veterans Affairs. Both the society and Veterans Affairs have since cut ties with Project Trauma Support. 

The advocacy group It's Not Just 700 (formerly It's Just 700), which spearheaded the class action lawsuit for victims of sexual misconduct in the military, has lobbied since 2016 for a peer support counselling service that recognizes the unique needs of those who've served and faced sexual violence.

Their request fell on deaf ears until the recent federal budget, which committed to establishing such a program.

Following the release of the report, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said the government is committed to taking action.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday, February 3, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"My department recognizes that we must do more to address the gap in peer support available to Veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma, and our plans to resolve this issue are aligned with your office's recommendations," MacAulay said in a written response to Jardine.

A pilot program, in conjunction with DND, is being established, MacAulay added.

Veterans Affairs' own plans show that one of the obstacles which needs to be addressed is the lack of "specialized expertise and resources" to meet the needs of individuals who have experienced sexual trauma while in uniform.


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.