Politics

Defence department prepares ground for victims' bill of rights — two years after the law passed

A long-promised survey of military sexual assault and misconduct survivors, both serving and retired, is about to be launched by the Department of National Defence — more than six months after Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that getting their feedback would be key to enshrining victims' rights into Canadian military law.

Victims of crime in the military still don't share the rights enjoyed by civilians

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a news conference on May 7, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A long-promised survey of military sexual assault and misconduct survivors, both serving and retired, is about to be launched by the Department of National Defence — more than six months after Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that getting their feedback would be key to enshrining victims' rights into Canadian military law.

An internal department document obtained by CBC News shows one version of the survey will be posted on the Defence Wide Area Network (DWAN) — an internal Department of National Defence (DND) computer network used for training — and focuses on collecting statements from those who've experienced sexual assault and misconduct offences.

The other version will be made available to the public through the Victims and Survivors of Service Offences page on DND's website.

As the sexual misconduct crisis has engulfed the military, critics have pointed repeatedly to the Liberal government's failure to fully enact C-77 — legislation that inserts a victims' bill of rights into the separate justice system for the Armed Forces.

Separate and unequal

Almost two years after it was passed by the Senate, the law still hasn't come into force because new regulations have not yet been drafted.

Victims of crime in the military have long been denied the same rights as civilians — including the right to information about the status of a complaint or charge — because they are subject to a separate justice system. That's something C-77 was supposed to correct.

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A number of critics have called the delay in drafting regulations to support the legislation unconscionable — especially after many sexual assault survivors recently told a parliamentary committee heartbreaking stories about the indifference of the military justice system.

Last November, Sajjan told a House of Commons committee that the department needs input from victims and survivors in order to move forward.

"I wish these regulations could be done almost immediately, but we also committed to consulting with the victims so that the regulations are done appropriately," the minister said on Nov. 2, 2020.

'Failure to act'

One critic, retired colonel Michel Drapeau, said the absence of both the consultations and the new regulations is astonishing since military justice reform has gone forward in fits and starts since 2015.

"The failure to act on this important piece of legislation gives the impression that the CAF generally, and the military justice system specifically, are not concerned with fulfilling the will of Parliament in a meaningful way, or in following through to ensure that critical enhancements are made for the betterment of CAF members," said Drapeau, a military law expert who has been pushing for the inclusion of a victim's bill of rights in defence law for a decade.

Even though they had been promised a chance to offer input when C-77 was being drafted, victims ended up getting only a limited opportunity to tell their stories in front of a Senate committee shortly before the bill became law.

In supporting Sajjan's public comments last fall, DND argued it had consulted with the military's Sexual Misconduct Response Center (SMRC), its External Advisory Council, the Department of Justice's policy centre and the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

In a statement last November, however, DND acknowledged that it had plans to eventually launch an online survey.

Drapeau said there are several dozen military lawyers on the DND payroll and "it should not be such a daunting task for the Office of the Judge Advocate General to put into place supporting regulations."

The delay is an insult to victims of crime and misconduct in the military, Drapeau said. It also defies an important democratic principle, he added: Parliament has spoken by creating legislation.

"Yet the nearly two-year delay continues to astound, with the result being the will of Parliament plays second fiddle," he said. "This is one more reason as to why the [Office of the Judge Advocate General] should no longer be responsible for the superintendence of the military justice system."

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