As It Happens

'Horrifying,' but no surprise: Lawyer Emma Phillips on report on sexual assault in the Canadian Forces

Canada's top general, Jonathan Vance, says he's disappointed and determined to make changes after a survey shows more than one in four women in the Forces have been subject to sexual assault.
Councillor Jon Dziadyk submitted the idea in honour of the relationship between the city, CFB Edmonton and the former CFB Griesbach. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

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More than one quarter of the women serving in Canada's Armed Forces have been sexually assaulted during their careers. 

That's the conclusion of a survey released today by Statistics Canada. It was conducted as part of "Operation Honour."

If I do the math, it means that women who enter the Armed Forces are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in other areas of Canadian life.- Emma Phillips, legal counsel to Deschamps inquiry

That's what the Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, calls his response to the 2015 report from Justice Marie Deschamps on sexual misconduct in the military. 

Here's some of what General Vance told reporters today.

Emma Phillips served as legal counsel to the Deschamps inquiry into sexual misconduct in the Forces. She spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Toronto.

Carol Off: Ms. Phillips, General Vance said today he was disappointed, but he doesn't sound surprised by the results of this survey. Were you?

It's very difficult to come forward because you're very concerned about reprisals and about both the social stigma and also real career impacts. And, frankly, there's nowhere else to go. It's not like you can go and work for a competitor military.- Emma Phillips

Emma Phillips: No, unfortunately, I wasn't surprised. It's very concerning and I hope for most members of the Canadian public when they hear these numbers, it's horrifying to think that more than a quarter of women in the Armed Forces experience sexual assault over their career. If I do the math, it means that women who enter the Armed Forces are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in other areas of Canadian life.

CO: When somebody chooses a career in the Canadian Armed Forces, they expect there to be some element of threat or danger. But what happens when you find that the threat or danger is from within?

EP: I think that's one of the very difficult and challenging things about these kinds of incidents in the Armed Forces. We know that sexual violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault occur in all walks of Canadian life. But when you work and live and socialize with your colleagues, you have a cohesive culture. And those people are your supports, but they can also be the perpetrators. And when that happens, it's very difficult to come forward because you're very concerned about reprisals and about both the social stigma and also real career impacts. And, frankly, there's nowhere else to go. It's not like you can go and work for a competitor military. There's only one in Canada.

CO: We spoke with Glynis Rogers last week. She's trying to launch a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian government. She described a pattern of harassment that began at military college and continued through her career in the Canadian Forces. What, in your research, have you found to be the time when soldiers and women are the most vulnerable?

EP: We've seem a number of controversies and very serious allegations come out of the military colleges and also out of basic training. I think those are going to be places where the Armed Forces need to really concentrate their efforts, if they're going to succeed in shifting these cultural norms of behaviour. Because it's through basic training and it's in military college where norms of behaviour are set, where expectations are set. And those are also situations where members of the Armed Forces are particularly vulnerable because they, generally speaking, are going to be very junior — and they're entering a hierarchical situation in which they don't have much power. We've also heard that it's in situations of deployment where there's particular threat to members — where individuals are separated from their normal chains of command. 

Lawyer Emma Phillips worked with Madame Justice Marie Deschamps on her 2015 investigation into sexual misconduct in the military (Goldblatt Partners)

CO: So what does that mean for women who are serving in theatre [to] know that this is possible within their ranks?

EP: Well, General Vance made the point very clearly that addressing the problem is about trying to improve the cohesiveness with which units can function. And I think that's a very important point because this isn't just a gender issue or the needs of victims. This is also about making the Canadian Armed Forces the strongest professional body that they can be. And if you're a woman entering into those circumstances, I think you have reason to be concerned.

CO: But then everyone is at risk in the unit, right? If there are elements of the unit that feel they can't trust their comrades, it starts to break down, doesn't it? The chain is only as strong as the weakest link. 

EP: Again, I think that's what General Vance was pointing to when he said this is a problem we need to address because we need to make sure that we are a highly-functioning military force. 

CO: We heard General Vance say that some of this happened after he gave the order that this should stop — that there shouldn't be any more of this behaviour. And yet it continues. So what do you think General Vance has done in order to make it stop besides giving the order?

EP: My view is that General Vance and the senior leadership have taken some very important concrete steps to address the issues that were identified by Justice Deschamps. But it's going to take a long time for that culture to change. He has said all along we can't expect to see change overnight. So some of the initiatives that have taken place, for example, have been the creation of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC). That was probably the most important of Justice Deschamps' recommendations. That centre was established in September. So far the evidence is that it is effective — the numbers of investigations as a result are promising. 

Chief of Defence staff General Jonathan Vance speaks during a news conference in Ottawa in August 2016. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

CO: We've heard [from] Glynis Rogers that "Operation Honour" is called "Operation Hop on Her" within the Forces. We've heard that 35 per cent of the women who said they have been sexually assaulted in the Forces did not report because they were afraid of the consequences. So how much can women really depend on the Forces?

EP: Yes, unfortunately the name "Operation Honour" became parodied very quickly. The fact that it got ridiculed so quickly is obviously a concern. As I said, I think it's going to take time for these changes to be brought about in a really comprehensive way. The Armed Forces is a large, multi-dimensional organization. So it's critical that the senior leadership are giving the right message and that they're giving it consistently. But if you are a member of the Armed Forces and you're sexually assaulted, you're not going to pick up the phone and call General Vance. So what's going to really matter to you is whether or not your supervisor and your CO are going to address it in an appropriate and meaningful way. You may well feel that the senior leadership is trying to turn the ship, but it's going to be very slow in turning and, in the meantime, you have to deal with the people who are around you. And we also saw through the results of the survey that at least half of the sexual assaults against women in the Armed Forces are perpetrated by their supervisors. So it's going to be very difficult for women in those situations to come forward. 

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Emma Phillips.


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