The Current

Former reservist says military doctor warned her of reprisals for reporting sexual assault

A former Armed Forces member who was sexually assaulted 18 months into her new role says she was made to feel as though she should accept the trauma she experienced as part of the job. Warning: This story contains details about sexual assault.

Warning: This story contains details about sexual assault

Christine Wood joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2010. After she was sexually assaulted on the job in 2011, she says she was warned that members who report such incidents face reprisals. (Submitted by Christine Wood)

A former Armed Forces member who was sexually assaulted 18 months into her new role says she was made to feel as though she should accept the trauma she experienced as part of the job.

Christine Wood enrolled as an air force reservist in the Canadian military in 2010. She said she attended a function one evening in 2011, while on a training course. The next morning, she found blood on her sheets, and she didn't feel right. 

Wood said she has no memory of what happened that night. After the incident, she went to a doctor, where she said she tested positive for Rohypnol — a date rape drug — and learned she had a sexually transmitted infection.

"When I returned to my base after training, three-and-a-half weeks later, the very first doctor appointment I had, I said, 'I simply don't know how to feel safe,'" Wood told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"And the doctor suggested that I should consider a medical release because the Armed Forces aren't for everyone," she said. 

"That was truly my breaking point."

Scandal in top ranks

Canada's military has become embroiled in a crisis of sexual misconduct allegations and investigations, after allegations against members of the top brass surfaced earlier this year.

In early February, Global News reported that former defence chief Jonathan Vance had engaged in inappropriate behaviour with female subordinates. Then, Admiral Art McDonald — the man pegged to replace him — stepped aside in late February following a claim of sexual misconduct.

Both men are under investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.

Former defence chief Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of misconduct, as is the man who initially replaced him. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen has taken over as the military's second-in-command — becoming the first woman to hold the position.

Earlier this week, the new acting head of Canada's military, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, said the allegations have been disappointing and distressing for the military community, and added that parts of the military culture "are exclusionary" and "harmful."

'Everything fell apart,' says Wood

When Wood enlisted in the forces, she was following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. At first, she said, she felt like she'd been welcomed into "Canada's largest family."

She described most of the individuals she met during that time as "wonderful, honourable people," many of whom remain her closest friends.

But after she was sexually assaulted, "everything fell apart."

To this day, I don't know who raped me.- Christine Wood

A doctor on base advised Wood to weigh whether she wanted to report what happened to her or not. She said he told her that members who report sexual assaults face reprisals for the rest of their careers.

"I was incredibly betrayed and confused," Wood said, "because if we have a police service, is this not exactly what the police are for?"

So she thought about what to do for 24 hours. Then, she reported the incident.

Woods said the investigation into her assault went on for two years, but her perpetrator was never identified.

"To this day, I don't know who raped me," she said.

Calls for independent reporting system

Stéfanie von Hlatky, Canada research chair in gender, security and the armed forces, told Galloway we need to take a deeper look at the aspects of military culture that contribute to sexual misconduct, so it can be prevented and eradicated.

Military culture is based around operational success, which requires "rigid hierarchies and obedience," she said. Those qualities are important on the battlefield, she added.

"But that culture also has some unintended consequence," said von Hlatky. "And I think it's led to a more permissive environment for sexual misconduct. It's an environment where it's inherently difficult for victims and survivors to come forward and to speak out."

Stéfanie von Hlatky, the Canada research chair in gender, security and the armed forces, said the current system for dealing with the problem doesn't go far enough. (Nishelle Walker)

In 2015, retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps released a report concluding sexual misconduct was "endemic" in the military. She made 10 recommendations to combat the issue, including the creation of an independent response centre where victims can report incidents.

The Department of National Defence created that response centre, which sits outside the military's chain of command. It's designed to help victims find information and advice, and doesn't require them to file an official report about sexual misconduct incidents.

But von Hlatky said the current system doesn't go far enough. What's needed, she said, is a truly independent model for reporting and investigation, separate from the military.

"Something else that will be important is setting up an external oversight mechanism to more closely monitor the journey of cultural change," she said. "Because I don't think we can ask the military to self-police and to do their own tracking of that change."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, stands with National Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, centre, and former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels in 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday that his office learned about the misconduct allegations against Vance three years ago, but told the House of Commons he wasn't personally aware until last month.

In a statement to The Current, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office said the government "will do absolutely everything in [its] power to make the changes that need to be made to eliminate the scourge of sexual misconduct from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence."

Repairing broken trust

Wood has since left the military. Now, she advocates for better support for survivors of military sexual trauma as the co-chair of a group called It's Just 700. It's made up of volunteers who've experienced sexual trauma in the military, and are helping other Armed Forces members find the tools and services they need.

She said she supports the idea of an independent watchdog, because she doesn't think the military justice system is designed to hold senior officials accountable.

She's also encouraged by the appointment of Lt.-Gen. Allen, who she described as "a ray of hope" for other women in the military.

"But trust has been broken. And I think for trust to be re-established, the senior leaders need to own up to their past," she said. 

How long that will take is hard to know, she said, adding that the incremental pace of change is frustrating.

"But I do believe that it is possible, because there are so many honourable men and women who serve in the forces."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alex Zabjek, Paul MacInnis and Ashley Fraser.

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