The Current

Victims of military sexual assault once stayed silent. That's changing, says survivor Leah West

Leah West was sexually assaulted during her time serving in the Canadian military. She's now speaking out about the need to confront sexual misconduct in Canada's Armed Forces.

Empower soldiers 'to not just implement orders, but to organically make change': West

Leah West says recent discussions over sexual assault allegations in the military made her feel like she had permission to speak up about her own experience. (Submitted by Leah West)

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Warning: This story contains details about sexual assault

After experiencing sexual assault while serving in Canada's armed forces over ten years ago, Leah West is now speaking out in the hopes that real change is on the horizon. 

"I think the difference is not why now, it's why I feel I can now," said West, who served as an armoured officer for a decade, and is now an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

West pointed to Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, one of the most prominent women in the Canadian military, who resigned in "disgust" in March over ongoing reports of sexual misconduct. Taylor posted her scathing resignation letter online, saying she was "sickened," but not "surprised" at allegations against senior military leaders in recent months.

"When she said that, it kind of gave me and I know a lot of my peers permission to finally be angry, to finally look around us and say, 'This can't happen anymore,'" West told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Prominent female military officer resigns over ongoing sexual misconduct reports

3 years ago
Duration 1:59
Featured VideoProminent officer Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor resigned from the Canadian Armed Forces saying she was ‘sickened by ongoing investigations of sexual misconduct among our key leaders.’

Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced a new external review into sexual harassment and misconduct in the Canadian military, to be led by former supreme court justice Louise Arbour. 

The new review comes just six years after former supreme court justice Marie Deschamps conducted an external probe. Survivors have criticized the government for not doing more to act on Deschamps' 2015 findings; but last week, Deputy Defence Minister Jody Thomas said the findings of the new report will be implemented

Military culture can silence victims: expert

West said she was sexually assaulted by a senior ranking officer, "who was beloved in my unit," during a house party in 2008.

When she needed medical attention in the days that followed, she felt pressured to disclose that she had been assaulted.

Soon after, she said, her commanding officer called her into his office, and asked: "What do you want me to do about this?"

West said she couldn't imagine asking her boss to pursue allegations, or what might happen to her if he did. At the time, she felt the assault was in some way her fault.

Women and men in the Canadian forces are not treated equally, they are not valued equally- Leah West

"I'd been raped at a house party where all of my peers were, and they left me there," she said.

She told her commanding officer she didn't want him to do anything.

"We never spoke of it again," she said.

In a statement emailed to The Current, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said that accounts like West's "remind us of the harm that has been done and where we have failed to protect and then adequately support those affected by sexual misconduct."

"Her story — and the stories of others — are informing us as we continue to take stock of the true state of our culture and implement systemic changes that will have impact across the institution," the statement continued. 

Stéfanie von Hlatky, the Canada research chair in gender, security and the armed forces, said military culture is geared toward operational success. (Nishelle Walker)

Operation Honour — established to address sexual misconduct in the military — recorded more than 500 sexual assault allegations from April 2016 to March of this year.

Speaking to The Current in March, Stéfanie von Hlatky said that military culture is geared towards operational success, and for that "you need tight group cohesion, you need rigid hierarchies and obedience."

But that culture can unintentionally create "a more permissive environment for sexual misconduct," said von Hlatky, Canada research chair in gender, security and the armed forces.

"It's an environment where it's inherently difficult for victims and survivors to come forward and to speak out — there's this fear of social ostracization," she said.

"The other thing is it can be exploited by perpetrators through abuses of power, you know, really using that rigid hierarchy to hide their behaviour."

Women face double standard, says West

West left the military in 2012 after an investigation into a consensual relationship she had with another member of the military, of the same rank. The relationship occurred while she was deployed to Afghanistan, a violation of orders banning fraternization while overseas. 

"I was charged and convicted, given a fine, repatriated from theatre, posted out of my unit and given a very, very menial task," she said.

West said she accepted the the consequences, but also suffered name-calling and no longer felt wanted in the armed forces.

West in Syria in 2019. She is now an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University. (Submitted by Leah West)

When she left, she said she was "denied an opportunity to serve in the reserves because I was told I wasn't the kind of leader that they were looking for."

Looking back, West said there's a double standard at play.

"Women and men in the Canadian forces are not treated equally, they are not valued equally."

Speaking to The Current last Friday, Arbour said she has already started to receive feedback about the new probe she will lead.

"One of them said, if we can't respect and support our fellow warriors ... what are we fighting for?" she told Galloway.

"If we could see this kind of attitude in the promotion system that leads to senior leadership ... we'd start seeing a culture change." 

Arbour will have a mandate expanded from that of the review led by Deschamps.

WATCH: Full interview with former supreme court justice Louise Arbour

3 years ago
Duration 9:42
Featured VideoLouise Arbour, who will lead the external review into military sexual misconduct, joined Power & Politics Thursday to discuss her mandate.

West said that will give her "the scope to actually dig into issues of training, promotion, reward, posting — all of these issues that go to not just addressing the symptoms, but actually the underlying root cause."

Soldiers should be empowered "to not just implement orders, but to organically make change" in their own unit, she said.

People want change: West

Earlier this week, West was left "pleasantly surprised" after she met with Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, and Jody Thomas, deputy minister of the Department of National Defence.

"They were really engaged. We had a dialogue rather than them simply being on receive mode," she said.

West said Eyre apologized for what she went through. 

While he was not her direct supervisor at the time, "he said he was very sorry that he had a unit under his command that perpetuated that culture, and he wished he'd ask more questions," West told Galloway.

"And I told him, 'Sir, if you'd asked the questions at the time, you wouldn't have gotten an answer — I would not have told you,'" she said.

"The difference now is if you ask, I believe people will tell you, and they want to be heard and they want to be empowered to make change."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Paul MacInnis.

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