Canada's defence chief on sexual assault in the military: 'We continue to learn'

Gen. Jonathan Vance addresses the recent Auditor General's report finding gaps in the military's handling of sexual assault cases.
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Canada's top general is admitting the Auditor General is right to flag gaps in the military's handling of sexual assault cases.

"We put in place some measures that have had unintended consequences," chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House.

Operation Honour is the signature initiative of Vance, launched three years ago and intended to stamp out harassment and assault and address a longstanding culture of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. 

"Our own analysis was going on at the same time as the AG was doing their analysis, and we came to the same conclusions," Vance said, referencing the report out last week by the Auditor General criticizing a "fragmented" support system for victims and inadequate training and education, among other issues. 

Vance said he was happy that the AG's report and the military's internal analysis ended up with similar takeaways, and insisted he's not losing patience with Operation Honour just yet.

"It's not impatience you're detecting, I'm genuinely seized of let's get going on this changed path," he told host Chris Hall.

That path now includes some tweaking of the original action steps undertaken by the military, specifically on the duty to report which Vance acknowledged had "unintended consequences."

"We focused on the prevention aspect first. That's what we could do," he said. "What I've learned is sometimes the actions, after the moment of harm, by the chain of command and by well-meaning people around the individual that remove the individual's control or sense of sovereignty is sometimes more damaging than the actual act itself."

Bystanders were required to report any instances observed of sexual misconduct, but the Auditor General's report noted that the duty to report meant that third parties were reporting incidents even if the victims weren't ready yet to come forward.

The new policy also resulted in military police being required to conduct an initial investigation of all reports of sexual misconduct, regardless of whether or not the victim preferred to settle the issue informally.

Vance defended bystander reporting as an "action-oriented prevention posture", but said he's learned it can "take control away from a very vulnerable person at exactly the wrong time."

"The answer right now is, I've concluded, the duty to report must remain in place," he said. "You can't have a crime happen in front of you and ignore it.

"But the duty to report doesn't mean that the person you report to has to do anything specific before we see to the care and concern and sense of sovereignty of the individual who was harmed. We've learned that, and that's been reinforced to us."

So what will change for sexual assault cases going forward?

"What that means is those people who are qualified or ought to receive a report of something that's going on, job one is to be able to turn to a mechanism we're going to build that will place the victim at the centre of the effort of, 'how do you want to handle this?'" Vance said.

In his fall reports, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said victims of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military face a slow, confusing patchwork system that sometimes forces them to make complaints of inappropriate behaviour when they might not be willing or ready. 2:46

Delay in wrapping up investigations

The defence chief also addressed another gap flagged in the Auditor General's report, which found that the military is not resolving reported cases in a timely fashion, with a majority taking an average of seven months to close.

"This discouraged some victims from coming forward," the audit says. "Many victims also did not understand or have confidence in the complaint system."

Vance said there are some circumstances that can add time to the investigation, such as a case that occurred overseas or if the affected person needs more time. 

"I detect no dragging of feet," he told Hall. "We have supercharged the system to act...but this can take time."

Vance is now focused on the next phase in Operation Honour. "At this particular time, with the AG report behind us and some very good analysis done by our own teams, we're shifting, we're shifting gears from that drive to prevent — which we're not going to stop doing — but now we're going to put in place a strategic plan of culture change and support to the victim."

There's no deadline or end date in sight for Vance, though. 

"It's never going to be done," he said. "We're always going to have to do Operation Honour. I am humbled every day by not only the scope of the problem but also the challenges of dealing with it effectively. 

"We learn, and we continue to learn."

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