Military finds multiple gaps in support for victims of sexual misconduct

Almost three years after the Canadian Forces launched a mission to root out sexual misconduct in its ranks, the military has identified critical flaws in how it supports victims of harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour — and has given itself a long list of fixes to address the problems.
Access to information documents show the military has identified significant gaps in how it supports victims of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

Almost three years after the Canadian Forces launched a mission to root out sexual misconduct in its ranks, the military has identified critical flaws in how it supports victims of harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour — and has given itself a long list of fixes to address the problems.

Among other things, a Canadian Forces team tasked with stamping out sexual misconduct in the military is pointing to a lack of specialized support for male and LGBTQ+ victims, inconsistent support for victims throughout the Canadian Forces and the absence of a policy on medical release from the military for victims or harmful or inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Details about the gaps are laid out in draft briefing notes and a presentation written by the Canadian Forces Strategic Response Team on Sexual Misconduct in April and May of 2017. They were obtained by CBC News through the Access to Information Act.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance launched Operation Honour in 2015 to stamp out inappropriate sexual misconduct across the Canadian Forces. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance has cited changing the culture around sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces as one of the top priorities of his tenure. He launched the Forces' mission to identify and eliminate sexual misconduct, Operation Honour, in 2015.

The Strategic Response Team did the analysis in 2016 with members from the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre.

They found a number of gaps in the support offered to victims, including:

  • inconsistent support for victims across the Canadian Forces

  • no access to 24/7 specialized support

  • no mechanism for medical release from the military for an incident involving harmful or inappropriate sexual behaviour

  • no provision to continue services for victims after they leave the Canadian Forces, but before they become clients of Veterans Affairs

  • no CAF-supported access to legal support services or assistant/practitioner accompaniment for victims

  • no mechanism by which a member facing harmful or inappropriate sexual behaviour could complain to the chain of command without automatically triggering an investigation

  • no specialized support for male and LGBTQ+ victims

  • a lack of peer support groups in the Canadian Forces

Rear Admiral Jennifer Bennett, in charge of the Strategic Response Team, said a lot of progress has been made since the analysis was done and more is coming.

What's been done

Rear Admiral Bennett pointed to the establishment of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre as part of the Canadian Forces' response. Last July, the centre introduced a 24/7 phone line members of the military can call to report sexual misconduct.

The military has a new app to connect Forces members to resources for victims and those trying to support them. Bennett said the centre and the phone line also provide members with more consistent access, even while deployed.

The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre is part of DND but it is independent from the chain of command. That independence, Bennett said, allows members to report incidents without automatically triggering investigations — something that wasn't possible when Operation Honour was launched.

What's in the works

Within weeks, Bennett said, the Canadian Forces will have a new policy allowing victims of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour to forego medical release from the military until all of the legal processes linked to the case have been concluded.

"Because we know that it can be a very long process for the police investigation ... whether it's civilian or military," she said. "It may take a long time to trial and we want to make sure that they're (victims) well supported." And in some cases, she added, victims may want to stay in the forces and be considered for different posts.

The military is still about a year away, Bennett said, from introducing a new victim liaison assistant policy — which would provide victims with a single "point of contact that would assist a victim through every process until they no longer needed support."

The military is still consulting on the best way to deliver specialized support to male and LGBTQ+ victims of harmful or inappropriate sexual behaviour, she said.

What will not happen

One thing the military won't be introducing is a system of peer support groups.

"The research indicates that it's not a well-supported concept by practitioners, because the outcomes are not generally positive," Bennett said. Instead, the military is looking at group therapy or support group sessions.

Marie-Claude Gagnon runs an organization called "It's just 700" — an online support group for veterans and active service members who have experienced inappropriate or harmful sexual behaviour while serving. She said news of the Canadian Forces' list of planned reforms is "frustrating" because "we've been asking for these things for years."

She said she wants to see more support groups and more research to make sure people are satisfied with the services they are being offered.

"How do they know if people are happy with what they have if there is no follow-up?" she asked.

Gagnon said that while a dedicated phone line will be helpful, it won't follow up with victims. She warns that gaps in the Canadian Forces's support system risk making the harassment problem worse — that if others see victims being left without proper support, it will discourage them from reporting their own encounters with inappropriate behaviour.

​"You cannot ask more women to be put into more danger without the proper care and preventative measures to prevent those risks," she said. "We do it for combat. Why can't we do it for sexual assaults and sexual violence?"

Bennett, meanwhile, said she understands the impatience, but insists the military is going as fast as it can.

"We've only been at this two and a half years."

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