Canada needs more civilian oversight over army sex crimes: Report

The Canadian Armed Forces suffer from a ‘deeply deficient culture’, former Supreme Court justice says in new report.

Canada's Defence Minister Anita Anand speaks at a podium
Canada's Defence Minister Anita Anand speaks at a news conference as Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, listens in Ottawa, April 25, 2022 [File: Patrick Doyle/Reuters]

Civilian authorities in Canada should be responsible for investigating alleged sexual offences in the military, a former Supreme Court justice has said, after an extensive review of sexual assault and misconduct claims in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

In her final report on Monday, Louise Arbour made 48 recommendations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to address what she and other experts have previously described as an “endemic” problem.

“The exposure of sexual misconduct in the CAF has shed light on a deeply deficient culture fostered by a rigid and outdated structure that did little to modernize it,” the report reads.

During a news conference in Ottawa unveiling her findings, Arbour said she saw “no basis for the Canadian Armed Forces to retain any jurisdiction over sexual offences, and that jurisdiction should be vested exclusively with civilian authorities”.

She also recommended that sexual harassment cases be investigated by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a human rights watchdog, and said victims should have access to independent legal advice as soon as possible.

“While the current leadership of the CAF has expressed a strong commitment to culture change, I believe it is unlikely to be effected without first a change in its culture of isolation and resistance,” the report said.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government tasked Arbour with investigating sexual assault and misconduct in the military [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

The recommendations came after several polls, independent reviews and Canadian media investigations during the past years that detailed the pervasive issue of sexual assault and misconduct in the CAF.

Senior Canadian defence officials, including Defence Minister Anita Anand, apologised late last year for the government’s failure to adequately respond to the crisis. That apology was part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed against the government by almost 19,000 serving and retired members of the military, as well as civilian defence workers.

Several senior officers also have faced sexual misconduct investigations, including former Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, who in March pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in relation to a probe into such allegations.

“Since early February 2021, 13 current and former senior Canadian military officers have been sidelined, investigated or forced into retirement from some of the most powerful and prestigious posts in the defence establishment,” public broadcaster CBC News reported.

According to a 2018 survey, 54 percent of women and 40 percent of men in the military said they believed “inappropriate sexual behaviour is a problem in the Canadian Armed Forces.”

That same poll found that approximately 900 regular force members – approximately 1.6 percent – were victims of a sexual attack, unwanted sexual touching or a sexual activity to which they could not consent. About half – 52 percent – of all victims said the perpetrator was a peer.

The findings came on the heels of a bombshell report in 2016 that found nearly 1,000 cases of sexual assault, abuse and harassment were committed in the Canadian military during the previous 12 months. That meant an average of three Canadian soldiers were sexually assaulted or harassed each day, usually by a superior.

Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand
Defence Minister Anita Anand says the report will inform efforts ‘to improve and grow the culture’ of the Canadian Armed Forces [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

Canada had tasked Arbour, who is also a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with helping clean up the culture within the military. “Meaningful change will rest on the political will and determination of the civilians who oversee the CAF,” she said in the report.

During Monday’s news conference, Anand, the country’s defence minister, said she had received and accepted Arbour’s final report “in its entirety”.

She said the government will immediately begin implementing 17 of them, including offering legal assistance to victims of sexual misconduct. The other recommendations, Anand said, would require further analysis and planning, and the government will report to parliament on its progress.

The recommendation that sexual offence cases be handled by the civilian courts is not among the ones to be immediately implemented. Anand said it was “very important to review the military justice system” and that she would consult provincial and territorial authorities.

She said she would also appoint an external monitor to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

“The report is extensive, with 48 substantive recommendations addressing a wide array of issues, such as the definitions of sexual misconduct, the military justice system, military colleges and role of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre,” Anand told reporters.

“Let me clearly state my belief that this is the moment to create change and we expect the Candian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence to establish meaningful reforms that stand the test of time.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies