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The Canadian Forces are explaining a dramatic increase in the number of sexual-assault reports last year as proof that efforts to crack down on such illicit behaviour in the military are having a positive impact – and not that there have been more actual crimes.

Military authorities received 111 reports of sexual assault between April 1, 2017, and March 31, 2018, according to new figures provided to The Canadian Press. That was more than double the 47 such reports received over the previous year.

While those numbers appear troubling, at least on the surface, the head of the military’s sexual misconduct response team suggested that they in fact represent a sign of progress in the Forces’ commitment to eliminate such offences from the ranks.

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“It’s a positive indication that people feel free to come forward,” Commodore Rebecca Patterson, who took over command of the response team in July, said in an interview on Thursday.

“We have to combine that with the fact that things that may have been overlooked in the past are now being reported because there is the understanding among members of the (military) that they will report if they see things.”

However, the military did not provide a breakdown on when the alleged sexual assaults actually occurred, and Patterson admitted that officials are still wrestling with questions about the figures, which were gathered from across the entire Forces.

“As we move forward and we build the analytics piece into those various databases, the intent would be to be able to say: Are these occurring cases with serving members or historical cases based on a timeframe?” she said.

One thing that is clear is that inappropriate behaviour continued to occur within the Forces over the past year.

That was despite chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance repeatedly promising to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct in the ranks, and warning those who didn’t listen that they would be severely punished.

In addition to the alleged sexual assaults, military authorities received 231 reports of non-criminal inappropriate sexual behaviour that included frequent sexual language or jokes, the displaying of sexually-explicit material and “pressuring for sexual activity.”

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There were another 76 reports of other types of alleged sexual crimes, including sexual harassment, indecent exposure, child pornography, abuse of authority and sexual exploitation.

And while some of the inappropriate behaviour occurred before Vance’s promised clampdown, about three-quarters of the reports dealt with incidents that occurred in 2017, which represented an average of 25 per month – or just under one per day.

Eliminating sexual misconduct in the ranks remains a priority from the top on down, Patterson said, adding: “It is a very long-term process to hit cultural change, and we are going to continue to put a lot of effort in across the entire institution.”

Aside from the increased reporting, Patterson pointed to the results of a yet-to-be-released internal survey as further proof that military personnel feel confident that their leaders are committed to fighting sexual misconduct.

“Their confidence that the chain of command was actually trying to do something and create a culture of dignity and respect in the units is sitting around 85 per cent,” she said. “Not 100 per cent, we are still going for that.”

And she referenced the fact that around 55 per cent of incidents in the last year were reported by the victim or target of inappropriate behaviour, as opposed to a witness or bystander, further suggesting confidence in the system.

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Yet, past military commanders have been criticized for using internal surveys to suggest all was well within the Forces when, it later turned out from media reporting and an investigation by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, that wasn’t the case.

And the previous year saw roughly the same percentage of incidents reported by victims.

Commanders are continuing to work on eliminating barriers to reporting for victims, Patterson said, and to ensure perpetrators are held to account through reprimands, counselling, expulsion from the Forces or, where warranted, criminal charges.

Military commanders have grappled with the issue of sexual misconduct in the ranks since l’Actualite and Maclean’s magazines reported in April 2014 that a large number of military sexual assaults were being ignored or played down.

Deschamps led an independent investigation into the issue and her explosive report, released in April 2015, described an “underlying sexual culture” in the military that was hostile to women and left victims to fend for themselves.

Vance and other commanders have since ordered a zero-tolerance approach, which has included kicking out dozens of military members and speeding up courts martial for cases involving allegations of sexual crimes.

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