Police chiefs and provincial officials are challenging Defence Minister Anita Anand’s plans to have civilian law enforcement take over military sexual assault investigations, in some cases raising questions about who will fund the work.
Ms. Anand took charge of the defence file last fall, with a mandate to take immediate steps toward solving the sexual misconduct crisis within the Canadian Armed Forces.
Shortly before Ms. Anand’s appointment, two former Supreme Court justices commissioned by the federal government to investigate the crisis had each recommended that sexual assaults no longer be handled by the military’s internal justice system. Victims and their advocates have criticized military police and courts for not being truly independent of the CAF’s chain of command.
Former justices Morris Fish and Louise Arbour wrote in their reports that military sexual assault cases should instead be handled by civilian police forces. Ms. Anand vowed to implement those recommendations immediately.
The Globe has since canvassed law enforcement agencies and groups across Canada. What they had to say in response suggests jurisdictional and resourcing issues are emerging as stumbling blocks on the path toward the promised reforms.
While the military and its police force are funded with federal dollars, civilian police forces are usually paid for by municipal or provincial governments. Politicians at all levels of government are not allowed to direct police operations. Police chiefs control what assignments their officers undertake.
Now, faced with requests to perform investigations of military sexual misconduct, some police forces are saying they simply cannot absorb these new cases without additional resources, because their staff and budgets are already too stretched.
In November, military police asked Victoria Police Chief Del Manak to take on investigations at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, a naval base near Victoria with several thousand soldiers and sailors. Chief Manak said he wrote a formal letter in December in which he rejected the request, saying he did not have enough investigators.
“I flat out said that, unfortunately, the Victoria Police is not in a position to undertake investigations delegated or downloaded from the Canadian Armed Forces,” he told The Globe.
He added that if the federal government does not figure out how to fund transfers of investigations away from the CAF’s justice system, the new way of handling military sexual misconduct cases is unlikely to inspire more public confidence than the old one.
“We don’t want to get this wrong,” he said. “I don’t want there to be empty promises made to survivors of sexual offences.”
Decisions on funding for military matters rest with Ms. Anand, whose office has not announced any plans to pay for the investigative handovers. “We expect that the funds in provincial justice system budgets are sufficient to cover the modest costs associated with these additional cases,” said Daniel Minden, her spokesperson.
In an e-mailed statement, Ms. Anand expressed confidence in the handover process. “I anticipate that provincial and territorial governments and related organizations will continue to accept cases that are being transferred,” she said. She added, without providing details, that her officials have reached “an understanding with a number of provinces regarding their intent to accept the transfer of cases from the military justice system.”
Military police statistics show that sexual assault is the most commonly alleged violent crime on military bases. An average of nearly 200 sexual offence investigations are undertaken by military police each year.
Many complainants are now coming forward to discuss events that took place years or even decades ago. Several people who recently served as members of the military’s top brass stand accused of sexual offences or of obstructing sexual misconduct investigations.
Experts say the federal government must take great care as it pursues its plans to hand over investigations to civilian police.
“I think that the process was always a little more vague than the commitment,” said Megan Mackenzie, a military expert at Simon Fraser University. “Of course it requires some conversations around resourcing.”
She said she fears that the ambiguities surrounding the transition could delay investigations.
Military police are not abandoning any of their responsibilities, Lieutenant Commander Jamie Bresolin said in a statement on behalf of the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal’s office.
“It is important to note that throughout the period of transfer or referral to a civilian police service, the Military Police will continue to provide affected persons with the support they need to ensure their interests – as well as those of justice – are served,” he said.
He added that the military’s detectives remain “highly capable to investigate cases whenever civilian police services indicate that they are unable to take action.”
Several police forces told The Globe they are prepared to consider taking on any individual cases referred to them by military police. But they are awaiting the outcomes of emerging federal-provincial negotiations over long-term arrangements.
RCMP Alberta say they have agreed to take on three military sexual misconduct investigations since the start of 2022. But the overall strategy is still under discussion. “We are currently working with our partners in the Canadian Armed Forces in developing a framework to move forward on these investigations,” Corporal Deanna Fontaine said.
The Medicine Hat Police in Alberta said in a statement that they would investigate military sexual assaults if the Mounties could not take the cases on.
The Ontario Provincial Police have not yet received specific investigative requests from the CAF. But they and provincial officials are in discussions about “resources, capacity and developing a memorandum of understanding” with the military, said OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson.
Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for Ontario’s solicitor general, said in a statement that it is critical that the necessary resources are present before cases are transferred from the military to local police services.
She added that police would need detailed data on the kinds of investigations they would be taking on, especially considering the military’s tendency to move its people around. Police may need to pursue military suspects or canvass witnesses in military bases across provinces, and they may need to seek out soldiers deployed internationally.
British Columbia’s public safety ministry also noted the need for more resources for victims and police. Spokesperson Travis Paterson said in a statement that there are “concerns and challenges which must be addressed before the transfers of the historical and current files can take place.”
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