The Canadian Forces have laid 10 charges against a rising-star officer who served as a mentor to would-be soldiers, highlighting the new crackdown on allegations of harassment and sexual wrongdoing in the military.
Lieutenant-Colonel Mason Stalker allegedly committed the offences as he did volunteer work with the 2551 Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps in Edmonton from 1998 to 2007. Funded by the federal government, Canada's cadet program is aimed at youths between the ages of 12 and 18 with an interest in military activities.
The charges against Lt.-Col. Stalker, 40, will be handled in civilian court, not through the military court process, which is deemed a victory by critics of the Canadian Forces. "He will be treated like anybody else, regardless of his rank," said lawyer Michel Drapeau, who has been representing victims of sexual assault in the military. "The message this sends through the organization is that if and when you misconduct yourself, you will be treated like any other civilian."
The move is in line with the recent message from the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, for service personnel to "call 911" – and bypass military police – to obtain emergency assistance in the event of a sexual assault.
The officer was charged with three counts of sexual assault, four counts of sexual exploitation, one count of sexual interference, one count of invitation to sexual touching and one count of breach of trust. The charges are based on a complaint from a single male victim, who contacted the Canadian Forces Military Police on April 27, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) confirmed on Tuesday. The complaint came after a series of media reports prompted the Canadian Forces to re-evaluate their handling of allegations of sexual wrongdoing.
Lt.-Col. Stalker – who has been suspended for the duration of the legal process – received the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor-General in 2007 and 2012 for serving in Afghanistan. He was recently in charge of hundreds of soldiers fighting forest fires in Western Canada as the commanding officer of the storied 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
"These are serious and significant charges under the Criminal Code of Canada," Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Bolduc, the commanding officer of the CFNIS, said in a statement. "Regardless of a member's rank and role in the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service works diligently and independently from the Canadian Armed Forces chain of command to protect individuals from those who violate the law."
The office of Defence Minister Jason Kenney refused to comment on the details of the case, but said: "These allegations are very disturbing. Sexual assault and harassment of any kind have no place anywhere in the Canadian Armed Forces."
The CFNIS said its investigation is ongoing and urged anyone else with additional information to contact its tip line.
Gen. Vance has made it his priority to deal with a recent report by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, who called for an overhaul of the military's system to address complaints.
"Any form of harmful sexual behaviour has been and always will be absolutely contrary to good order and discipline. It is a threat to morale, it is a threat to operational readiness and a threat to this institution," Gen. Vance said in his first speech in his new position earlier this month. "As my first order to the Canadian Armed Forces, everybody must continue to work together to eliminate this harmful behaviour. It must stop now."
Hailing from Revelstoke, B.C., Lt.-Col. Stalker told local media in 2013 that the cadet movement was "the best-kept secret in Canada."
"Everything that I needed to know to be a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, I learned while I was in cadets," he said.
Inside the Forces, the charges came as a shock to many people who knew Lt.-Col. Stalker, who was on track for further promotions. "It's a surprise right across the board," a military official said. "He was an up-and-coming officer – highly decorated."
Major Doug Keirstead, a spokesman for the Canadian Cadet Organizations, said Lt.-Col. Stalker can no longer have contacts with cadets.
"All adults working in direct contact with cadets require screening through a Police Records Check and Vulnerable Sector Screening every five years," he said in an e-mail, "and cadets are taught that inappropriate sexual behaviour of any kind is unacceptable and they are encouraged to report any incidents regardless of whether the offender is a peer or superior."