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A 2010 file photo of the HMCS Athabaskan arriving in Halifax harbour.

Eric Wynne/The Canadian Press

The commander of the Royal Canadian Navy on the Atlantic coast confirmed Friday that military police are investigating an alleged sexual assault involving one male attacking another aboard HMCS Athabaskan.

Rear Admiral John Newton said the incident is alleged to have happened Nov. 10 while the destroyer was docked in Rota, Spain, during a NATO exercise. The ship typically has about 250 sailors aboard.

The two sailors in question are junior members of the ship's company, he said.

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"In this case, we have a same-sex event report from a complainant who is the same sex as his attacker," Newton said in an interview.

The sex of those involved "doesn't matter the least bit in our mind. ... It's always about bringing balance across gender identities," said Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic.

No one has been charged and none of the allegations has been proven in court.

Capt. Joanna Labonte, a military spokeswoman, says the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service was called in Nov. 10.

The Iroquois-class ship returned to Halifax late last month after participating in multinational exercises as part of Trident Juncture. The exercise involved several other Royal Canadian Navy vessels, including HMCS Halifax, Goose Bay, Summerside, Winnipeg and Windsor.

The military launched a review last year after media reports into what appeared to be a major discrepancy between official records of sexual assault cases and what was actually happening inside the Canadian Forces.

In May, the federal government accepted all 10 recommendations from a hard-hitting report by a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice on sexual misconduct in the military.

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The report by Marie Deschamps recommended, among other things, that an independent agency be set up outside the military chain of command to handle sexual misconduct complaints.

Newton contributed to Deschamps' report.

Speaking generally about the issue facing the military, he said the evidence uncovered in the process reflected a disturbing, systemic problem.

"You could see how the sexualized climate is real ... and how that might create the environment for a perpetrator to disrespect somebody to the level of violence," he said.

"Where there are systemic issues, it's hard sometimes for everybody in the leadership to see how one type of behaviour influences something like sexual misconduct and sexual assault."

Since Deschamps' report was released, the military has taken steps to educate its members about sexism through various means, including town hall meetings.

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"We're fighting like crazy to make sure our people know that nobody in leadership or among subordinates can get away with abhorrent behaviour like this," said Newton.

"We can't eradicate the behaviour, but we can certainly put a serious dent into the conditions that allow it to occur."

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