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Canadian military makes headway on sex assault nearly three years after its #MeToo revelation

Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Carter is pictured in front of a Department of National Defence building in Ottawa. Due to the new culture in Canada's military, Ms. Carter was able to press charges against a person who sexually touched her at a military conference.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Optimistic voices suggest the widespread exposure of sexual misconduct by powerful men has caused a cultural shift, making made it more difficult for abusers to abuse and harassers to harass. But the moral journey that began last summer in Hollywood and spread to politics and the media is a well-trodden path for Canada's military.

Two and a half years after Jonathan Vance announced at his swearing in as Chief of Defence Staff that the "harmful behaviour" would not be tolerated, measurable improvements are being made.

Sex assaults still happen, though Gen. Vance would like to believe they occur less frequently than they did in 2015 when former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found a "sexualized culture" within the Armed Forces, or in 2016 when nearly 1,000 military personnel told Statistics Canada they had been sexually assaulted within the previous 12 months.

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But reports of abuse – and especially reports from bystanders – are up, charges are up, convictions are up. Rules around what will not be tolerated are better understood. And the treatment of victims by the chain of command and by military prosecutors has changed.

"I would say we are at the middle of the beginning. We have a long way to go," said Gen. Vance, who launched what is known as Operation Honour in the summer of 2015 to combat sexual abuse within the ranks.

When a report of an assault is lodged by or about military personnel anywhere in the country, Gen. Vance is notified "at the same speed that I would get a missile warning." He is constantly informed of the numbers by a variety of sources including the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC), which opened in September of 2015 and operates a hotline allowing military personnel to report sexual misconduct without going to their superiors.

"It's like feeling the enemy activity when you are a commander in the field," said Gen. Vance. "What it does is keep us all motivated, knowing that it hasn't gone away, that there is still more to do."

The most recent numbers suggest the reporting of sexual misconduct has increased dramatically. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an average of 88 complaints a year. Between 2015 and 2017, the annual average was 159. As a result of Forces-wide training, 40 per cent of those reports are coming from third-party witnesses.

"You're at a function and you see someone who ought not to be placing their hand on someone else, you report; you say 'I object,' " said Gen. Vance.

Prior to Operation Honour, 25 per cent of all of sexual-assault complaints were deemed to be unfounded. Since the operation began, that figure has dropped to 14 per cent.

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Four years ago, sexual misconduct was a factor in 14 per cent of all charges laid by military police. That has climbed to 25 per cent.

Michel Drapeau, a former military colonel who is now a lawyer in private practice and has represented many military assault victims, says the fact that they are still coming to him means sexual assault continues to occur in the Armed Forces.

But "I think the culture has changed to the degree that there is now an air of reprobation," said Col. Drapeau. "It's no longer a smile and a wink and we'll throw this under the covers."

On the other hand, there is still no Victims Bill of Rights in military justice as there is in the civilian world, said Col. Drapeau. That bill ensures, among other things, that people who lodge sexual-assault complaints are informed about the progress of their case, can make a victim-impact statement and have a right to redress.

Colonel Bruce MacGregor, the director of military prosecutions, recognizes that sexual-assault victims who pursue justice through the court-martial system cannot rely on those legislated rights. But, he said, he has spent the past couple of years rewriting policies for military prosecutions to take the best of the Victims Bill of Rights and put it into practice in the military system.

For instance, Ms. Deschamps recommended in her report that sexual-assault victims be allowed to express their opinion about whether their cases should be handled by a civilian or military court. Col. MacGregor has decreed that his prosecutors must ask the victim for their views on jurisdiction – even if the final decision rests with him. Prosecutors are also told that victims must be kept up do date about the progress of their cases. "If there is a lack of communication," he said, "that's against our direction."

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There is an effort to limit the number of times a victim has to tell their story and to ensure that the same prosecutor handles a case from start to finish. And military prosecutors must put pressure on defence counsel to allow victim-impact statements.

Col. MacGregor has also hired Lieutenant-Colonel Maureen Pecknold, a reservist and senior mentor to the Ontario Crown on sexual-assault cases, to be the part-time director of his sexual-misconduct prosecutions team.

The end result of all of the actions has been success for prosecutors of sexual assault at courts martial.

Statistics Canada data released last fall show that sexual-assault charges in the civilian system result in convictions 55 per cent of the time, with the accused being found guilty of sexual assault in 24 per cent of cases, and guilty of a lesser charge in 31 per cent of cases.

In Canadian courts martial between 2009 and 2017, sexual-assault charges resulted in convictions in 70 per cent of cases – 31 per cent of them findings of guilty of sexual assault and 39 per cent guilty of lesser charges.

Lieutenant-Commander JoAnne Carter, a naval intelligence officer and full-time reservist who joined the military in 1983, says the new culture allowed her to bring criminal charges against a civilian woman who grabbed her breast in front of a group of men, most of them senior officers, at a military training function in April, 2016.

The incident happened on a Friday evening and on Monday morning, LCdr. Carter called the SMRC hotline, who informed the military police.

"The next day, the military police set up an interview for me and they couldn't have been more professional, kinder or sensitive," she said. Meanwhile, one of the men who has witnessed the assault had independently reported it to the course director.

Without Operation Honour "I would have been thinking 'is it that serious, is it really that bad?' " said LCdr. Carter. "If it wasn't for Op Honour, I probably would have downplayed it and let it sort of percolate."

Instead, the woman was charged with sexual assault and pleaded guilty last November in a civilian court to a lesser charge of assault. LCdr. Carter's victim impact statement was read at her sentencing hearing, which, she said, gives her great comfort.

The military is planning to repeat last year's Statistics Canada survey on sexual assault within the ranks in the fall of 2018 and will again make the results public, for better or for worse.

"It ought to show that Op Honour is having an impact," said Gen. Vance. But "whatever the results are, it's going to give us course-correction type information."

In retrospect, the Deschamps report was the military's #MeToo moment. It said sexual assault and harassment are significant detractors from the quality of life, the professional life, in the Armed Forces, said Gen. Vance. "We took it seriously."

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There has been a shift in policies in the year since The Globe’s investigation into how police handle sexual assault cases was published. Those who work daily with sexual assault victims, in policing, academia and victim support service, share what they’ve experienced.
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