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Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance attends a news conference in Ottawa in an August 30, 2016, file photo. The Canadian Forces has launched the first internal review of the military justice system in generations and among the issues being looked at is whether all military sexual crimes should be handled by civilian courts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

The Canadian Press

Nearly 1,000 members of the military told Statistics Canada surveyors they had been sexually assaulted within the previous 12 months in a study that was conducted less than a year after the head of Canada's armed forces said ending that type of behaviour was his top priority.

The survey, which was commissioned by General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff, found that soldiers, sailors and aviators are far more likely than other Canadians to be violated sexually. It also suggests that military leaders have a long way to go in their efforts to change a culture in which sexual assault is tolerated.

"Harmful sexual behaviour is a real problem in our institution," Gen. Vance told reporters on Monday as the report was released. "We know it, we're trying to tackle it head on."

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The survey's results were "sobering," said the general who initiated what he called Operation Honour, targeting sexual misconduct, as a first order of business when he was named Canada's top soldier in July, 2015.

"I am more motivated than ever to eliminate this behaviour and the perpetrators from our ranks," Gen. Vance said, "because this survey shows some people were victimized after I launched Operation Honour, after I gave an order to every member of the Canadian Armed Forces that this behaviour had to stop."

More than 43,000 active members of the Canadian Armed Forces, representing 53 per cent of the military, participated in the survey.

About 1.7 per cent said they had been sexually assaulted in the workplace or by a fellow military member within the past 12 months. That compares with 0.9 per cent of all working Canadians who reported that they had been the victim of a similar type of assault in any context over the same period of time.

Statistics Canada defines sexual assault as unwanted sexual touching, sexual attacks and sexual activity to which the victim is unable to consent. Unwanted touching was, by far, the most common complaint of the respondents.

Women in the armed forces were four times more likely than their male counterparts to say they had been sexually assaulted over the past year. And more than 27 per cent of military women said they had been assaulted at least once since starting their careers.

Half of the female respondents who said they were victims of a sexual assault identified their supervisor or someone of a higher rank as the perpetrator.

On a positive note, eight in 10 regular force members strongly agreed that complaints about sexual behaviour are taken seriously and that the behaviour is not tolerated.

But 79 per cent said they had seen or heard sexualized behaviour on the job – most of it in the form of dirty jokes – and another 34 per cent said they had seen or experienced discriminatory practices.

Kevin West, the military's Chief Warrant Officer, said the results of the survey made him angry and "I can only conclude that we are falling short."

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Less than one-quarter of respondents who said they had been victimized said they reported the assault to someone in authority and just 7 per cent said they contacted the military police or the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.

More than one-third of the women who remained silent said they did so because they feared the consequences of speaking up.

"The fact that some won't report, or haven't reported, or are concerned that their report won't be taken seriously, is a huge concern," Gen. Vance said. "The negative consequences will befall those who are perpetrators, not those who report."

In fact, 30 people were removed from command or supervisory positions within the Canadian military this year as a result of a sexual assault.

Operation Honour followed a report released in the spring of last year by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps that found women in the army, navy, air force and military colleges are routinely subjected to degrading expressions, sexual jokes and unwelcome touching.

Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and retired colonel who has represented military victims of assault, said he has seen no decline in the number of those cases since the start of Operation Honour.

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But Mr. Drapeau said he was surprised to learn from the study just how many people within the armed forces were still engaged in sexually offensive behaviour in contravention of Gen. Vance's direct order. "It shows the significance and the deep-seated problem it is," he said. "It's worse than I thought it was."

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