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Third sexual-abuse class-action suit in works against Canadian military

A Canadian flag sits on a members of Canadian forces. A lawsuit launched this week by a former reservist is the third proposal class-action initiated recently by former military members who allege sexual abuse.

Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

A former reservist from Northern Ontario has launched what she hopes will be a class-action suit against the federal government for sexual harassment and discrimination she says she experienced during the seven years she was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The lawsuit that Sherry Heyder of Thunder Bay has begun is the third proposed class-action initiated in recent weeks by former members of the military who say they were subjected to degrading treatment in conditions where the sexualization of female staff is tolerated and ignored.

Ms. Heyder filed her statement of claim this week in Federal Court. It says: "The Canadian Armed Forces is poisoned by a discriminatory and sexualized culture that condones and encourages sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination towards women."

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Related: High levels of sexual assault among Canadian military members: survey

It follows a proposed class-action suit launched in British Columbia by a Nicola Peffers, a former sailor, who says a superior subjected her to unwanted sexual advances. Ms. Peffers says female and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the Canadian Forces are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and abuse.

Meanwhile, a proposed class action filed late last month in the Ontario Superior Court says two women and a man experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment in their service with the Canadian military. In that suit, the plaintiffs are members of a Canada-wide peer support group for survivors of "military sexual trauma."

"There is certainly overlap between the different actions," said Jonathan Ptak, the lawyer for Ms. Heyder, "and that will have to be worked out and ultimately determined by the court."

Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has said he will not tolerate sexual misconduct. One of his first orders of business as head of the military was to initiate what he called Project Honour to address harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Nearly 1,000 Canadian Forces members who took part in a massive Statistics Canada survey last spring said they had been sexually assaulted within the previous 12 months. And a study released last year by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found that women in the army, navy, air force and at military colleges are routinely subjected to degrading expressions, sexual jokes and unwanted touching.

Ms. Heyder enrolled with the reserves in Thunder Bay when she was still in high school in 1988 in the hope of joining the infantry. But, she said in her statement of claim, she was both sexually harassed and discriminated against professionally.

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Shortly after she completed basic training, the statement says, she "was advised that she was no longer permitted to pursue a career in the infantry because she was a woman" and was instead forced to do administrative work.

She claims that sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender-based discrimination begins when women enter the Canadian Armed Forces, and that female military personnel learn to keep their concerns to themselves because the perpetrators go unpunished and complaints are not taken seriously.

In addition, she says in the statement of claim, the Canadian Armed Forces has historically discriminated against women on permissible employment roles and advancement and continues to do so.

"We have included a great deal of detail with respect to allegations of fault and failure of duty by the Canadian Armed Forces and its commanding officers with respect to policies, conduct, etc., because we wanted to provide a claim which gave a fulsome outline of the allegations," Mr. Ptak said.

The policies have changed over time, he said. "But we still allege in the statement of claim that, notwithstanding the fact that entry to women has been made permissible in some instances in certain divisions, they continue to struggle with respect to discriminatory conduct towards them."

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