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Politics Veterans merge sexual-assault suits against Canadian military

A Canadian flag sits on the shoulder of a member of the Canadian Forces in Trenton, Ont.

Lars Hagberg/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Veterans who launched four individual lawsuits against the military for allegedly failing to protect them from sexual assault and gender-based discrimination while they were in uniform have merged their cases to fight the Canadian Forces together.

The combined suit, if it is allowed to proceed as a class-action, aims to bring about change in Defence Department policies to prevent other soldiers, sailors and aviators from harassment and discrimination by their colleagues and superiors, and seeks compensation for those who were subjected to that kind of treatment in the past.

"I am thrilled that we can all work together towards a common goal," Sherry Heyder, a former reservist form Northern Ontario who was a plaintiff in one of the original suits and is now part of the consortium, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

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Although she has not met the other plaintiffs, she said, "my heart goes out to those individuals for what they have experienced and what they have suffered."

The merger of the court actions comes at a time when the military, under the direction of General Jonathan Vance, has been making a determined effort to end what a major report concluded in 2015 was a sexualized culture within the Canadian Forces.

Jonathan Ptak, a lawyer for the firm of Koskie Minsky who represented Ontario plaintiffs in the original claims, said those suits have combined with others in Quebec City and Halifax to present a united front. The hope is that the expertise of all the lawyers involved, and the merger of the complaints, will ensure the greatest access to justice and the speediest resolution, Mr. Ptak said.

A certification hearing to determine whether the cases can proceed as a class action will be held in July of next year.

A similar suit launched in British Columbia on behalf of a woman there remains a separate action.

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A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said on Wednesday that the military does not tolerate discrimination and harassment, and that while the military is responding to the legal challenge, the issue of harassment continues to be a priority, regardless of this lawsuit.

In 2015, Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice, released a wide-ranging report that said military leaders "must acknowledge that sexual misconduct is a real and serious problem for the organization, one that requires their own direct and sustained attention."

When Gen. Vance became Chief of Defence Staff later that year, his first act was to order an end to sexual assault and harassment in the military. He launched Operation Honour, which aims to eliminate the harmful behaviour. By the end of April this year, 77 members who were found to have been involved in sexual misconduct had been fired.

But Ms. Heyder, who served between 1988 and 1994, is doubtful that the pervasive culture of discrimination and sexual harassment that she endured has been eliminated.

"When I read the Deschamps report, I was absolutely appalled to see that the conditions that existed when that report was written were exactly the same as existed in 1988," she said. "So, although Operation Honour is a great start, I don't think it could have completed anywhere near what needed to be done."

Ms. Heyder said in her original statement of claim that she was advised after basic training that she was not permitted to pursue a career in the infantry because she was a woman and was forced to do administrative work instead. She also said the 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.

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Gen. Vance told The Globe and Mail recently that the culture has changed significantly since the Deschamps report and that surveys completed by the Forces indicate widespread awareness of Operation Honour and an understanding that the kinds of behaviour and attitudes that Ms. Deschamps described will not be tolerated.

But Ms. Heyder said, that for her and others, the damage has been done.

"It obliterated the career choice that I had initially chosen as a young woman," she said. "I had intended to serve my country in the military and, as a result of what I went through, I couldn't pursue that because of what was going on. It was just impossible for me to continue with a career in that environment."

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