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Minister of National Defence Anita Anand rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Dec. 2, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Anita Anand apologized on Monday to people who have experienced sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, saying countless lives have been harmed as a result of both government inaction and systemic failure.

Ms. Anand made the apology on the government’s behalf in an online appearance with Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre, who apologized on behalf of the military, and deputy defence minister Jody Thomas, who apologized on behalf of the Department of National Defence.

“I apologize on behalf of the government of Canada and on behalf of those elected officials who, throughout the history of the Canadian Armed Forces, had the responsibility to protect you and who failed to do so,” Ms. Anand said. “I apologize to the thousands of Canadians who were harmed because your government did not protect you, nor did we ensure that the right systems were in place to ensure justice and accountability.”

Ms. Anand said the government has failed to dedicate enough time, money and personnel to dealing with sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender-based discrimination in the military.

In his own words to survivors on Monday, Gen. Eyre said a number of “difficult truths” were being acknowledged. “For far too long, too many members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Defence team family have suffered harm and lived in fear of reprisal for reporting that harm,” he added.

The apology is a key part of the federal government’s $600-million settlement agreement with current and former service members in several overlapping class-action sexual misconduct lawsuits.

Military’s failure to enact victims’ declaration of rights leaves sexual assault and other crime victims without support

Ms. Anand took on the military file in October, when she succeeded Harjit Sajjan as defence minister. Shortly after assuming the role, she told reporters that tackling misconduct issues within the ranks of the armed forces was her top priority. Allegations against a growing number of senior officers have raised doubts about the federal government’s oversight of the issue, and the military’s ability to manage it.

Admiral Art McDonald stepped aside as chief of the defence staff in February after a sexual misconduct allegation. Eventually, military police said their investigation into him had ended without revealing enough evidence to support charges. In November, Gen. Eyre, who had been acting chief since Mr. McDonald’s departure, was named to the top job on a permanent basis.

Also this year, military police investigated an allegation of sexual misconduct against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance. That probe did not result in charges, but in July Mr. Vance was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to persuade a woman to lie to investigators.

In August, Major-General Dany Fortin, who had been leading Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout until the government removed him from the post in the spring, was charged with sexual assault in Quebec, in a case dating back to 1988.

And, earlier this month, military police charged Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, the CAF’s former head of personnel, with sexual assault and committing indecent acts.

Ms. Anand said the apology is a prelude to further action by her department on issues of sexual misconduct in the military. “I think that first and foremost the apology is an extremely important moment, but one that doesn’t stand alone because we have so much more work to do,” she told reporters after Question Period.

She referenced her announcement, in November, that the government was moving investigation and prosecution of sexual-misconduct cases in the Canadian Armed Forces from the military justice system to the civilian system.

Advocates had called for such a move for years, and it was a key recommendation from former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who is conducting a review of sexual misconduct and harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence. Two other former Supreme Court justices, Morris Fish and Marie Deschamps, had also recommended a shift to civilian justice in separate independent reviews dating back to 2015.

Ms. Anand also highlighted the government’s pledge in the 2021 budget to spend $236.2-million over five years on eliminating sexual misconduct and gender-based violence in the military, and on supporting survivors.

“We are not, as a government, taking our eye off this ball. It is extremely important for us to rebuild confidence in the Canadian Armed Forces for members of the Forces, but also for Canadians at large.”

Ms. Thomas said that, during her own time serving in the navy, she decided to ignore inappropriate behaviour directed at her because she knew there would be consequences for complaining. She said she, like many of her colleagues, did not understand that such behaviour was an abuse of power.

She promised a more consultative, collaborative and transparent approach to dealing with such issues.

“We will do what is right – for those harmed and for the future of National Defence,” she said.

Reservist Sam Samplonius, who is a sexual-assault survivor and a co-chairperson of the It’s Not Just 700 support and advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault, said in an interview Monday that she found the apologies sincere, but lacking in details on next steps.

In the last Parliament, opposition parties called for Mr. Sajjan to resign over his handling of multiple allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the military.

Ahead of Monday’s apology, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there will always be work to do on the issue, and that changing the culture of the military needs to happen, but can’t happen overnight.

“It’s clear this is something we profoundly regret,” he said.

Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the Conservative defence critic, said in statement that the government needs to turn its words into action.

“The simple fact is that for over six years the Liberals have failed to address the sexual misconduct crisis in the military,” she said

NDP defence critic Lindsay Mathyssen said an apology alone doesn’t make up for six years of inaction.

“Sympathy and words won’t solve the pervasive problems if they aren’t backed up with real, urgent action,” she said in a statement. “It seems that every week the media reports more stories of women whose accusations of sexual misconduct or assault weren’t taken seriously by the CAF or the Liberal government who oversees it.”

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