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The federal cabinet was told in 1998 that a public relations problem it was facing over sexual assaults in the Canadian Armed Forces would be quelled if Parliament transferred the investigation of the crimes from civilian to military police because the complaints would be resolved more quickly, newly released cabinet documents reveal.

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Lawyer and retired military officer, Michel Drapeau.

But Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and retired military officer who has represented numerous sex-assault victims, says the military’s police force had no experience with sex crimes at that time and was unprepared for the new responsibility. “No wonder we had a problem over the past 20 years,” says Mr. Drapeau.

In 2015, a former justice of the Supreme Court who conducted an external review of sexual misconduct within the Forces said the military police lacked the appropriate skills and training to deal with sexual-assault victims, and that officers were both confused about relevant policies and insensitive to the issue.

Seventeen years earlier, the mishandling of sexual assaults within the Armed Forces was causing a problem for the federal Liberal government. Maclean’s magazine had written three front-page stories documenting the issue and other media were picking up on it.

A memorandum created by bureaucrats for Jocelyne Bourgon, the clerk of the Privy Council, that was dated June 26, 1998, and kept secret as a matter of cabinet confidence, says both the Minister of National Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff had reiterated that harassment was unacceptable and changes were in the works.

“The media, instead, has chosen to focus on the new allegations of abuse,” says the document that was obtained by Mr. Drapeau under federal Access to Information laws. Moreover, it goes on, the commitment of the Defence Department and the Canadian Forces to be more open about issues “may be contributing to the emergence of the new allegations.”

But the situation would change if Parliament were to adopt a proposed law to amend the National Defence Act and allow the military justice system to try cases of sexual assault, it says.

“The amendment is intended to enable the military to deal with these incidents swiftly for the sake of unit cohesion,” says the memorandum. But, it concedes, "the recent spate of allegations could prompt some observers to question whether the military ought to be ‘trusted’ to try cases such as this equitably.”

The Canadian Forces National Investigative Service (CFNIS) had been created just a year earlier.

Until that time, the military police operated as a constabulary providing background checks, issuing tickets for traffic infractions on bases and citing people who were late for work. Then “we gave them sexual assaults and basically said ‘have a good day,’” said Mr. Drapeau.

Major Jean-Marc Mercier, a spokesman for the military police, said in an e-mail that CFNIS officers learned from experience investigating, as well as from their own training institution and from other Canadian and international police-services training academies.

“Since 2015 the Canadian Forces Military Police have created the Sexual Offence Response Team, consisting of 18 specially trained and experienced MPs who are posted to the CFNIS to conduct all sexual criminal offence investigations,” said Major Mercier.

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Art Eggleton, Liberal defence minister in 1998.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Art Eggleton, who was the Liberal defence minister in 1998, says he does not remember the reasons behind the decision to let military police handle sexual assaults.

“Whatever was in my head was fed by the information provided to me,” said Mr. Eggleton, “but I would have a natural instinct to protect the victims and to make sure the military got a handle on those kinds of things.”

Mr. Drapeau, who was in the military for 34 years, says Mr. Eggleton would have acted on the advice given to him by senior members of the Armed Forces. "Somebody would have walked in and said, Minister, we need to do this,” he said.

Nor is Mr. Drapeau blaming the military police. “They were given an impossible task," he said.

But the cabinet document tells us “why were things so bad and why was the level of trust so bad in the military and why so few military assault victims did not report the crimes."

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