The federal government should examine how other countries respond to sexual misconduct in the military as it looks to establish a mechanism in Canada for reporting allegations outside the chain of command, experts say.
The Trudeau government said it will set up an independent body for survivors of military sexual misconduct, and announced last week that former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour will conduct an external review and present recommendations for the outside body.
The government has been under sustained political pressure about its handling of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, including a 2018 allegation involving former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance.
Ms. Arbour’s external review will take place six years after another former Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, conducted a review on sexual misconduct in the military. Ms. Deschamps’s report said the only way to increase the frequency of reporting is to create a reporting mechanism outside the chain of command. It said the military organizations of countries such as the United States, Australia and France have independent offices to receive reports of sexual misconduct, provide victim support, conduct training and track data.
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces have expressed confusion over where to take complaints of sexual misconduct. They can report through the military, but many have said they fear reprisals. The commanding officer of the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service, which looks into such complaints, reports directly to the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal.
The Forces’ Sexual Misconduct Response Centre provides confidential support services. Ms. Deschamps told a parliamentary committee recently the centre should be the lead authority for gathering data.
Ottawa also recently announced that Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan will lead a new internal organization overseeing professional conduct and culture.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, said the Canadian Armed Forces has regularly shared data and policy approaches to sexual misconduct with allied militaries in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
Military ombudsman Gregory Lick said in an interview that he was not prepared to speak about Ms. Arbour’s work until more information is available. But he added that there has been a lot of discussion about the need for an independent review process outside the military and the Defence Department. He also said that, at this point, another study is not required to indicate “what we already know.”
“We know we need that external body,” he said. “We’ve heard time and again that without a truly independent body, victims are really reluctant and are scared to come forward with complaints: fear of reprisal, not getting that promotion.”
Mr. Lick told the House of Commons defence committee last month that countries such as the U.K., Australia and Germany set up their military oversight bodies with full independence, legislated mandates and the ability to report to Parliament. He said this could be done in Canada with political will, but it has not been the case so far.
Megan MacKenzie, Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University, said she has looked at other countries for an ideal model, but there really isn’t one.
However, she pointed to the U.S. system as a starting point. She said it is not perfect, but that it’s “much better than what we’ve got.”
She said the U.S. military has been particularly successful at collecting specific data concerning reported incidents of harassment or misconduct. The U.S. armed forces have two reporting streams, she said. One is restricted, which means someone can file a complaint within the military and it will remain confidential. An unrestricted complaint would go through the formal legal processes.
“It recognizes that there’s an institutional problem...it also recognizes that victims have different wants. Some victims don’t want to go through the whole justice system, or they’re not ready yet,” she said.
The U.S. Department of National Defence says on its website that sexual assault is the most underreported crime in society “and in the military.” It specifies that restricted reporting allows sexual assault victims to access health care and advocacy and legal services without notifying command or law enforcement.
A debate is underway in the U.S. over how the government should respond to sexual assault in the military. A proposal to take decisions on sexual assault prosecutions outside the military is under consideration.
Former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick also said Ottawa should look at how other countries address sexual misconduct in the military. He told the House of Commons national defence committee in April that the United States, Britain, Germany, Israel and India are all wrestling with the issue.
“At the end of the day, I think we will have to find a unique, made-in-Canada way forward,” he said.
Mr. Wernick told MPs on the committee to examine the recommendations from Britain’s Wigston Review, calling the report a comprehensive blueprint for how to investigate and deal with inappropriate behaviour in the military. He said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government committed to following up on it, and has tabled progress reports every year.
“I think some mechanism similar to that would be necessary,” Mr. Wernick said.
The report was commissioned by Britain’s defence ministry in 2019.
With a report from the Associated Press.
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