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Politics Military’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual assaults still leaves gaps, Auditor-General says

Three years after the Canadian Armed Forces announced a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault within its ranks, the federal Auditor-General says support for victims is fragmented and some members still do not feel safe in filing complaints.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson concluded in a report released on Tuesday that the military is not yet dealing with inappropriate sexual behaviour in a way that will have the intended impact – a goal that leaders of the Armed Forces say is fundamental to creating the trust and cohesion required to carry out missions.

“Those who engage in sexual misconduct will be dealt with,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told a news conference after the report was tabled in Parliament. “Those who turn a blind eye will be held accountable.”

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When General Jonathan Vance took over as Chief of Defence Staff in the summer of 2015, he created Operation Honour to raise awareness of the harmful nature of sexual assaults and incidents of harassment, and to take steps to stop them from occurring.

That operation was a response to an external review by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, which found there was a sexualized culture within the military and that inappropriate behaviour was widespread.

The military took steps to educate members about sexual assault and created a sexual-misconduct response centre that victims could call any time to obtain help and guidance. In addition, bystanders were required to report observed instances of sexual misconduct, and Gen. Vance demanded that information about every allegation be relayed to him personally.

But, the auditor says, while Operation Honour has increased understanding within the Armed Forces that inappropriate sexual behaviour will not be tolerated, it “had a fragmented approach to victim support as well as unintended consequences that slowed its progress and left some members wondering if it would achieve the expectations set for it.”

With the operation in effect, the number of complaints increased from 40 in 2015 to about 300 in 2017, which military brass interpreted as a sign that members believed there would be an effective response when they reported sexual assaults or harassment.

But, says the audit, which was concluded in June of this year, not all members feel safe and supported. Some said Operation Honour has reduced camaraderie. And some female members said they felt isolated because of their peers' fears of interacting with them.

The duty to report all incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour meant that third parties were reporting incidents even when the victims themselves were not ready to step forward, the report says. In addition, it says, the new policies mean the military police are required to conduct an initial investigation of all reports of sexual misconduct even when victims would prefer to resolve the issue informally.

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More than that, the report says the Armed Forces did not always resolve reported cases in a timely manner, with a majority taking an average of seven months to close.

“This discouraged some victims from coming forward,” the audit says. “Many victims also did not understand or have confidence in the complaint system.”

The audit found there were gaps in support services for victims and that not all support providers – including doctors, nurses and chaplains – were adequately trained.

And, while Ms. Deschamps said the new sexual-misconduct response centre, which was created within the Defence department but external to the military, should be responsible for monitoring and preventing inappropriate sexual behaviour, that did not happen, the audit says. The military determined that giving those jobs to an external body would undermine its governance and accountability.

But it has agreed, as a result of the audit, that its own role in helping victims will be reduced. The military says in a written response included in the audit the centre will become the “authoritative voice” on all aspects of victim support and advocacy. In addition, senior officers will develop a national plan to support victims of sexual assault with the centre playing a leading role.

The military says it will also examine its rules to consider the views of victims when deciding how to respond.

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“We need to improve the support we give victims and we are taking steps to do so,” Mr. Sajjan said. It is crucial, he said, that any support “is victim-centric and they are in control.”

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