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Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on December 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government is working on a new counselling program for victims of military sexual misconduct – an effort under way after advocates and experts called on Ottawa to offer what is known as peer support.

During recent testimony before the House of Commons defence committee, Denise Preston, executive director of the Department of National Defence’s Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, said peer support, a type of counselling where individuals draw on the experience of others, is not currently offered to sexual trauma survivors in the military. But DND is working on a number of services, she said, such as ensuring military members can access independent legal advice and peer-support programming online and in person.

Locations offering the Operational Stress Injury Social Support services currently provide peer-based non-medical support to veterans and family members, but currently there is no federally funded peer-support network for military sexual trauma survivors.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said all options are on the table as the government explores additional services for military members seeking support.

“We are working to create a Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence free from sexual misconduct and our government is strongly committed to ensuring that all survivors receive the support they need,” press secretary Daniel Minden said.

In recent weeks, the Liberal government – and Mr. Sajjan in particular – have been under intense political pressure after former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne testified that he presented the minister with an allegation about former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance in March, 2018.

Mr. Sajjan declined to see the evidence but told his then chief of staff, Zita Astravas, about the matter. Ms. Astravas informed Elder Marques, then a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), who brought in the Privy Council Office (PCO). The PCO was not able to obtain additional information from Mr. Walbourne, who said he did not have the complainant’s permission to share the evidence.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Friday that his party strongly supports peer-support programs for military sexual trauma survivors. But the Liberals “shamefully” shut down the House of Commons study into sexual misconduct in the military and the failure to investigate allegations involving Mr. Vance, he said.

On Monday, the committee passed a Liberal motion to limit the timeline of its study of sexual misconduct in the CAF, including allegations against Mr. Vance. The motion, brought forward by Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld, passed with the support of the Bloc Québécois.

A majority of the committee, with the exception of the Liberals, supported a motion on Friday seeking to have Mr. Marques testify as a witness.

Mr. Bezan said the Liberals haven shown they are more interested in protecting the Prime Minister than protecting the women and men who serve in uniform, adding that funding peer support “is the very least they can do.”

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison also said those who face sexual harassment in the military deserve support and programs that can help them overcome the trauma they endured.

“It is important to remember that peer programs won’t make up for poor leadership or accountability at the top of an organization,” he said. “Peers or fellow survivors of abuse can be a valuable resource to those who find themselves in similar situations, but it isn’t up to them to pick up the slack for those in positions of power.”

Mr. Garrison said the Liberal government has to stop valuing “plausible deniability over taking action to eliminate abuse and harassment at every level of the Canadian Armed Forces.”

Maya Eichler, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair who leads the Centre for Social Innovation and Community Engagement in Military Affairs at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, said that the need for peer support has only been reinforced by all the stories shared by military sexual trauma survivors over the past weeks.

DND, CAF and Veterans Affairs need to ensure there is equity for all service-related injuries, including those stemming from military sexual trauma, she said. Prof. Eichler added that military sexual trauma is not well recognized as a service-related injury, meaning there are no robust supports in place for victims.

“It is important to recognize that the tendency to privilege combat and deployment-related PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] over other forms of military-related trauma is rooted in gender norms,” she said.

In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to create an independent mechanism for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct in the military, but no formal announcement has yet been made.

With a report from Janice Dickson

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