The Canadian military’s effort to reduce sexual misconduct within its ranks is making little progress despite a high-profile campaign launched four years ago by General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff.
The number of military members who say they were sexually assaulted last year is virtually unchanged from 2016, according to a Statistics Canada survey released Wednesday.
And, the survey suggests, most incidents of sexual misconduct are still going unreported to authorities, even though the Armed Forces has created a sexual misconduct response centre and issued a 100-page manual detailing how the behaviour is to be addressed.
“The number of personnel who continue to be affected by sexual misconduct is completely unacceptable,” Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk, the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff, said in a statement after the report’s release. “Those who engage in sexual misconduct are not welcome in the profession of arms and, with my colleagues, I will continue to work to end this threat.”
The Statscan survey was distributed last fall to all serving members of the military, at the request of the military, as a follow-up to a previous survey conducted by the agency in 2016.
About 900 regular Forces members – 1.6 per cent of all regular serving members – responded by saying they had been sexually assaulted in the previous year. Sexual assault, according to the survey, includes a sexual attack, unwanted sexual touching, or sexual activity in which they had no opportunity to consent.
Reservists were more likely than regular members of the Forces to say they had been victimized, possibly because reservists tend to be younger than regular members. Roughly 600 of them – 2.2. per cent of the reservist population – said they had been assaulted.
Among female respondents in the regular forces, the proportion of sexual assaults that were alleged to have been committed by their superiors declined significantly between 2016 and 2018 – to 38 per cent from 49 per cent.
But for female reservists, the opposite was true. The proportion of sexual assaults they reported as having been committed by a supervisor or someone of high rank increased to 44 per cent from 33 per cent between 2016 and 2018.
Gen. Vance declared in July, 2015, when he took over as top soldier that any form of sexual misconduct is a threat to morale, a threat to operational readiness and “a threat to this institution."
Sexual assault of female service members had, by that time, been making headlines since 1998, and a report by a former Supreme Court justice had found a “sexualized culture” within the Armed Forces.
Gen. Vance launched what he called Operation Honour to combat the abuse and imposed a “duty to report” any incident of sexual assaults, both on the part of victims and of those who witness inappropriate behaviour.
But the results have been less than stellar.
The new survey suggests that just one in four sexual assaults of regular Forces members were reported last year to someone in authority. A similar proportion was reported in 2016.
Reservists, on the other hand, appear increasingly willing to step forward. Thirty per cent of those surveyed said a superior had been apprised after an alleged sex assault, up from 18 per cent in 2018. But more than half of those who reported an incident said they were dissatisfied with the follow-up actions taken by the military.
On a positive note, fewer numbers of both reservists and regular Forces members reported hearing, seeing or experiencing inappropriate sexualized or discriminatory behaviours in their workplaces in 2018 than in 2016. And there was increased awareness both of Operation Honour and of the work of the sexual misconduct response centre.
Commodore Rebecca Patterson, the director-general of the strategic response team created by the military to fight sexual abuse, said in an interview that, while the results of the survey were disappointing, they were not unexpected. The Statscan report is a “snapshot” that will help the military decide its next steps, she said.
A new campaign aimed at prevention is being developed in response to the survey results, which are “concerning,” Cmdre. Patterson said. “Obviously we need to readjust our process.”