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Military sexual misconduct ‘a national embarrassment’: advocate

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OTTAWA —
The prevalence of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces and the recent high-profile cases involving senior leaders is a “national embarrassment,” says a prominent survivor advocate.

Christine Wood, a former Air Force reservist, survivor of military sexual trauma and co-chair of It’s Just 700, told the House of Commons’ status of women committee on Thursday that the problem is deeply systemic and too often silenced.

“Our collective Canadian conscience has been hit hard by the recent high-profile allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by our most senior leaders. It’s outrageous that two chiefs of defence have faced allegations within weeks of each other, but it’s even more outrageous to accept that 1,600 people report a sexual assault on average every year within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF),” she said.

Military police launched an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in early February, following his retirement. CTV News has not independently verified the allegations. Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, is also under investigation.

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The Liberal government is facing criticism for its handling of the Vance allegation upon hearing about it as early as March, 2018, however an investigation into his behaviour following “rumours” of an inappropriate relationship began in 2015, when he was first appointed defence chief.

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Testimony before the status of women and defence committees, both of which are studying the issue, has centred on how Vance and other senior leaders rose to the top of the chain of command with a history of alleged sexual misconduct, how difficult and complex the reporting process is for members, and what culture change should look like.

Wood said she welcomes the suggestion of an independent body to investigate sexual misconduct allegations, as too many reports aren’t acted on.

“I believe that if there was an independent place, separate from the CAF, where individuals can report an assault, it can be investigated, it can be tracked, and a victim could have an advocate throughout the whole process, that would help them immensely,” she said.

Wood added that, while Operation HONOUR – instituted by Vance in 2015 to raise awareness of sexual misconduct in the Forces – did bring the conversation out of the shadows, it failed to identify the problem and repair the “sexualized” cultural at play.

Julie Lalonde, author and women’s rights advocate, told the committee there must be long-term funding targeted specifically at accommodating not just immediate response measures but also prevention strategies.

“We can prevent the vast majority of sexual violence but if we don’t have the right attitude we’re only going to fund making sure survivors get the counselling they need, which is important, but that’s not prevention work,” she said, adding that includes bystander training.

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Both women underlined the generational divide in the ranks, where older members are more resistant to change.

“The leaders need to lead by example. One of the challenges to that is that there are five generations of people who are serving in the CAF right now, so upper leadership really feels clueless,” said Wood.

This echoes previous testimony by Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter, a naval officer in the Armed Forces, who spoke to the defence committee in March about his own experience reporting an allegation against McDonald.

Trotter said there’s an “old boys network” of senior leaders who approach the issue of sexual misconduct differently than younger members, doubly problematic when those individuals are at the helm of the investigative process.

Survivor-centric training needs to occur across the board, regardless of rank, said Wood.

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