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Critics frustrated by slow progress a year after report on military sexual misconduct

OTTAWA — One year after receiving 48 recommendations aimed at stamping out sexual misconduct in the military, defence officials gave an update on their progress Thursday that has left critics frustrated with the pace of change.
Canadian Forces personnel stand at CFB Kingston in Kingston, Ont., Tuesday, March 7, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — One year after receiving 48 recommendations aimed at stamping out sexual misconduct in the military, defence officials gave an update on their progress Thursday that has left critics frustrated with the pace of change.

"It's starting to be a little bit too little, too late," said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, who has written a book on military sexual misconduct.

"I understand the need to keep communicating on this issue and keep on signalling that the military and the Department of National Defence are implementing things," she said. 

"We're now two years after the scandal. People want to hear the results."

That scandal in 2021 involved the ouster of a number of high-ranking members of the military — including the former chief of the defence staff, retired general Jonathan Vance — as a result of sexual misconduct allegations. 

At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there had been a "failing of the entire system" and called for an independent review by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.

The Defence Department laid out a plan last December to implement the recommendations from her May 2022 report. 

On Thursday, officials said they had fulfilled one recommendation by renaming the sexual misconduct response centre to the sexual misconduct support and resource centre. 

The centre has launched a new fund to help victims of sexual misconduct with legal fees incurred during criminal proceedings or for four hours' worth of legal advice. The fund would be available to military members and people who say they faced misconduct perpetrated by a military member.

"They can attest to 'it was an incident of sexual misconduct,'" said Linda Rizzo Michelin, the chief operating officer, adding the cases do not need to involve a formal investigation.

A key recommendation of the Arbour report was to transfer jurisdiction of criminal sexual offences from the Canadian Armed Forces to the civilian justice system. 

Arbour said the change was necessary to address doubt about the military's ability to properly handle such cases. But she also noted that some police forces and associations, including the Ontario Provincial Police, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and its B.C. counterpart, opposed the recommendation.

Last summer, Ontario's solicitor general wrote a letter to Defence Minister Anita Anand complaining that the new caseloads were putting a strain on resources. 

As of last July, civilian police services had accepted 31 cases and refused 23 others.

There are agreements in place with the RCMP, Sûreté du Québec and now the Ontario Provincial Police to refer cases to police for investigation, officials said. 

However, in a technical briefing provided to reporters Thursday morning, they refused to give an update on the number of cases that have been referred and the number that have been rejected, if any. 

An official with the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal's office said a breakdown of the case data is being compiled.

Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Anand said in French that the rejection rate is about 50 per cent. 

She also maintained that sexual misconduct is her top priority as minister. 

"Every single day, I am committing hours of work to ensure that we are building the institution that we need, for moral reasons and for operational reasons," she said.

Anand said a federal-provincial-territorial committee has been set up to facilitate conversations between deputy ministers about how case transfers will be handled.

In her report last year, Arbour warned that Ottawa and the provinces could end up engaged in "interminable discussions" about the matter if the federal government did not formally make the change.

The NDP said the Liberals need to introduce legislation.

"It's completely unacceptable, the massive delays when it comes to military misconduct in our Canadian Armed Forces," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters in French.

The chief of professional conduct and culture for the Canadian Armed Forces said Thursday that the military is considering other measures to prevent misconduct, and noted that most incidents happen outside formal military activities.

For instance, the military may change some of its policies around alcohol use after analyzing data that showed a spike in sexual misconduct reports around December — a time when many groups are holding gatherings.

"We know that there is a correlation, but it is not the only one, and many other factors play into that," said Lt. Gen. Jennie Carignan.

Duval-Lantoine said her research showed many members feel there is a problem with alcohol culture in the military.

"There's enough of a correlation that we need to address it," she said. 

"But I would flag that we shouldn't treat it as, 'We're going to limit everyone to one beer per person and then there will no longer be sexual misconduct in the mess.' It's not the case."

The support and resource centre also announced Thursday it would expand its services to include cadets, junior rangers and members of the defence community who are at least 16 years old.

And officials told reporters that they are launching a call for members of the defence community who've been the victims of sexual misconduct to join a consultation group.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press