Sexual assault charges against a decorated Canadian Forces officer have thrust the military’s scandalous record on sexual assault and sexual misconduct back into the spotlight.
Lt.-Col. Mason Stalker, the commanding officer of the Edmonton-based 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, has been charged with three counts of sexual assault, four counts of sexual exploitation, one count of sexual interference, one count of invitation to sexual touching and one count of breach of trust by a public officer.
All of the charges are related to a male teen who was involved in the army cadets when Stalker was a volunteer mentor.
“It’s in the news again,” says Dr. Stefanie von Hlatky, an expert in gender in the military and director of the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy.
“Obviously these incidents are tragedies but the fact that they’re coming out in the news more and more and keeping this issue on the radar of the public but also the people in office is good.”
The Canadian Forces was thrown into crisis five years ago, when a decorated officer pled guilty to 88 sexual offences, including the first-degree murders of two women.
Col. Russell Williams, the former commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, received two life sentences for the sexually sadistic murders of Cpl. Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd.
While Williams is the most extreme example, an external review released earlier this year was a searing indictment of the military mindset toward sexual misconduct.
In it, former Supreme Court of Canada judge Marie Deschamps decried the sexualized culture of the armed forces, one that is “hostile to women and LGBTQ members” and “conducive” to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
She called for sweeping cultural change.
“It is not enough to simply revise policies or to repeat the mantra of ‘zero tolerance.’ Leaders must acknowledge that sexual misconduct is a real and serious problem for the organization, one that requires their own direct and sustained attention,” she wrote.
A Statistics Canada report last year found that 7.6 per cent of women and 1.2 per cent of men surveyed had experienced sexual assault by a member of the forces or the Department of Defence.
A large percentage of incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are not reported, Deschamps said.
In the vast majority of cases the victims are women, Deschamps said, but she cited a Statistics Canada report that found male victims of sexual assault by other men, including gang rape.
Following Deschamps’ report, the military released an “Action Plan on Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour.”
That action plan was largely undermined, though, when then-chief of defence staff, Gen. Tom Lawson appeared dismissive of the scale of the problem, saying in an interview that “we’re biologically wired in a certain way.”
“These are not constructive comments by a leader,” Hlatky says.
The new chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, wasted no time in changing the tone. In his first speech earlier this month, Vance declared war on inappropriate sexual behaviour.
“It must stop now,” he said.
Last week, Vance announced “Operation Honour” to end sexual assault and harassment within the ranks.
Vance has urged members of the forces to “call 911” and report all incidents of sexual assault to civilian authorities, taking it out of the chain of command.
“It’s a really good sign that the new chief of defence staff means business,” Hlatky tells Yahoo Canada News.
“This is a major breakthrough.”
But that strong message has to be followed up with consistent action and continued scrutiny, she says.
The charges against Stalker, which have not been tested in court, are a reminder that male-on-male sexual misconduct is also an issue. Based on figures from the U.S. military, it’s “quite prevalent,” she says.
“It’s not just women and men. In this case we’re talking about minors, too.”
Sexual misconduct and predatory behaviour affect everyone in the military, Hlatky says.
“Turning a blind eye to these predatory individuals within the armed forces in undermining their military effectiveness.”