Court martial for sexual assault hears from complainant at Base Gagetown

Cpl. Steven O’Dell, a soldier at Base Gagetown, is charged with sexually assaulting a female soldier in 2018. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)
Cpl. Steven O’Dell, a soldier at Base Gagetown, is charged with sexually assaulting a female soldier in 2018. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)

A court martial got underway at Base Gagetown on Monday for a soldier charged with sexual assault.

Cpl. Steven O'Dell is charged under the National Defence Act with sexual assault. The offence is alleged to have occurred between Nov. 1 and 22, 2018, near Summerside, P.E.I.

The identity of the complainant is protected by a publication ban.

On Monday afternoon, the woman testified that she was on the same training exercise as O'Dell in November 2018. She said she had a couple of brief conversations with him before she found herself in the back of a light-armoured vehicle with O'Dell and two others.

They were on an explosives training exercise and the four took cover in the vehicle when there was an explosives "find." The protocol was to seek the nearest shelter until the all-clear was given.

She said the vehicle was already crammed with equipment and duffel bags, so O'Dell sat on the floor and she took the bench beside him, while the other two soldiers sat beside her.


She said there wasn't much conversation. She said she propped her feet on top of the pile of equipment to give O'Dell more room on the floor. Her legs were over him but not touching him.

The woman said O'Dell put his hand on her boot near her ankle and asked if that was OK. She said it was.

She testified that she laid her head back and closed her eyes — resting but not sleeping. She said she felt "a sensation, like fingers" going from the inside of her knee and up her thigh.

She said she opened her eyes and saw O'Dell's "fingers on my vagina." She said she pushed his hand off and asked, in a whisper so the others wouldn't hear, what he was doing.

She said O'Dell responded, "Is that not OK?"

She said she responded, "Why the f--ck would that be OK?"

The all-clear came soon after and they all piled out of the vehicle. She said she pretended nothing happened for the duration of the 48-hour task they were on. Then she told a superior so she wouldn't have to work with O'Dell again.

She said the report went up the chain of command and her superior was "more than happy" to pursue a full report and investigation. She said she didn't want that.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

In his opening address to the panel, military prosecutor Maj. Max Reede said the woman wasn't interviewed by the military police until two years after the incident, although he didn't specify why or how the military police got involved.

Investigations now in civilian hands

O'Dell, a member of the 4th Engineer Support Regiment at Gagetown, elected to be tried by a panel of his military peers.

His court martial for sexual assault is likely to be one of the last after changes were made to how the military handles allegations of sexual assault against its members.

In May, former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour said all sexual assault charges should be handled by civilian police forces and courts, citing past mismanagement of sexual misconduct allegations and an overall resistance to change.

The allegations against O'Dell, however, were already underway under the military system.

In her address to the five-person panel on Monday, Judge Commander Catherine Deschênes made note of an "increased commitment" to pursuing justice in sexual assault cases in the military. But, she stressed, that commitment must not detract from the right of an accused to a fair trial.

Deschênes asked the panel members if they had any concerns or felt pressure to convict and one by one, all five answered no.