OTTAWA — Canada's top soldier struck an optimistic note Friday about efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks, even as the military promised to re-open dozens of sexual assault cases previously deemed "unfounded."
Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance expressed anger and frustration late last year that some military personnel were continuing to behave inappropriately, despite his clear order for them to stop.
But in his latest update on what the military calls Operation Honour, Vance offered a more upbeat assessment, saying progress is being made on a number of fronts.
Those include better training for all service members, improved services and support for victims and a tougher line on those who continue to act inappropriately.
"I am confident that we've been moving in the right direction on Operation Honour," Vance told reporters at National Defence Headquarters.
The military said that since January, it has moved to kick out 77 members who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct.
Those cases are still being reviewed, and Vance said some may end up staying in the Forces, but the figure represents a dramatic increase from the 26 members who were released last year.
"At the end of last year, I ordered that every member of the Canadian Armed Forces who's found guilty of sexual misconduct should receive a notice of intent to recommend their release," Vance said.
"My orders and my expectations were clear and the consequences are also clear."
Vance also revealed that military police are re-opening 166 cases involving complaints of sexual assault that had been reported between 2010 and 2016, but deemed "unfounded."
During that period, nearly one in three cases was labelled as unfounded, a rate the military's top police officer, Brig-Gen. Robert Delaney, confirmed was higher than that of most civilian police forces.
It's also nearly double the number that military police labelled as unfounded last year, an improvement Delaney attributed to the fact all such cases are now handled by the military's special investigative service.
Previously, many incidents would have been handled by less experienced military police officers at whatever Canadian Forces Base or facility the alleged sexual assault occurred.
Much of the concern that has prompted the current focus on sexual misconduct within the military has revolved around complaints from victims that their cases were not handled properly.
Delaney acknowledged that investigating sexual assault cases years after the fact can be difficult, but he maintained the unfounded cases from 2010 to 2016 won't be as hard as those that go back decades.
Helping matters, he added, will be the military's plan to enlist outside advisers such as social workers and other experts in the field who can look at the files independently and even meet victims.
"We are taking a very deliberate, open and transparent approach to reviewing those cases," Delaney said.
"If there are any cases where we feel more investigative work was required, potentially we closed a file too early, then I will re-open those files. … and potentially charges will result from that."
Progress was very much the theme on Friday, as defence officials also noted that the percentage of female personnel in uniform had increased by 0.3 per cent in the last year.
That represented the first real growth in more than a decade, which officials attributed to a concerted effort to increase the recruitment of women.
The number of courts martial and other legal proceedings involving sexual assault and other related crimes also saw a bump in the last couple of years, as military officials prioritized such cases.
Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, head of the military's sexual misconduct response team, conceded there had been a "surge" in reports about inappropriate sexual behaviour, but she suggested that was a positive development, suggesting people feel more confident coming forward.
Military personnel reported 504 incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the year between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017, National Defence reported, with the majority involving jokes and language.
"People are more sensitive and hyper-sensitive in the workplace now," Bennett said. "People are very aware and sensitive and are stepping forward and reporting things."
Military commanders have been grappling with the issue of sexual misconduct in the ranks since l'Actualite and Maclean's magazines reported in April 2014 that a large number of military sexual assaults were being ignored or played down.
Retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps was tapped to lead an independent investigation into the issue and her explosive report, released in April 2015, described an "underlying sexual culture" in the military that was hostile to women and left victims to fend for themselves.
- Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press