Military bans members on trial from wearing uniforms, medals in civilian court

Military bans members on trial from wearing uniforms, medals in civilian court

The military is banning its members from wearing their uniforms and medals in civilian court while defending themselves on criminal charges.

The move comes after CBC News reported two months ago that military sexual trauma survivors were offended by a highly-decorated military commander's decision to wear his uniform and medals to his ongoing sexual assault trial.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the former head of Canada's vaccine task force, was charged last year with one count of sexual assault in connection with an alleged incident in 1988. He has pleaded not guilty.

Since Fortin's trial began in September, he has defended himself in court while wearing his uniform and ten medals across his chest.

A spokesperson for Fortin — who did not want to be named due to concerns about online reprisals — said in September that Fortin is presumed innocent and it's appropriate for him, as a serving officer, to wear his uniform in court.

But some sexual trauma survivors described Fortin's decision to wear his medals as an act of intimidation that would have a silencing effect on survivors.

They said the uniform is a powerful symbol of the institution and wearing it could make a complainant feel like they're facing off in court against the entire Canadian Armed Forces.

In response to the complaints and media questions, the Department of National Defence said in September the military would review its dress code policy.

At that time, the department was saying military members were allowed to wear their uniforms to civilian court — but it was an individual choice for which they were solely responsible.

WATCHMilitary commander criticized for wearing full uniform to civilian trial: 

The Canadian Armed forces leadership has now told all military personnel that, starting on December 1, they will be allowed to wear their uniforms to civilian criminal court only if they are testifying on behalf of the forces or the Crown in a military capacity.

If a military member wants an exemption to the new rule, they have to submit a written request and get approval from the chain of command, the directive said.

The new policy is in line with other police forces in Canada and allies' military forces, the directive to military members said.

"The cultural evolution of the CAF is an ongoing process," said DND spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier in a media statement. "Over the last year, the Defence Team committed to using integrated, transparent and trauma-informed approaches as part of its culture growth initiatives."

The civilian judicial system prosecutes a series of offences involving military members, including murder, manslaughter and sexual assault.

INJ20K, a volunteer-based military sexual trauma survivor group, said in a media statement it raised concerns about the dress policy with the military and is "pleased" with this decision.

"Restricting the wearing of a CAF uniform to court except in cases of a duty purpose is the absolute right decision," wrote INJ20K co-chair Sam Samplonius. (DND has confirmed the navy has covered travel expenses for members of INJ20K to attend training sessions.)

Christian Patry/CBC
Christian Patry/CBC

Retired major Donna Riguidel said the "larger issue was the lack of compassion or empathy for survivors' pain." 

Riguidel has been hired by the military to conduct training sessions to improve how military members respond to sexual misconduct disclosures and said the past uniform policy was "not trauma-informed."

"It is hard to trust when there is no official recognition of that pain until weeks later," said Riguidel, who is the founder of Survivor Perspectives Consulting Group.

In response to Fortin wearing his uniform in the past, Riguidel said "it remains telling to me that someone at that level of leadership prioritized ego over care of the injured."

Fortin is scheduled to return to court on Dec. 5, when the judge presiding over his case is expected to render a decision.

According to the new policy, Fortin will have to wear civilian clothes to his trial for the first time.

Fortin and his lawyer have said they will not comment on any matters related to his trial while the trial continues.