Sexual misconduct persists in military despite efforts to curb assault, StatsCan reports

There's been little change in the number of members of the Canadian military reporting sexual assault and misconduct, despite an ongoing series of criminal cases and other efforts to stamp out the problem.

A new report by Statistics Canada painted a trouble portrait of what appears to be an intractable social and legal issue within the ranks of the Armed Forces.

In 2018, 900 members of the regular Canadian Armed Forces, or 1.6 per cent, reported being victims of sexual assault, compared to 1.7 per cent two years earlier, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The report defines sexual assault as sexual attacks, unwanted sexual touching or sexual activity where the victim wasn't able to consent.

Women soldiers, sailors and air crew members were four times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, and 4.3 per cent of women in the regular forces were victims, compared to 1.1 per cent of men.

The CAF launched Operation Honour in 2015 to respond to sexual misconduct in the workplace, bringing in programs to combat inappropriate behavioiur, help victims and encourage reporting.

The report found 45 per cent of regular force members felt the operation has been very or extremely effective so far, and 49 per cent think it will be very or extremely effective going forward.

Overall, sexual assault was more prevalent among the primary reserves, where about 2.2 per cent, or 600 people, reported sexual abuse. In  2016, 2.6 per cent of the part-time military members reported being victims of sexual assault.  The prevalence of sexual assault was nearly six times higher for women in the reserves, at seven per cent, compared to 1.2 per cent of men.

During a news conference announcing the results, the military's second-in-command described the number of Forces members who continue to be affected by sexual misconduct as "completely unacceptable."

Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

"We've always known that this would be a long and bumpy road, and the survey results released today confirm this," vice-chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Paul Wynnyk said.

"Sexual misconduct continues to be a destructive problem within the Canadian Armed Forces, and we have made rather limited progress in eliminating it over the past two-and-a-half years."

Unwanted sexual touching was the most common form of sexual assault experienced by regular and primary forces in 2018, which is consistent with reporting in the general population.

Younger women targeted

Reservists are comparatively younger than regular forces, with 34 per cent of reservists 24 years or younger, compared to eight per cent of regular force members.

More than half of all sexual assaults in the military, in both regular and reserve forces, involved a peer. But there is an exception among female reservists, who reported a higher number of incidents involving a supervisor or someone of a higher rank (51 per cent, up from 38 per cent in 2016). 

Earlier this year, CBC News reported that seven 10 recommendations to stamp out sexual misconduct in the military were "not yet fully achieved," four years after a former judge's landmark report on rampant abuse in the ranks.

Commanders have grappled with the issue of sexual misconduct in the ranks since media reports in April 2014 that a large number of military sexual assaults were being ignored or played down.

An independent investigation by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in April 2015 found an "underlying sexual culture" in the military that was hostile to women and left victims to fend for themselves.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Retired Master Cpl. Stephanie Raymond, whose sexual assault case sparked the review by Deschamps and the eventual  crackdown on inappropriate behaviour, said much of what has been done by the military does not address the underlying issue.

"What [the statistics] tell me is that maybe Operation Honour doesn't work [well] enough or target the real force of the problem," Raymond told CBC News on Wednesday.

She, and other alleged victims, said the root of the problem is the military's macho culture and training which perpetuates it.

"Some members of the Canadian Armed Forces have gone awry in terms of trying to teach soldiers how to be tough ...  disrespectful behaviour is what they're trying to pass off as being able to show that you that you can handle adversity," said Paula MacDonald, who spent over two years in the military before leaving in 2016 because of harassment.  "The reality of the matter is that [the behaviour] is destructive and it's harmful to everyone involved."

"I think the shift now has to be in the House of Commons."

Retired Col. Michel Drapeau, who practises military law, said the defence department has been given enough time to deal with the issue and it should be handed over to Parliament to legislate.  

"I think the shift now has to be in the House of Commons. I really do," said Drapeau, who pointed to a recent senate committee report which suggested that even lawmakers are losing patience. "They've concluded that Op Honour is not the solution that everybody expected."

The solution, said Drapeau, is to legislate the removal of sexual assault and misconduct prosecutions from the military and put it in civilians hands.