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960 regular force military members reported sexual assault in the last year, StatsCan finds

Canada’s top soldier is vowing to punish or expel all abusive perpetrators from the military in the wake of a new survey by Statistics Canada that found 960 full-time members, or some 1.7 per cent of the regular force, reported sexual assault in the past year.

Responding to the StatsCan survey, Gen. Jonathan Vance said he is “extremely disappointed” that members have defied his explicit commands under Operation Honour.

“My orders were clear, my expectations were clear,” said Vance, chief of the defence staff, calling the survey results “regrettably” sobering. 

The statistics involved incidents that took place in the workplace or in situations involving military members, National Defence employees or contractors.

The survey also found that more than a quarter of all women in the military, or 27.3 per cent, reported sexual assault at least once over their military careers. That is “significantly higher” than the proportion of men, 3.8 per cent, who reported assault during their careers.

Vance says more through training required to stop sexual misconduct2:32

Sexual assault includes unwanted sexual touching, sexual attacks and sexual activity to which the victim is unable to consent.

“Harmful sexual behaviour is a real problem in our institution,” Vance said. “We know it and we’re trying to tackle it head-on.”

More than 43,000 military members voluntarily took part in the StatsCan study that Vance said would serve as a benchmark to measure progress in the future.

Vance said he is determined to create a force that has more women and more diversity in the ranks, and that cohesion and trust must be “rock solid” for the force to be combat-capable.

Sexual assault in the Canadian military

He also reassured those women who do not report incidents due to fear of reprisal that he wants them to trust the process.

“The negative consequences will be for those who are perpetrators, not those who report,” he said.

Female regular force members were four times more likely than males to report being sexually assaulted in the past 12 months (4.8 per cent compared with 1.2 per cent), the survey indicates. 

Among those serving in the primary reserve, which comprises mostly part-time members, 2.6 per cent reported to Statistics Canada that they were victims of sexual assault in the last 12 months. Female primary reserve members (8.2 per cent) were more likely than their male counterparts (1.4 per cent) to report they were victims of sexual assault in the previous year, according to the report.

‘Inappropriate sexualized behaviour’

The survey also found 79 per cent of members in the regular force saw, heard or personally experienced “inappropriate sexualized behaviour” over the previous year, including inappropriate verbal or non-verbal communication, sexually explicit materials, unwanted contact or suggested sexual relationships.

Sexual jokes were the most common type of inappropriate sexualized behaviour, witnessed or experienced by 76 per cent of regular force members.

There were also inappropriate sexual comments (39 per cent) and inappropriate discussion about sex life (34 per cent).

‘Tip of the iceberg’?

During question period Monday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair grilled the government on what concrete actions it was taking in response to the ongoing misconduct, noting the StatsCan reports are likely the “tip of the iceberg.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insisted the behaviour is “completely unacceptable” and said the CAF is fully committed to eradicating sexual abuse in the ranks.

“We need to do better, and we will do better,” he said.

Other findings in the survey include:

  • One in three (34 per cent) regular force members saw, heard or personally experienced behaviour that was discriminatory on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Stereotyping based on sex (that is, suggestions that an individual does not act the way a person of their sex is supposed to act) was the most common type of discriminatory behaviour witnessed in the workplace over the 12 months, with 22 per cent of regular Force members reporting this behaviour.
  • Almost one in four (23 per cent) of victims reported at least once incident of sexual assault to someone in authority.

A crisis response centre was established by the military after a scathing report last year by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps, who outlined an “endemic” culture of sexual harassment in the military.

Vance extremely concerned about unreported assaults2:20

Vance launched Operation Honour as a sweeping campaign to eliminate abuse, harassment and assault within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, director general of the CAF’s Strategic Response Team on Sexual Misconduct, said 30 people have been removed from supervisory roles or positions of command since the launch of that operation, 18 of them permanently.

There have also been courts martial, summary trials and administrative actions that have led to punishment ranging from warnings, fines, counselling or probation to confinement to barracks, imprisonment and dismissal.