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Canadian military-college students report widespread sexual misconduct

OTTAWA — A new Statistics Canada report that paints a picture of widespread sexual misconduct at the country’s prestigious military colleges is prompting fresh criticism as well as promises of action more than six years after the Canadian Armed Force

OTTAWA — A new Statistics Canada report that paints a picture of widespread sexual misconduct at the country’s prestigious military colleges is prompting fresh criticism as well as promises of action more than six years after the Canadian Armed Forces first committed to rooting such behaviour from the ranks.

The report follows a survey of 512 officer cadets at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and its French-language counterpart in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., in which 68 per cent of students said they had witnessed or personally experienced what was described as unwanted sexualized behaviour. That included sexual jokes or comments about a student’s appearance.

That was not far off the 71 per cent of students at other post-secondary institutions across Canada who reported witnessing or experiencing such behaviour. But the military ordered a crackdown on such activities across the Armed Forces after a series of media reports about sexual misconduct in the ranks was first published in 2014.

And 28 per cent of female respondents said they had been sexually assaulted during their time at the military colleges — nearly twice the rate among students at post-secondary institutions in the rest of the country.

Fifteen per cent of female officer cadets reported having been sexually assaulted in the past 12 months, compared to 11 per cent in the general population. 

Sexual touching was the most common form of assault experienced by both women and men at the Canadian military colleges, according to the report, while "11 per cent of women CMC students indicated that they experienced sexual attacks — the most serious form of sexual assault.

Marie-Claude Gagnon, a former naval reservist who founded a group for survivors of military sexual trauma called It's Just 700, said the findings raise serious questions and concerns about the environment at the two colleges. Gagnon suggested the Canadian Armed Forces has yet to truly acknowledge there is a unique problem at the institutions.

"The stats keep proving that there's actually a higher prevalence in service and now in military colleges than happens in civil society," Gagnon said. "But in order for that to be looked into, they need to first acknowledge that there's a difference. … That it's not just people coming in with that baggage."

Retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps first flagged concerns about Canada's military colleges in a damning report about sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces in March 2015. The report cited students describing sexual assault as a rite of passage and an ever-present threat at the institutions.

Yet a panel of former military officers reported to chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in March 2017 that there was no evidence of widespread sexual misconduct at the Royal Military College in Kingston, a finding Vance appeared to accept given a lack of police reports and other indicators.

"I would know if there was a trend," Vance told The Canadian Press at the time. "If there was a serious problem there, we would know."

Following the release of the Statistics Canada report on Thursday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he was "deeply concerned" about the findings before promising, without details, to take action to address the problem.

"Even one instance of sexual misconduct or discrimination is one too many," he said in a statement. "That is completely unacceptable and has no place in our institutions or our country. We will take all action necessary to ensure that these educational institutions are safe and inclusive for everyone."

The Canadian Armed Forces released its own unsigned statement saying sexual misconduct will not be tolerated in the military. It also said the Forces is looking at ways to address the problem at the colleges, though it added that the survey was conducted in 2018 and 2019 — before several new programs were introduced. 

Those include new training for faculty to better recognize, prevent and respond to sexual misconduct as well as new curriculum for officer cadets developed by the Kingston college and the military’s sexual misconduct response centre in Ottawa. Two women’s support groups have also been created in Saint-Jean, the military said.

Gagnon said after six years of promises to tackle the problem, she would have expected better results from the military colleges. At the same time, she expressed concern that the issue has started to slip off the radar for the Armed Forces as fatigue and other issues such as COVID-19 preoccupy leaders, which she suggested spoke to a bigger problem.

"If there was buy-in, there wouldn't be the need for external pressure to keep bringing this subject up," she said. "People would believe it's a problem that needs to be fixed and they would push that problem to be fixed. … I think this is a symptom of not having the buy-in from the people making the boots-on-the-ground decisions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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