Canadian military reports steady decline in sexual-misconduct complaints

OTTAWA — Canada’s military says it is making progress in its battle against sexual misconduct in the ranks, citing a report that documents a steady decline in the number of complaints lodged with commanders over the past three years.

The war, however, appears far from over: despite the decline, Forces members continue to report hundreds of incidents of inappropriate or even criminal behaviour to their chain of command each year.

Commanders received a total of 302 complaints of sexual misconduct during the last fiscal year between April 2018 and March 2019, according to the military’s sexual-misconduct incident tracking report released Tuesday — a decline of 25 per cent from 2017-18 and 33 per cent fewer than 2016-17.

“Our collective efforts are beginning to yield results,” said Commodore Rebecca Patterson, the head of the military’s sexual-misconduct response team, although she acknowledged more information would be needed to ensure the trends are real.

The tracking report only includes incidents reported by service members to their superiors, who are required to enter it into a database specifically designed for the purpose. Officials say many other incidents are never reported, including when victims do not want to raise it publicly.

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada released the results of a survey of 36,000 service members that found 70 per cent had seen or experienced sexualized behaviour over the previous 12 months — 10 per cent fewer than when a similar poll was conducted two years earlier.

The Statistics Canada survey indicated “members are witnessing and experiencing less sexualized and discriminatory behaviour,” Patterson said, “and the decline in overall reported incidents in this report backs up those findings.”

Patterson nonetheless acknowledged the military has more work to do, noting: “It takes time to build trust and achieve lasting results.”

Much of the decline in reported sexual misconduct over the past three years could be traced to a sharp decrease in what the military describes as “inappropriate sexual behaviour,” which includes the use of sexual language, displaying sexual materials and indecent acts.

Yet Marie-Claude Gagnon, a former naval reservist who founded a group for survivors of military sexual trauma called It’s Just 700, worried the numbers didn’t reflect progress but a growing loss of trust by victims that complaints would be properly handled.

“Since 2015, the Canadian Armed Forces has been enticing victims to report sexual misconduct yet not provide them with adequate support and not consulting with them when they made very important changes that impact victims,” she said.

She specifically pointed to the large number of service members who reported seeing or witnessing sexual misconduct — especially sexual assaults — in the Statistics Canada survey and the comparatively small number of incidents reported to commanders.

According to the Statistics Canada survey conducted in November 2018, 1.6 per cent of regular-force members — which works out to about 900 full-time military personnel — reported having been the victims of sexual assaults over the previous 12 months.

The rate among reservists was even higher, with 2.2 per cent — about 600 part-time military personnel — reporting they had been victims of a sexual attack, unwanted sexual touching or sexual activity without consent in the previous year.

Eighty-four sexual assaults were reported to the chain of command last year, according to the tracking report, compared to 114 in 2017-18 and 63 in 2016-17.

“In my opinion, if we do a comparison between the results shared today with the findings from the Statistics Canada survey, we can see a loss of trust,” said Gagnon, who nonetheless hoped several new initiatives providing victims with more rights and support will help.

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.

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