OTTAWA — The head of the response centre for victims of military sexual misconduct says her organization has seen an explosion in requests for assistance since February, with many Armed Forces members “triggered” by allegations of inappropriate behaviour by senior officers.
Sexual Misconduct Response Centre executive director Denise Preston said many service members are also struggling after submitting their claims as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement with the government.
“What we saw, and it’s been maintained throughout the year, is once the allegations started breaking in February and March, we saw an immediate increase in call volume,” she said in an interview.
“Some weeks we had double or triple the number of calls” than usual, she said.
The surge in new calls has sparked the hiring of more counsellors to address what Preston described as “an ongoing crisis,” even as the five-year-old centre prepares to launch several new and highly anticipated initiatives in the new year.
Those include providing independent legal advice and peer support for victims, and a restorative engagement process in which victims will speak to senior defence officials about their experiences in the hopes of preventing similar incidents in the future.
“This program holds tremendous potential for healing and also for transformation of the culture,” Preston said of restorative engagement, which will kick off in earnest in January after months of consultations and preparation.
The centre, which previously served only serving military personnel but has recently expanded to assist veterans and civilian defence officials, is also preparing to expand its footprint across the country and will provide funding to more community-based centres.
Yet even it prepares to launch those initiatives, Preston said the centre is scrambling to help victims and survivors affected by months of headlines that include unprecedented allegations against top commanders.
Staff at the centre’s 24/7 hotline haven’t seen that in only the number of calls coming in; Preston said the nature of the calls has also changed as more people pick up the phone in the hopes of finding support and counselling.
“The vast majority of the calls are for our counsellors,” she said. “It’s really about support. People being triggered and upset about either what they’re hearing or what it’s making them think about their own particular situation.”
As a result, Preston said she has had to put a priority on hiring more counsellors as the number of staff employed by the centre has tripled since April.
The centre was first established in 2016 after a scathing report by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found a highly sexualized culture in the Canadian Armed Forces. The centre operates outside the military’s chain of command, but it relies on the Defence Department for funding.
In the aftermath of allegations against several senior officers, victims and others have called for a truly independent centre whose mandate includes oversight of the military, as Deschamps had originally recommended.
Preston said she has been pushing the Armed Forces to provide more information about incidents of sexual misconduct in the ranks so the response centre can provide better oversight, but that military commanders have resisted on privacy grounds.
She has also met with retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who is currently conducting a review of how the military handles allegations of sexual misconduct and is to come up with recommendations for addressing any shortfalls.
Preston acknowledged the criticism of the centre for not being truly independent, but said she is hoping that when Arbour’s review is done, it will include guidance on both its mandate and reporting mechanism.
“We really would like Madame Arbour to sort of nail that down: What does our independence mean? And independent from whom and for what purpose?”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press