OTTAWA — The country’s top military commander has been called on the parliamentary carpet to answer questions about reports of sexual violence in the military.
Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of defence staff, was grilled Tuesday by the Commons defence committee about a recent magazine report that claimed sex assaults within the ranks are at an epidemic level.
The story, published by Maclean’s and L’actualite magazines, interviewed several victims and examined a decade’s worth of statistics documenting reported attacks.
It said military police get as many as 200 complaints of sexual assault each year, with many more cases going unreported by victims who fear the potential consequences from within the military hierarchy.
Lawson told the committee he found the allegations disturbing, and acknowledged the courage of those victims who spoke out.
An internal review carried out since the claims were first reported last month has identified “some barriers” that prevent alleged victims from coming forward, he testified.
Lawson said an independent review from outside the military is being organized, one that will have the authority to interview military members and could potentially uncover fresh allegations of assault.
But he said he does not accept the notion that sexual violence and harassment are part of military culture, citing a recent internal survey that suggested harassment of all kinds has been declining steadily over the last decade.
Lawson said only a small percentage of those who took part in the 2012 survey said they’ve faced harassment, but he conceded the numbers are higher when the results are parsed by gender.
“I think there is an under-reporting going on,” Lawson said, “and we need to do everything we can to deal with any issues that stand in the way of someone coming forward.”
But defence critic Jack Harris didn’t buy those assurances, saying that the issue has resurfaced time and again since a similar media expose was written in the late 1990s.
“As a Canadian I’m more than concerned and disturbed,” said Harris. National Defence is three years behind in reporting criminal statistics within the military to Parliament, he added.
“I’m quite angry to find that — from these reports — the military hasn’t responded appropriately to individuals who were victims.”
When reports of sexual assault and harassment in the military were in the headlines a dozen years ago, the chief of defence staff at the time conceded there was a problem, but Lawson was not prepared to go that far.
“We need to do better,” he told the committee, noting that the military has put in place a series of initiatives over the years to protect alleged victims and to punish perpetrators.
But Liberal MP Judy Sgro was skeptical, saying she heard similar assurances from the RCMP when the issue of sex assault in the federal police force was in the headlines.
“I’m sad to be sitting here today and infuriated,” Sgro said.
When RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson testified two years ago about assault and harassment allegations, he said all the right things to convince the committee that the force was on the right track, she said.
“You know, I believed him. I actually bought his story. And, you know, may be he was sincere that day, but it went straight downhill from there.”
The RCMP now have more stringent guidelines that prevent members from speaking out, Sgro noted.
Military officials who testified alongside Lawson pointed out that there have been instances when the accused and their alleged victims have been moved around, once a complaint has been filed.
In some rare circumstances, when the accused is a commanding officer, the individual has been relieved, they said.
But Harris said there has only been one conviction out of 12 recent cases of sexual assault that were tried by the military justice system.