Survivor group urges patience as feds face calls for military sex misconduct apology

Survivor group urges patience as feds face calls for military sex misconduct apology

OTTAWA — A survivors’ group is urging patience as the federal government faces calls to deliver a long-promised apology to military personnel affected by sexual misconduct while in uniform.

The apology was first promised in 2019 as part of a settlement deal with current and former service members in several class-action lawsuits, with plans for the chief of defence staff and deputy minister of the Department of National Defence to deliver it.

With the apology still missing in action two years later, the Royal Canadian Legion on Wednesday called for the government to make good on its promise and acknowledge what was “an institutional crisis and leadership failure over a period of four decades.”

“The Legion is optimistic that positive change will happen, and it needs to start with an apology from the government,” it added in a statement.

Yet even as the Legion was calling for action, one of the co-chairs of It’s Not Just 700, a support and advocacy group created for survivors of military sexual trauma, said members of her group don’t want the event rushed.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Sam Samplonius said many survivors are struggling as they are forced to revisit and relive extremely painful memories to apply for inclusion in the $900-million settlement before next week’s deadline.

“For the people in our group, I don’t think they would really absorb it as well as they would after the deadline,” she said.

“Right now, everybody’s focused on the deadline. And there’s a bit of panic out there about making the deadline. … Some people are still deciding whether or not they want to put in (a claim) because they don’t know if they want to revisit those things.”

More than 15,000 current and former service members have submitted claims as part of the settlement agreement, with nearly 5,000 having been approved for payment. Nearly 4,000 have also asked to participate in “restorative engagement.”

Survivors also want a genuine apology from the government and military rather than something that is rushed or disingenuous, Samplonius said.

“We would rather see an authentic and sincere apology made instead of something just scrambled together because they said they would do it,” she said. “We don’t want a check-in-the-box apology. We want something that’s well thought out.”

Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier on Wednesday said the government had been hoping to hold an in-person event if the COVID-19 pandemic allowed, but is now looking at a virtual ceremony before the end of the year.

While that doesn’t rule out an event next week, the signs aren’t looking likely.

“We recognize that this apology is an important part of restoring relationships with those harmed by sexual misconduct and that this matter is deeply personal and emotional for those who have been affected,” Le Bouthillier said in a statement.

It also isn’t clear whether the defence chief and deputy minister will deliver the apology, as was originally the plan, or whether that role will shift to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Defence Minister Anita Anand.

Trudeau personally apologized in the House of Commons in 2017 for the mistreatment of LGBTQ military personnel in previous decades, with formal letters of apology sent to hundreds of former service members afterward.

That apology came ahead of a settlement that Ottawa reached with troops and Defence Department civil servants discriminated against and in some cases forced from their jobs by what has been described as the government’s gay purge.

Asked last year whether the prime minister or defence minister should apologize instead of the defence chief and deputy minister, the Prime Minister’s Office noted the policies contributing to the purge were ordered by governments of the day.

The Liberals have since been accused of not doing enough to tackle sexual misconduct in the ranks after several senior officers were implicated in allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

The apology was not required as part of the settlement agreement, said lawyer Jonathan Ptak, who represented some of the plaintiffs in the six overlapping lawsuits that included both military personnel and civilian Defence Department employees.

Yet while the government voluntarily offered it when a court was reviewing the settlement agreement, Ptak said it should be delivered before the claims period ends next week.

“The apology, together with the attention that it will generate, could assist in encouraging participation in the claims process and foster culture change,” he said in a statement.

While Samplonius said there is merit to the argument, she noted there has been a great deal of advertising, internal notices and other outreach to inform survivors of the settlement agreement.

“I would hazard a guess to say that most of the people that would be putting anything in already do know about it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s too many people that don’t know about it at this point.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Military