Sexual assault rates within the Canadian Armed Forces saw a “significant increase” in 2022 despite promises of reform within the military following years of intense scrutiny, Statistics Canada says.
The national statistical agency released on Tuesday the results of a survey that found roughly 1,960 regular force members, roughly 3.5 per cent, reported they were sexually assaulted either inside or outside the workplace involving a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) or another military member.
“This rate of sexual assault — which includes sexual attacks, unwanted sexual touching, and sexual activity where the victim was unable to consent — represents a significant increase from rates reported in 2018 (1.6 per cent) and 2016 (1.7 per cent) when previous iterations of the survey were conducted,” Statistics Canada said.
CAF was described as a “broken system” that is a “liability” to the country by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, in her blistering report into sexual misconduct in May 2022.
Arbour’s review was formally launched a year before that — in May 2021 — in response to exclusive reporting by Global News into allegations of sexual misconduct among the highest ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Global News first brought to light in February 2021 allegations of sexual misconduct against senior leaders — the first of dozens of exclusive reports into such allegations and the military’s handling of them over the 18 months after that initial report.
The federal government has promised reform, and said earlier this month that a highly anticipated review into Canada’s military college system — an “outdated” program with a “problematic leadership model” as described by Arbour — is “about to be launched.”
Statistics Canada said on Tuesday its report is based on results from the Survey on Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces that was conducted by StatCan in 2022, on behalf of CAF.
From October 2022 to January 2023, the response rate among regular force members was 33 per cent, down from 52 per cent in 2018 and 61 per cent in 2016.
In all, 18,582 regular force members completed the survey in 2022; their responses were weighted to represent the entire regular force population, Statistics Canada said, which added the submitted responses represented approximately 56,000 regular force members.
National Defence Minister Bill Blair told reporters on Tuesday the study’s finding reinforces the “obligation” the government has to reforming the CAF.
“The results of this survey also show us clearly that there is a great deal more work to do, and they reaffirm that the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces must continue to evolve and change,” he said.
“We have an obligation, an obligation we take very seriously and are absolutely committed to build a safe, respectful and professional workplace for all of the people serving in the armed forces.”
What role do drugs, alcohol play?
Statistics Canada’s study found 33 per cent of regular force members who were sexually assaulted in 2022 believed it was related to the perpetrator’s alcohol or drug use.
Women (43 per cent) were more likely than men (28 per cent) to state this. Forty-nine per cent of respondents believed it was not, while the remaining 18 per cent did not know if alcohol or drug use by the perpetrator was a factor. The finding was similar to that of previous studies, Statistics Canada said.
Lt.-Gov. Jennie Carignan, chief of professional conduct and culture with CAF, told reporters Tuesday the military must have “constant vigilance” over alcohol or drug use by its members.
“There are mandated programs that do work in this space with our members, so it’s remaining vigilant,” Carigan said.
“It’s focusing on prevention and it’s focusing on intervention during these events where we can supervise, so it’s a mix of many things that we are putting together to do better.”
Carignan added that banning the use of alcohol at CAF events with the holidays approaching “does not allow us to do better.”
“If you ban alcohol altogether, you may create other bigger issues in the background where parties happen at private houses and so on,” Carignan said.
“We are tracking the incidents of sexual misconduct and assaults as well in private dwellings, and we want to make sure that we have a balanced approach to this and also rely on our folks as well to make the right decision and the right call.”
What’s behind the lack of trust?
Statistics Canada also found that the most common reason stated for not reporting sexual assault was the belief that it would not make a difference, cited by 41 per cent of regular force members who had been sexually assaulted. That was followed by fear of negative consequences (36 per cent) and resolving the incident informally on their own (34 per cent).
Sexual assault was more prevalent among women (7.5 per cent) than men (2.8 per cent). Unwanted sexual touching was the most common form of sexual assault reported at 3.3 per cent. Smaller proportions of regular force members were victims of sexual attacks (0.6 per cent) and sexual activity where they were unable to consent (0.6 per cent).
Among those who did report sexual assault to someone in authority, nearly two-thirds (66 per cent) faced some sort of negative consequence as a result, Statistics Canada found.
The most common negative impacts cited were exclusion, bullying, or teasing from peers or other CAF members, being blamed or feeling further victimized, or negative impacts on their career, such as retaliation or reprisal.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters on Tuesday that she “absolutely” agrees “we need to do more.”
“I do want all Canadian women in uniform to know we recognize the challenge, we recognize the pain and the fear, and we are totally committed to supporting them,” she said.
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