Sexual misconduct will be removed from military justice system jurisdiction

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WATCH: The federal government is proposing the Canadian Armed Forces be stripped of its power to investigate and prosecute sexual offences within its ranks. Abigail Bimman has more – Mar 21, 2024

Defence Minister Bill Blair has introduced new legislation to remove the Canadian military’s jurisdiction to investigate sexual misconduct, something that advocates, survivors and former Supreme Court of Canada justices have all called for.

“The proposed legislation would provide exclusive jurisdiction to civilian authorities to investigate and prosecute such offences committed in Canada,” said Blair in a statement Thursday.

Blair is amending the National Defence Act as part of a push to modernize the military justice system.

The minister says that about 150 military sexual misconduct investigations have been referred to civilian police since December 2021.

“There are real challenges still today in our in our criminal justice system with the way in which sexual assault matters are dealt with,” Blair said.

“We need to make sure that that system is also supportive of our victims and respectful of their rights and at the same time move forward to our courts as expeditiously as possible so that they can produce a just outcome and not be discharged because of delays.”

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Blair said he has been in contact with provincial attorneys general to give them advance notice of the coming changes and provide additional resources to try and prevent delays in cases being heard.

NDP defence critic Lindsay Mathyssen says overall she’s happy to see the legislation introduced, but sees a gap in sending more cases to the civilian system and not including additional resources.

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“It does seem like a major gap. And I will be pushing on the government to look at that as well,” Mathyssen said.

Blair’s predecessor, Anita Anand, had issued a ministerial directive to transfer sexual misconduct cases not already near completion to civilian courts in one of her first acts as defence minister.

But this legislation will enshrine the major change into law permanently.

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The changes were part of key recommendations made by former Supreme Court justices Louise Arbour and Morris Fish in twin reports examining sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.

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Arbour’s scathing report released in 2022 found the top ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces were “incapable” of recognizing the “deficient” parts of a culture that keep sexual misconduct and abuse of power entrenched.

Global News first brought to light allegations in February 2021 of sexual misconduct against senior leaders in the Canadian Forces — the first of dozens of exclusive reports.

On the timing of bringing this legislation forward after the recommendation was issued two years ago, Blair says this is an important step in overall military cultural change.

“Cultural change is critically important. We’re absolutely committed to it. But I also recognize it’s a process, not an event. This is an important step in that process today,” Blair said.

On getting this bill passed, Blair said he’s spoken with the opposition critics about ensuring the recommendations in Arbour and Fish’s reports are implemented and he hopes to get it to committee study as soon as possible.

“It’s an important step. It doesn’t cover all of the issues that we’ve seen. It certainly doesn’t also address a lot of the people who have been caught in the middle between the public justice system and the civilian justice system and the military justice system,” Mathyssen said.

“So it’s not perfect, but I do believe it’s a first step.”

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The proposed changes in this legislation apply to alleged offences in Canada only. Speaking at a technical briefing on background, defence officials say that there is added complexity to ensure that investigations comply with international law.

The officials add that it is possible to still lay charges in the civilian system for charges outside of Canada, and they continue to look at the possibility of expanding this legislation to alleged offences outside of Canada.

In Arbour’s recommendations, she calls for the military police to take steps to safeguard evidence and begin the investigation, but they should liaise with civilian law enforcement as early as possible.

More to come

— with files from Aaron D’Andrea, Mercedes Stephenson

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