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Gen. Lawson at a loss to define scope of sex assault in the military

WATCH: Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson was called to account for allegations sexual assault is rampant in the military. A House of Commons committee wanted answers, but Lawson didn’t have many. Vassy Kapelos reports.

OTTAWA – There will be an independent, external investigation into allegations that sexual assault is rampant in the Canadian military, but the country’s top commander could not say Tuesday just how far-reaching that review will be.

Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada’s chief of defence staff, was also at a loss to define the true scope of the problem, except to say that he believes it’s possible that a number of victims are not coming forward.

“I think there is an under-reporting going on,” Lawson testified before the House of Commons defence committee, which is examining the issue of sexual assault and harassment within the Canadian Forces.

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“We need to do everything we can to deal with any issues that stand in the way of someone coming forward.”

An internal review carried out last month has identified “some barriers” that prevent alleged victims from speaking up, he added.

Lawson said the review, which he wants carried out by an “eminent Canadian,” will have the authority to interview military members and could potentially end up uncovering fresh allegations of assault.

It will ultimately be up to the minister to decide the scope of the review, he said. He was not clear what sort of mandate the probe would have, or whether it might even rise to the level of a judicial inquiry.

Lawson’s comments faintly echo the military’s response last fall to a series of suicides among veterans of the war in Afghanistan, which shone a harsh spotlight on what critics have called a mental health crisis within the Canadian Forces.

READ MORE: How many soldier suicide investigations have been completed since DND added staff

In essence, Lawson said victims need to come forward and trust the system.

But trust appears to be in short supply – not only among the rank and file, but also the MPs from all sides of the partisan divide who fired tough questions Tuesday at Lawson and others, including the military’s judge advocate general.

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INVISIBLE WOUNDS: Crisis in the military

The genesis of that anger is a recent magazine report that claimed sex assaults have reached epidemic levels inside the ranks of Canada’s military.

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.

It’s something Kristen Harms knows all too much about.

In 2009, Harms was 19 years old and in the middle of the military recruitment process when she was assaulted by James Wilks.

The military medic was examining her when the assault happened.

“He did some touching and grunting and other stuff,” Harms said. “I thought if I said anything it would ruin my chances of getting in.”

Harms did say something after another victim came forward.

In November, Wilks was convicted of 25 counts of sexual assault and breach of trust.

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Last month, a military court handed him a thirty-month sentence for the offences. Harms called the sentence frustrating.

“They’re trying to say that they want people to come forward, but if you do come forward the person just gets a slap on the wrist and if anything you just humiliate yourself,” Harms said.

Lawson told the committee he found all allegations disturbing, and acknowledged the courage of those victims who spoke out.

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 two per cent 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.

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.”

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Military statistics lump sexual assault and harassment into a category of other disciplinary-related offences, making it difficult to know how truly widespread the problem might be.

Brig.-Gen. Blaise Cathcart, the judge advocate-general, took responsibility for not filing the reports to Parliament as prescribed by law and said he’d consider more transparent reporting of the assault data.

Liberal MP Judy Sgro was even more skeptical than Harris, saying she heard similar assurances from the RCMP when the issue of sex assault in the federal police force was in the headlines two years ago.

“I’m sad to be sitting here today and infuriated,” Sgro said.

When RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson testified in 2012 about assault and harassment allegations on the force, he said all the right things to convince the committee that the force was on the right track, she said.

READ MORE: RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson calls officer’s assault lawsuit ‘old news’

“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.

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READ MORE: RCMP responds to officer’s assault lawsuit launched decades later