The Department of National Defence is investigating its handling of sexual assault complaints involving a convicted former medical technician who is facing 31 new charges, The Canadian Press has learned.
Complaints involving James Wilks were mishandled, says a lawyer for one of his victims who is suing the former medical technician and the military.
Phillip Millar, who says he is also representing several other women who have come forward to file claims against Wilks, alleges his chain of command knew of complaints against him but did little to act on them.
“People have come forward indicating they reported issues that went unheard and unactioned,” Millar said in an interview from his law office in London, Ont.
“When was the first time a complaint was made internally about this guy and what did they do about it? I think that’s going to be their big problem is that there were previous complaints that weren’t followed up on.”
A spokeswoman with the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service would only say it started looking into the matter last month “to determine if appropriate action was taken by the chain of command of … James Wilks when staff was made aware of his actions in the workplace.”
Those actions became the focus of a court martial in 2011 involving the allegations of three women. Wilks, a petty officer second class who is now retired, was found guilty of one count of sexual assault, four counts of breach of trust and was sentenced to nine months in jail.
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Statements of defence have not been filed in the civil lawsuit and Wilks could not be reached for comment. The statement of claim contains allegations not proven in court.
Wilks, who was 51 when convicted in 2011, was conducting examinations at recruiting centres in Ontario. The investigation service says complainants alleged Wilks performed inappropriate medical exams between 2002 and 2009.
In a civil lawsuit filed against him in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, it is alleged by a recruit referred to as R.W. in court documents that Wilks touched her breasts and pressed his groin against her when she was 17.
Wilks was found not guilty of sexual assault in the court martial case involving R.W., who cannot be named under a military judge’s order. He was found guilty of breach of trust for “conducting an enrolment medical examination on Miss R.W. in a manner contrary to Canadian Forces Health Services Group policies and procedures.”
Other alleged victims spoke out after the Military Police made a public appeal for them to step forward.
The new charges against Wilks were laid last year and he is now facing 12 counts of sexual assault and 19 counts of breach of trust under the National Defence Act and the Criminal Code. The charges have not been proven and a date has not been set for his court martial.
The complaints involving Wilks are among several cases that expose a much broader issue of sexual assault in the military, says JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, which is about a 20-minute drive from CFB Petawawa in Ontario.
Brooks said too many women in the military refuse to file official complaints of sexual assault because of the explicit power dynamic between ranks.
“If you are a recruit who’s just starting out a career in the military, then you have the least power of anybody within that system,” she said. “So there will be a lot of pressure on you to be quiet … because there will be repercussions.”
Brooks said senior members of the military also fear their careers will suffer or that they’ll be blamed if they speak out.
Retired lieutenant colonel Shirley Robinson helped found the Association for Women’s Equity in the Canadian Forces, a group that decided to wind down when its goals were achieved.
The former director of nursing at the National Defence medical centre in Ottawa agrees that people being evaluated at recruiting centres can be cowed by the military’s rank system and power structure.
“I can understand any young recruit coming in that doesn’t even understand the rank system would probably be intimidated by these guys who would pretend they were something they aren’t,” Robinson said from her home in Ottawa.
It’s a situation the Forces have been made aware of in recent years following a special report in 2009 that found a disproportionate number of sexual assault victims between 2004 and 2008 were young people.
The report recommended making education programs on sexual assault and ways to report them available to Forces members, especially new recruits.
Lt.-Col. Brian Frei, commanding officer for the National Investigation Service, said they are monitoring sexual assaults in the military to see if there are any trends, but new educational programs have not been introduced since 2009.
He said a zero tolerance policy is in force and is reiterated at cadet camps.
Still, Brooks said the fear of potential repercussions – on top of the trauma of an assault – keeps many victims silent.
“It’s huge,” she said of unreported sexual violence in the military as well as in the general population.
“If the world could take off its blinders and take a look at the truth, I think the world would fall over at the amount of rape survivors that walk around among us every minute.”
Sgt. Cheryl Ross, who will be medically discharged from the military Aug. 3 after 22 years, says she was working as a clerk with the military police on the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2006, when someone came up from behind and sexually assaulted her.
“I was violently raped at knife point by an Allied soldier, in the camp, right in a public spot in a well lit area,” said Ross, who says she is speaking out now to help other women come forward to report sexual assaults. “It was not a Canadian soldier.”
Ross, 51, said she was in casual clothes that evening and had just finished doing laundry when she was grabbed in a laneway. She could tell the nationality of her attacker from his uniform sleeve but, with no chance of identifying him, has not revealed it to avoid causing “an international incident,” she said.
“I never reported it,” she said. “I would have been revictimized by the system, by our own system. I would have been sent home and it would not have been kept quiet.”
Ross also feared losing the respect of men who would have seen her as a victim, under-cutting her ability to lead them.
She said another Canadian senior-ranked woman recently confided to her that she was raped by more than one soldier after a mess hall gathering during pre-deployment training.
“She never reported it because she had been drinking.”
Ross, who wants other military women and spouses to know sexual assault isn’t their fault, didn’t tell anyone about her own ordeal until 2010 when the stress of working as a casualty clerk led to what she calls an “epic meltdown” and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There are so many good soldiers and good people,” Ross stressed. “But there are some bad ones too.”