Sweeping legal changes needed to address military sexual misconduct: committee

Click to play video: 'O’Toole, Sajjan spar over handling of military misconduct investigation' O’Toole, Sajjan spar over handling of military misconduct investigation
WATCH: O’Toole, Sajjan spar over handling of military misconduct investigation – Jun 17, 2021

The federal government must make sweeping changes to the legal foundations of the military — including banning the practice of “pleading down” to lesser offences — in order to eliminate the culture of sexual misconduct that experts have repeatedly warned is endemic to the Canadian Forces.

That is the heart of the report issued on Thursday by the House of Common status of women committee, which has spent the last several months studying military sexual misconduct following exclusive reporting by Global News into allegations against senior military leaders.

READ MORE: Sajjan faces House of Commons censure vote over handling of military sexual misconduct

The report issues 21 recommendations that take aim at the legal responsibilities and powers of the military and its leaders, and urge dramatic changes both to prevent accusations from being swept under the rug and to prevent those accused from pleading down to less serious code of service offences.

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Most crucially, the report echoes the calls made by both the 2015 Deschamps report and the 2021 Fish report into military sexual misconduct and military justice in putting the spotlight on the pressing need for complaints to be handled outside of the military, rather than through the chain of command.

The Canadian military is facing what experts describe as an institutional “crisis” over its handling of sexual misconduct allegations, particularly those made against senior leaders in recent months.

Global News reported on Feb. 2 that Gen. Jonathan Vance, former chief of the defence staff, is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which he denies. Since then, his successor Adm. Art McDonald has stepped aside amid a military police probe into an allegation of sexual misconduct against him.

Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau resigned on Monday as vice chief of the defence staff after receiving broad and sharp condemnation of his decision to go golfing with Vance while he remains under investigation.

The head of the navy, Vice.-Adm. C.A. Baines, issued an apology for also doing so.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, head of the country’s vaccine rollout, also stepped aside in May amid a military investigation into a sexual misconduct allegation against him, which he denies.

Several other senior leaders are similarly facing investigations.

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The reckoning sparked by the recent high-level allegations comes six years after former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps first documented the “toxic” culture of the military in her landmark 2015 report.

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Since then, former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish has found in his own report earlier in June that sexual misconduct remains “as debilitating, as rampant and as destructive in 2021 as they were in 2015.”

READ MORE: Sexual misconduct in Canada’s military remains as ‘rampant’ in 2021 as in 2015: report

The Deschamps report specifically highlighted the military chain of command and the lack of an independent reporting system as key barriers to complainants who come forward receiving fair treatment, or feeling like they can do so without reprisals.

Yet Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has not acted throughout his six years in the role to implement that recommendation, and is facing a vote of censure in the House of Commons as Conservatives push to condemn his record on handling the problem.

The committee report issued on Thursday also put prominent focus on the need for independence outside of the military chain when investigations are carried out into complaints against members.

READ MORE: Senior military leaders went golfing with Gen. Jonathan Vance amid military police probe

The report urges the government to create an inspector general for the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence, with the office reporting directly to Parliament rather than to Sajjan and that they be tasked with ensuring complaints are passed to an independent investigating body.

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The position would also be authorized to “undertake studies and investigations deemed necessary,” and would have the power to refer matters to the prime minister’s national security advisor.

All of the recommendations in the Deschamps report, including the creation of an independent reporting body, must be implemented, the report also urged.

Other recommendations include more clearly defining “fraternization, abuse of authority, and sexual misconduct” within the military’s code of service rules, and freezing all general and flag officer promotions and salary increases until individuals are probed and their conduct is found to be “beyond reproach.”

READ MORE: Canadian military’s second-in-command resigns role after golfing with Vance

The government should mandate and track sexual misconduct and bystander intervention training for all military members, including senior leaders. It should also publish a strategy on how it will attract more women into the Canadian Forces — a longstanding challenge — and create an external Defence Advisory Committee on Women and Minorities in the Canadian Armed Forces to report annually on this work.

As well, the report suggests the current discipline rules for abuse of authority and sexual misconduct should be reviewed to increase the “severity of sanctions” for those with higher rank and authority.

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There should be a policy of suspending all general and flag officers under investigation for code of service disciplines, the committee urged, and a clear policy needs to be established laying out how to proceed when the chief of the defence staff is the one accused of misconduct.

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In such a case, the committee recommends there be either an independent panel of retired military justices if the case is tried through the civilian courts, or that a court martial process be carried out through the new position of an independent inspector general.

The report also highlighted specifically concerns about “undue influence from the chain of command.”

In any case where that could be a concern, the report recommends that the inspector general be allowed to refer sexual misconduct matters to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for investigation, removing the cases from the jurisdiction of the military.

The government should amend the National Defence Act and order the military to amend its administrative orders to make sure that can happen, the committee said.

— More to come.

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