Military sexual misconduct class action claims up 170 per cent over last 6 months

Click to play video: 'Trudeau comments on military ombudsman report, says significant changes coming'
Trudeau comments on military ombudsman report, says significant changes coming
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sidestepped directly addressing Canadian Forces ombudsman Gregory Lick's report in which he blasted "vested political interests" that were interfering in the work of his office, saying the government had taken "concrete actions" to ensure anyone who came forward with allegations "are heard, are supported" and there were consequences. He added, however, they would be looking carefully at the report to see how the ombudsman's office is "key part" of changes they plan to make in the military – Jun 22, 2021

The number of military sexual misconduct class action claims have jumped by 170 per cent since late December 2020 amid a reckoning over abuse of power and the toxic culture in the Canadian Forces.

More than 600 new claims have been submitted just in the past month, but there are growing concerns that the process is blindsiding some who have come forward to share the trauma of their experiences.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of claims that have been received in the past six months,” said Andrew Astritis, a lawyer with Raven Law who is among the legal counsels for claimants.

“We encourage all survivors to come forward and make a claim through the confidential and non-adversarial claims process, or to contact the Administrator or class counsel if they have any questions about the process or their eligibility.”

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Astritis said the increase means more than 60 per cent of the claims submitted to the class action lawsuit have been submitted in the second half of the eligibility period.

READ MORE: Less than one quarter of military police investigators on sexual misconduct are female

The $900-million class action lawsuit was settled in 2019 and opened to claims from survivors and victims of military sexual misconduct on May 25, 2020. It had received 2,729 claims by late December 2020, according to Astritis.

Since then though, claims have jumped to 7,346 as of July 13, 2021—  an increase of roughly 170 per cent, with four months still left for survivors and victims to submit further claims.

The 7,346 claims as of July 13 is up from 6,666 claims submitted as of mid-June, or an average of roughly 150 claims submitted per week over the past month.

“The increase of numbers seems to suggest that there has been the creation of an environment where people, victims of sexual misconduct, are more likely to come forward because they feel less alone,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who specializes in toxic military leadership.

“That doesn’t mean that everyone is comfortable moving forward or that they’re particularly ready or enthusiastic about coming forward. It’s just that they see that they’re not alone, that there is a system put in place for them to get justice. And I think that this is a significant move forward.”

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Duval-Lantoine emphasized there remain challenges for those who come forward to try to join the class action lawsuit, as well as those who have submitted claims and now wait for what comes next.

“What I’ve been hearing in the past few days is that the system is very traumatic, even if the lawyers are doing their best to help the victims,” she said, noting some emails to claimants use wording akin to, “Congratulations, your sexual harassment or sexual assault allegations are recognized as real.”

Others get notified out of the blue about a decision on their claim, with no time to prepare the resources they will need in place for support or to prepare themselves emotionally.

“Warning them that an update on their claim is coming up might be helpful.”

Sam Samplonius, communications director for the military sexual violence support group It’s Not Just 700, says she has kept an eye on things as the class action process got underway.

She said while it seems that overall things have moved along well, the organization has been hearing similar concerns about how difficult the process is for survivors and victims to navigate.

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“There are some people that could say it could have been done better,” she told Global News.

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“Some people were upset about the way it was handled, the responses that they were getting back on their claims. They felt that they were kind of cold or not very understanding or trauma-informed.”

Click to play video: 'Liberals agree to settlement over military sexual misconduct class action'
Liberals agree to settlement over military sexual misconduct class action

The term “trauma-informed” refers to policies and systems that take into account the need to create emotionally safe environments for people who have likely experienced or been exposed to trauma.

A trauma-informed approach is common in fields like social work where practitioners put the focus on making sure there are support measures in place to avoid re-traumatizing someone, particularly when recounting or reliving painful experiences from their past.

“Trauma and violence-informed approaches are not about ‘treating’ trauma, for example, through counselling or chronic pain interventions,” according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“Instead, the focus is to minimize the potential for harm and re-traumatization, and to enhance safety, control and resilience for all clients involved with systems or programs.”

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READ MORE: Military ombudsman blasts ‘vested political interests’ impeding office

That’s exactly what one former military member says was lacking during her experience dealing with the class action process. She spoke with Global News about the emotional impact of the process on the condition she not be named, because one of her claims remains under evaluation.

“It leaves me in a state of communications anxiety, because I have no idea when there will be an update and when I will need to make sure I have support in place,” she said, noting the time between submitting the claims and hearing back on one of them was a period of months.

“I might not be able to work for a day or two.”

She said a change as simple as allowing people to choose if they want a heads up about a pending decision on their claims could go a long way in mitigating some of the impact.

“I think the biggest thing for me is options. Some people may feel differently, but I would like there to be communications options to get a heads up that something is coming. I don’t even need to know what the decision will be – I just would like to be able to prepare,” she said.

“I have a hard time believing this is trauma-informed.”

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Annalise Schamuhn, a retired army officer, shared her perspective on Twitter on July 12 on the effect of an update on her case that included the language, “We are pleased to confirm.”

“I thought the worst was over when I submitted it, but this is awful,” she said in her tweet.

In an email exchange, Schamuhn gave Global News permission to include her tweets and added that while it is made easier by “knowing we aren’t alone,” the experience is extremely difficult.

“It is a hard process to catalogue the many traumas we endured, which ended my and many other careers,” Schamuhn said in the email. “As difficult as it is, it is part of the healing journey for many. I hope there will be some remedy for those who are not yet at an emotional place where they can tolerate the excruciating process of submitting a claim and waiting for a response.”

READ MORE: Feds agree to $900M settlement over military sexual misconduct class action

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the focus must be on the needs of survivors.

“The Minister has instructed officials to work with the court appointed administrator and class counsel to ensure that this process works in a way that meets the needs of survivors,” said press secretary Daniel Minden in an email.

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“We will continue to work with those impacted to ensure that our processes are informed by trauma.”

James Bezan, Conservative defence critic, said there needs to be priority placed on not re-traumatizing people going through the process.

“This is something that needs to be addressed immediately, especially with the huge number of victims who have come forward now,” he said. “We need to make sure people who are dealing with the victims are properly trained to deal with this in an appropriate manner.”

The claims process for military sexual misconduct is open until November 24, 2021.

It’s open to current and serving members of the Canadian Forces, as well as current or former employees of the Department of National Defence.

Click to play video: 'Military ombudsman blasts Ottawa for inaction on sexual misconduct'
Military ombudsman blasts Ottawa for inaction on sexual misconduct

Military sexual misconduct has been a longstanding problem over decades, but the landmark 2015 report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps documented the extent of the challenge and identified power imbalances and a toxic culture as central factors allowing it to continue.

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In a separate report released on June 1, 2021, former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish said his own review of the military justice system found sexual misconduct remains as “rampant” and “destructive” within the Canadian military in 2021 as it was when Deschamps wrote her report.

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

Multiple military police investigations are underway into current and former high-level leaders within the Canadian military, following reporting by Global News on Feb. 2, 2021, into allegations against former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance. He denies the allegations.

His successor, Adm. Art McDonald, stepped aside as top soldier in late February when military police opened a probe into an allegation against him. He has declined to comment.

But the allegations have prompted a reckoning and a national conversation about the need to dismantle what Deschamps identified as an institutional culture that is “toxic” to women and LGBTQ members.

Sajjan ordered an external review in April. Former Supreme Court justice Louis Arbour is tasked with recommending how to create an independent reporting system for military sexual misconduct — a key Deschamps recommendation that the Liberals did not act on for six years.

Duval-Lantoine warned the cultural reckoning may be one part of the increase in claimants to the class action lawsuit, but it’s likely not the only factor.

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The challenge now, she said, is for those tasked with adjudicating the process and those responsible for changing the broken system live up to the trust placed in them by the survivors and victims.

“We’ve been seeing this for a couple of months, for almost half a year,” she said of the conversations taking place around sexual misconduct. “But we had the same thing with the #MeToo movement.”

“We had that wave of allegations for like a year, a year and a half — and then it died down. And we have seen this also with the military after 2015,” she continued.

“We may see momentum today, but the question is: how do we keep it?”

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