Nearly one-third of those reports are for incidents of sexual assault, and experts say the updated data still represents an incomplete picture of the extent of the situation and makes it difficult to try to decipher trends on what is driving the numbers.
“The military might argue that there is an increase because people are becoming more comfortable coming forward. But I would put an asterisk on that,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute specializing in toxic leadership in the military.
The Canadian Forces created a centralized system in 2018 for tracking the number of sexual misconduct reports it receives through the chain of command, dating back to 2016.
That system is called OPHTAS — the Operation Honour Tracking and Analysis System — and the military normally releases an annual report each year with the latest updates to its data on reports received.
However, that didn’t happen last year because of delays from COVID-19.
Global News reached out to the Department of National Defence asking for the data collected to date ahead of a release of a report with the 2020 and 2021 statistics expected this fall.
That data shows that between April 1, 2016, and July 13, 2021, there have been 726 reports submitted through the military chain of command about incidents of sexual assault, and more than 2,000 reports of incidents of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault.
The department had previously said in March 2021 that it had received reports of 581 incidents of sexual assault between April 1, 2016, and March 9, 2021.
That suggests an additional 145 incidents of sexual assault were reported into the system between March 9, 2021, and July 13, 2021. However, the system updates historical cases so that increase is not necessarily an indication that the incidents being reported took place during that time period.
The data also shows that reports of sexual assault and overall sexual misconduct were higher in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 than in the previous years where tracking data is available.
Figuring out why, though, is difficult.
“It’s not necessarily that numbers of offences are higher, but that the numbers being reported are higher in the past two years,” said Jessica Lamirande, spokesperson for the Department of National Defence.
“This could mean a number of things, including that people feel more comfortable to come forward and report.”
Data on the reports received through the system are typically published each fiscal year and track the number of incidents reported during that period — though the incidents reported can be historical.
There have also been changes to who can report through the system: as of 2019, reports regarding civilians working for the Department of National Defence are also included in the system.
But it is not a full picture of the extent of the problem, as military officials acknowledged in their most recent 2019 report on data submitted to the system.
The system “only records incidents reported by or to the chain of command,” the report noted. Incidents disclosed to the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, nor does the OPHTAS data include when people are cared for by either civilian health-care workers or the Canadian Forces Health Services.
Global News reached out to the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre asking whether staff there had experienced an increase in demands for their support services during the pandemic.
The centre referred questions to the Department of National Defence.
“The number of contacts made to the SRMC (from the 24/7 call line and by emails) has been increasing every year since we opened. In the Spring of 2020, we received a significant influx of calls with the class-action settlement and following the sexual misconduct allegations in media reports,” said Richard Séguin, a spokesperson with the department.
“In terms of outreach and presentation requests, there was no increase during the period of March 2020 to March 2021. Due to the COVID pandemic, we had to cancel some scheduled appointments. During the first few months, there was a significant decrease, again most likely related to COVID.”
He said the centre is now back to being “fully operational.”
The Canadian military is grappling with what experts call an institutional crisis in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct levied against current and former senior leaders in recent months.
Global News first reported on Feb. 2, 2021, that former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates, which he denies.
Since then, his successor Adm. Art McDonald has stepped aside pending a military police investigation.
Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre has been acting in his place since late February and said in an interview with Global News Radio in May it is “very clear that there are aspects of our culture that has not kept pace with society.”
“We have to view this current crisis as an opportunity,” Eyre said. “We cannot be defensive. We cannot rest on tradition and ‘this is the way we have done things forever.’
“We have to be open to new ways of doing business and we absolutely have to change.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the updated numbers raise concerning questions and that they highlight the need for a decisive action plan to fix the culture of the military.
He said they also raise questions about whether the decision to delay releasing 2020 data was right.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear that the numbers are increasing,” said Bezan, who added it he was “incredibly disappointed to find out the government wasn’t going to report this data.”
The data is set to be reflected in the report this fall, but Bezan said with a possible federal election he fears there could be further delays in getting the data and on the government’s promises to tackle the problem of sexual misconduct in the military.