Defence Minister Anita Anand says successive Canadian governments have failed to dedicate the time, money and effort needed to stamp out the “scourge” of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military.
“Countless lives have been harmed because of inaction and systemic failure. This is a failure that our Canadian Armed Forces, our department, and the Government of Canada will always carry with us,” she said.
“These institutions failed you, and for that we are sorry. I am sorry.”
Survivors and victims of military sexual misconduct received a historic and long-awaited apology on Monday from Anand, as well as from Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and Jody Thomas, deputy minister of the Department of National Defence.
More than 7,600 people watched the apology livestream on Facebook, which comes after a year in which the Canadian military has been forced to confront what experts have called a “crisis” of sexual misconduct within its ranks, particularly senior leaders.
“You were let down. You were hurt. And when you tried to get help, we did not react,” said Eyre.
“I am sorry. We sincerely apologize for the trauma that you have experienced. To those who suffered in silence, we are sorry. To those who shouted until you could shout no more at great personal risk only to have no one listen to you, we are sorry.”
TIMELINE: The Canadian Forces sexual misconduct crisis
Eyre said the military has not done the “deep” work needed to address the underlying issues that cause sexual misconduct, and that “the harm you suffered happened on our collective watch — on my watch.”
“Trust can mean the difference between life and death, and we have betrayed that trust,” he said, adding the onus has been unfairly placed on those who have suffered to come forward and push for change.
“We let down your many colleagues who served, and continue to serve with honour. We let down Canadians who want to be proud of their armed forces, but find that increasingly difficult with each new revelation of harms.”
The lack of action on sexual misconduct has “robbed” the military of potential future leaders who have chosen not to sign up, said Eyre, emphasizing that “tangible actions” are needed to create change.
“This time, we will not fail,” Eyre said. “This is my commitment to you.”
For days, officials have urged survivors and victims of military sexual misconduct to think about whether they would want to have support resources in place upon hearing the apology.
READ MORE: Here’s the full transcript of Canada’s apology for military sexual misconduct
The advocacy group It’s Not Just 700 said earlier on Monday that many are feeling a sense of “trepidation” awaiting the apology, and that there are strong hopes it “can help bring a sense of some closure.”
“The path of healing is an individual journey. This apology may bring a range of emotions for many, and just as everyone is at a different stage in their journey, the apology will also impact them differently,” the group said.
“Many emotions are possible ranging from a peaceful sense of closure, to feeling a renewed or refreshed anger about the harm caused. Any emotion felt, or not felt, is valid.”
For Annalise Schamuhn, a survivor of military sexual assault, the fact that the apology acknowledged not only the impact of sexual misconduct but also the impacts of the retaliation faced by so many survivors and victims was “really validating.”
“I did see a lot of introspection,” she told Global News. “I found that it was very authentic.”
Schamuhn said while the apology is not a silver bullet, she believes it will help the work towards a solution.
“In one sense, it’s sort of a gateway that we can move through and and move forward from that. If it had never been delivered, then we would be in a stuck place,” she said, adding it did not matter whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was part of it given that Anand spoke on behalf of the government.
Trudeau had said the apology would acknowledge the “terrible mistakes of the past.”
In a press conference on Monday morning, Trudeau was asked why he is not participating in the apology as some advocates have urged him to do. He did not give a clear reason but said he has often spoken about what is acceptable behaviour in the military over the past months and years.
“Today there is a recognition of the profound regret that we have and the recognition in this country of the terrible mistakes of the past,” Trudeau said.
“We profoundly regret what has happened and we apologize to all of the survivors in the Canadian Armed Forces who should have never experienced the things that they did, when these people offered their services to our country.”
Trudeau added: “I fully and wholeheartedly support it and endorse it.”
READ MORE: Over 40 per cent of military sexual misconduct class action claims are from men: Eyre
Opposition critics questioned whether the government can turn words into action.
“The simple fact is that for over six years, the Liberals have failed to address the sexual misconduct crisis in the military,” said Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay in a statement.
“The status quo must immediately change – our women and men in uniform deserve better than this. It’s time for the Liberals to take concrete action, including implementing the recommendations from the 2015 Deschamps report, and ensure that the process in place to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct is transparent and respectful.”
Lindsay Mathyssen, NDP defence critic, voiced similar concerns.
“After decades of being dismissed and ignored, members of the Armed Forces don’t trust that their allegations will be taken seriously. How can they when the government has protected powerful men at the top of the CAF and allowed this problematic culture to continue for so long?” she said.
“This government has got to prove they’re going to do better. It is beyond time that this so called ‘feminist’ Prime Minister and his government moved beyond words and finally make sure everyone can serve equally.”
The Canadian Forces is in the midst of what experts have called an institutional “crisis” over its handling of sexual misconduct, particularly allegations against senior leaders following exclusive reporting by Global News in February 2021.
But while national attention has focused on the problem over the past year, the problem itself is not new — a landmark 2015 report by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps documented a “toxic” culture that she said was hostile to women and LGBTQ members.
In June 2021, another former Supreme Court of Canada justice wrote in a separate report that military sexual misconduct remains as “rampant” and “destructive” now as it was in 2015.
The leaders apologizing on Monday recognized the longstanding problem and the factors that have fuelled it, acknowledging in particular that sexual misconduct in the military reflects “abuse of power” and a “crisis of broken trust.”
Anand also said successive governments had failed to make sure that the “right systems were in place to ensure justice and accountability,” while Eyre described the need to reform the military’s culture as “existential” to the Canadian Forces’ ability to meet future challenges.
“I am convinced we can succeed. The day I stop believing this is the day I can no longer serve. We can make the Canadian Armed Forces an example for the 21st century,” he said.
READ MORE: Gen. Wayne Eyre officially taking over as new chief of the defence staff
The apology has been years in the making.
Survivors and victims were first promised one in 2019 as part of the $900-million class action settlement approved by the Federal Court.
Defence officials have said they had hoped to be able to do the apology in person, but that the continued uncertainty and rising cases of COVID-19 across the country mean it will be delivered virtually.
There have been nearly 19,000 claims submitted to the class action process.
While the class period formally ended on Nov. 24, legal counsel working on the process said victims and survivors can still come forward to submit applications.
“While the deadline to file was Nov. 24, the settlement administrator has discretion to extend this deadline by 60 days (until Jan. 23, 2022) due to exceptional circumstances, or due to a claimant’s disability,” said Andrew Astritis, one of the lawyers working on the process, in an email.
“To date, many late claims have been accepted for consideration.”
More than 40 per cent of the claims submitted have been from men.
Eyre said in an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson that the scope “speaks to the depth of the issue.”
With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman and Marc-Andre Cossette.