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One in 13 women sexually assaulted in Canadian military: StatsCan

One in 13 female full-time members of the Canadian Forces have been sexually assaulted in connection with their service in the military, Statistics Canada has found.

The statistics agency surveyed 6,700 full-time regular members of the Forces with a proportional percentage of women and men to the military from April to August 2013.

Of the women surveyed, 7.6 per cent said they had been sexually assaulted “while either deployed on Canadian Forces operation, at a Canadian Forces Workplace or by a Canadian Forces member or civilian Department of National Defence employee.”

The figure jumped to 15.6 per cent when including women who reported they’d been touched sexually against their will — also in the course of their service in the military.

Respondents were instructed that “sexual assault” was defined for the survey as: “someone forcing you or attempting to force you into any unwanted sexual activity, by threatening you, holding you down or hurting you in some way.” The other category, “unwanted sexual touching,” was defined as “unwanted touching or grabbing, kissing or fondling.”

Of the men surveyed, about 0.2 per cent said they’d been sexually assaulted in connection with their work in the military. However, Statistics Canada cautions that the number is low enough to be at risk of sampling error.

When including the number of men who said they’d experienced unwanted sexual touching, the number rises to 0.8 per cent — which would translate to about 500 of the forces’ 55,500 male soldiers. That number is statistically valid, according to the statistics agency.

The Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey, 2013, was conducted by Statistics Canada, in conjunction with the Department of National Defence. It surveyed currently serving members only, and would not have included anyone who was sexually assaulted and left the military before the survey was conducted.

The survey also covered many aspects of mental health and trauma. Some results concerning mental health and alcohol use were publicly released this week. A section on military sexual trauma was also included in the questionnaire.

Metro requested and received a breakdown of the sexual trauma results.

University of Ottawa PhD candidate Ashley Bickerton is studying military sexual assaults. Bickerton said the sexual trauma data was welcome but criticized the definition of sexual assault used in the survey because most people — and the law — consider “unwanted touching or grabbing, kissing or fondling” to be sexual assault.

According to Statistics Canada, that definition was used because it was consistent with surveys done in the past and would produce comparable results.

An external review into sexual assault policy and procedures, training and culture in the Canadian Armed Forces, by retired justice Marie Deschamps, is underway and the results are expected in spring 2015. It was launched after a Maclean’s/L’actualité investigation that included multiple interviews with military women who spoke about being sexually assaulted by other soldiers or commanding officers and then mistreated by the command when they reported it.

A larger issue

Michel Drapeau, a former Canadian Forces member who served for 34 years and is now a lawyer with an expertise in military law, represents soldiers who've been sexually assaulted. He called the statistics of sexual assault and unwanted touching that occurred in connection with military service “extraordinarily” high.

The U.S. military also has extremely high rates of sexual assault, he said.

Drapeau said that, typically, CF members are reluctant to report sexual assault because allegations are investigated by the military — which in general puts a strong emphasis on discipline and respecting authority — and go through the chain of command.

"If you do go through the system it is investigated, it goes through the military police who wear the same uniform, who are part of the same culture," he said.

He said victims worry they won't be believed and their military lives will be ruined.

"It's a rank-based organization," he said. "If you are victimized … before you announce it your first fear is would I be believed, would I be taken seriously, would there be reprisals?"

Most often, victims don't report sexual assault, he said.

Male victims don't come forward often either, he said. "They're supposed to be macho and male, by god, so many of them will be more reluctant about their assault."

In "too many" cases the military suggests mediation, he said. "But what could you possibly mediate?"

Drapeau is critical of the ongoing external review, because it excludes any review of the military police and justice system. Sexual assault was investigated and tried by civilian police and courts until 1998 and he would like to see sexual assault investigation back in the civilian system.

"Civilian police are able to investigate regardless of the rank that applies," he said. "With somebody like Russell Williams on the base, military police may be very intimidated to knock on the door of a colonel. And a victim may be very intimated to report to the police or the prosecutor an action by a senior officer."

DND’s response

The Department of National Defence made psychiatrist and mental-health adviser to the Canadian Forces command Col. Rakesh Jetly available for an interview with Metro about the Military Sexual Trauma statistics.

Rakesh said the sexual trauma statistics were gathered as part of a large survey on mental health that was meant to help the military better understand the “burden and the impact of mental illness” and trauma for members of the Canadian Armed Forces. DND has not yet analyzed the sexual trauma data and had not yet seen it until asked about it by Metro.

Some analysis of the data will be presented in November, he said.

“As a responsible health organization we want ask the questions — we’ve asked about different kinds of trauma, sexual trauma is one of type of trauma — because we want to see, first of all, how often does it occur and we want to see its relationship to the illnesses,” he said.

Asked if the statistics are high, Rakesh said: “As a senior officer in the Canadian Forces, it’s concerning to see numbers — it almost doesn’t matter what the numbers are — it’s disturbing — as (Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Thomas Lawson) has said already — that sexual trauma within our workplace does occur.”

Rakesh couldn’t speculate on why the numbers are as high as they are, what the figures say about the culture of the military, or the use of military rather than civilian police to investigate. He also couldn’t comment on whether or not new female recruits would be informed of the new statistics.

“We don’t know when it occurred in people’s careers,” he said. “Further analysis is going to be needed.”

Rakesh said that the military has robust mental health support for its members and confidential treatment is available for sexual assault victims whether or not they decide to inform military police.

By the numbers

1,400 – The number of the 8,900 full-time female CF members (in 2013) who have been sexually assaulted, or sexually touched against their will while on base, on an operation or by military or non-military DND personnel, according to the survey

500 – The number of the 55,500 full-time male CF members (in 2013) who have been sexually assaulted, or sexually touched against their will, according to the survey, will while on base, on an operation or by military or non-military DND personnel, according to the survey

178 – The average number of complaints of sexual assault per year since 2000, from full-time and reserve members, to the military police, according to a Maclean’s/L’actualité investigation.

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