News / Vancouver

Defence minister vows to ‘root out’ sexual assault in Forces

After reported spike in misconduct investigations, Vancouver South MP says armed forces members who speak out ‘will be protected.’

National Defence minister Harjit Sajjan during a visit to his riding, Vancouver South, on Wednesday.

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

National Defence minister Harjit Sajjan during a visit to his riding, Vancouver South, on Wednesday.

Canada’s Minister of National Defence has vowed that, under his watch, the armed forces will finally “stomp” out sexual assault and misconduct in its ranks.

Harjit Sajjan made the remarks in during a visit to his Vancouver South riding on Wednesday, after Metro asked him about an increase in sexual misconduct investigations in the forces he oversees.

“We encourage any member who has been impacted in any way, whether discrimination or sexual assault, to come forward,” he told Metro in an interview. “We’re taking this extremely seriously. We need to root this out.”

He also vowed that “whoever comes forward … will be protected and their complaints taken extremely seriously.”

Last year, the Forces conducted 135 sexual assault and misconduct investigations, a one-third increase from 2014, according to CBC News.

But the military’s independent watchdog told Metro the number is likely higher because his own office has investigated sexual assault complaints that weren’t included it the count. And despite the Forces’ top brass touting a year-old sexual misconduct response team, it only brought forward 17 of the investigations.

Gary Walbourne, the National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman, said his office’s “restricted” authority has prevented him from adequately addressing the exact type of problem for which his watchdog role was created in 1998, amidst widespread public outrage over military abuses in Somalia.

“With the full authorities that should have been given to the Ombudsman's office at that point in time, we would have found ourselves working our way out of this problem,” he told Metro in a phone interview, “and not being in the thick of it as we are today.”

Last April, an investigation by retired Supreme Court of Canada judge Marie Deschamps concluded the armed forces had a “hostile sexualized environment” in which “reports of sexual violence highlighted the use of sex to enforce power relationships and to punish and ostracize a member of a unit.”

Walbourne said that scathing report led to “some resistance” among some in the Forces.

“I don't know if people are engaging as openly or as quickly as they should,” he alleged. “I don't know if we've gotten to the bottom of it … We're not quite sure how deep this goes.”

But the ongoing problem risks damaging the entire “perception” of the Canadian Armed Forces, he argued.

“We have to demonstrate to the public and to all interested stakeholders that we're doing all that we can to ensure this type of behaviour is not appropriate, it's not condoned, and it's not allowed to continue,” Walbourne said. “I've been in or around this environment now for 18 years, and I can tell you we're talking about a fine group of people who do good work for this country.”

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