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Sexual Misconduct Survivors Push for Change in Military as High-Profile Cases End

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Remembrance Day often brings mixed emotions for Donna Riguidel, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran whose career was cut short by a sexual assault.

"You sign up believing very much that you're coming in to serve your country and it's a cause you believe in ... and then it sort of ends with this feeling of shame and a little bit of disgrace."

Riguidel, the founder of a consulting group called Survivor Perspectives, said this year has come with particular challenges. A number of high-profile sexual misconduct cases that sparked a major reckoning in the Armed Forces have ended in recent months.

"You're watching these cases fall apart and there's a very, very real human cost to all of that," she said.Survivors of sexual misconduct have been at the forefront of public pressure for the military to make changes.

Many of the cases that prompted heightened scrutiny on the military came to light in early 2021.

That February, former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance was accused of having an inappropriate relationship.

Shortly after that, Art McDonald, who had replaced Vance as chief of the defence staff in mid-January, stepped aside after he was accused of sexual misconduct.

In March 2021, Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson stepped down as head of military personnel command after CBC News reported that a former Armed Forces member had accused him of sexually assaulting her in 1991.

His replacement, Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan, was later relieved of his duties after being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

And the head of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, was removed from that job in May 2021 after a former military college classmate accused him of sexual assault back in 1988.

Most of the cases have since been resolved.

Vance pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in March 2022 and got a conditional discharge.

McDonald was never charged. He asked to come back as defence chief once an investigation was concluded, but he was relieved of his command in November 2021.

Fortin was acquitted last December after a trial in civilian court. He settled a lawsuit against the government and 16 high-ranking officials last month and has retired from the Armed Forces.

Whelan went before a court martial in October and the military dropped its case against him after days of legal arguments about evidence. His lawyer said he also plans to sue the government.

The only case still underway is Edmundson's. He pleaded not guilty to indecent acts and sexual assault and is set to go to trial early in the new year.

Each time a case ended without conviction, Christine Wood said, it "landed like a punch in the gut."

Wood is another prominent advocate who says she was sexually assaulted in 2011 while on a training course as a reservist.

"Hundreds of reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment are still being made each year. The problem has not been solved," she said.

Some cases are not even proceeding.

CBC News reported in September that a judge stayed a sexual assault charge because it took too long to get to trial. That happened because of delays transferring the case from military to civilian court, a change that was supposed to help victims get justice.

The slew of allegations in 2021 led the government to appoint former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to lead an external review of the military's culture. Her report in May 2022 made 48 recommendations to root out the problem at all levels, and the government accepted all 48.

One of them was to transfer the jurisdiction for Criminal Code sexual offences to the civilian justice system — something the government has committed to but has not made law.

On Thursday, NDP defence critic Lindsay Mathyssen tabled a private member's bill to do just that.

Defence Minister Bill Blair has said amendments to the National Defence Act will come in one piece of government legislation. A spokesperson for his office said Thursday that he will introduce such a bill "in the coming months," but gave no clear timeline.

"I was not impressed," said Mathyssen. "Those crises, the threats from within will only continue if they don't do what is necessary, as quickly as possible."

Jocelyne Therrien, an external monitor overseeing the implementation of the Arbour recommendations, is set to file her second report this month. In May, Therrien said there had been tangible progress but a strategic plan is needed to make sure resources are in place and ensure accountability.

Therrien's last report also noted that a panel to review the country's two military colleges would be operational in June.

Later in May, then-defence minister Anita Anand said in a statement marking the one-year anniversary of the Arbour report that the Military College Review Board would begin its one-year term of work "shortly."

Arbour called for such a review after examining the culture at the colleges, which she said had "an outdated and problematic leadership model." Her report said there was reason to question whether they should exist in their current form.

The Defence Department said in a statement Friday it will announce the board members in the coming weeks, once hiring is complete. It gave no explanation for why it's taking so long.

Blair has said that changing the military's culture is his top priority. Shortly after taking over the file this summer, he announced that the so-called duty to report rules would be eliminated in December, fulfilling another of Arbour's recommendations.

"It feels like there's a bit of stagnation. It feels like there's pushback, there's resistance for sure," said Maya Eichler, an associate professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax whose research focuses on gender and sexual violence in the Armed Forces.

Arbour's report was just the latest in a list of external reviews that called for such changes.

"This didn't start in 2021," Eichler said.

She said enacting meaningful change is an existential crisis for the military. The Armed Forces has around 16,000 vacant positions and has been trying to step up recruitment, but its traditional recruiting pool of mostly white men is shrinking.

"There's so much focus on these kinds of scandals and the leaks, I feel like we're not really moving forward in understanding the problem," Eichler said. "Sexual misconduct is a power issue, and the significance of that statement is heightened in an institution that is organized around hierarchy."

Survivors say they're determined to keep moving forward.

"The change is coming," Riguidel said. "The momentum ebbs, absolutely, but we are not going away."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

The Peace Tower on Parliament Hill is seen past the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on Canadian Armed Forces Day, Sunday, June 4, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

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