“Undeniable”: Sexual Misconduct in the Military

Women in the Canadian Armed Forces have been going on the record about sexual assault and harassment for nearly a quarter century. Why has so little changed?

Last month, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women heard from current and former military members about experiences of sexual misconduct during their time in the Canadian Armed Forces. The study was spurred by several women who spoke out late last year.

But this has been an issue for much longer. Starting back in 1998, and again in 2014, waves of women have come forward, which finally lead to an investigation by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, published in 2015, that found a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and misconduct in which victims were not taken seriously. As a result of that report, Operation Honour was launched, which aimed to address what was happening and to stop it from happening again.

But several years later, it is happening again. One of the women who came forward last year accused Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff at the time, of sexual misconduct over a number of years. Among Vance’s duties had been heading up Operation Honour.

Now Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has promised yet another investigation, this time with a wider mandate.

On this week’s episode of CANADALAND, reporter Cherise Seucharan examines just why Canada’s military has been unable or unwilling to solve the issue after so many years — and whether there’s reason to believe anything might be different this time.

The following is adapted from the episode.

In 1998, a photo of a young woman in uniform appeared on the cover of Maclean’s magazine under the headline “Rape in the Military.” In the cover story, Dawn McIlmoyle shared how she had been just one month into naval school when she was raped — and that when she reported it to her supervisors, she was charged instead, for being in a male barracks after hours.

That Maclean’s story, which also included reports from 12 other women, sent shockwaves across Canada. It was the first time many members of the public had ever heard that rape and sexual harassment were an issue in the military.

But as powerful as the piece was, not much changed at the time. That December, Maclean’s ran a followup story with another young woman on the cover, Tracey Constable, asking what, if anything, had been done?

Sixteen years later, yet another Maclean’s investigation revealed much more of the same. This time, it was a young corporal named Stéphanie Raymond on the cover, with a similar story. And that led to a wave of new reports, and finally to Madam Justice Marie Deschamps’s 2014 investigation and to Operation Honour, which aimed to address her findings.

And now there’s a new wave of survivors, yet again.

The first woman on the Maclean’s cover, Dawn, has spent the last 25 years watching person after person come forward about sexual misconduct.

Reached at her home in Ontario, she’s fed up with how long it’s taken to be taken seriously by the military, after the aspiring doctor was assaulted just a month into her posting for training at the Canadian Forces base in Esquimalt, BC. In 1997, she was told that because it took place in a barracks and she wasn’t on duty at the time, that the military bore no responsibility.

But, she says, there’s been a change since 2019, when the Federal Court signed off on a $900 million class-action settlement for members of the Canadian military and Department of National Defence who were victims of sexual assault and misconduct. Over 4,600 people to date have filed claims.

“So now I have to reopen my file and all of these wounds, which I’ve had to open several times over the years, to get what I actually am entitled to,” she says. “And now I’m waiting again to see if they’re finally gonna say that they’re responsible.”

In an odd coincidence, the military doctor on duty the day after Dawn’s assault was Bonnie Henry — the same doctor who’s appeared constantly in the news this past year as BC’s top provincial health officer. For Dawn, it’s been a constant reminder of the night she was assaulted.

“It just makes my public trauma even more public,” she says, “because it’s public officials involved now.”

After months of struggling following her assault, Dawn ended up exiting the military on medical leave. She went back to high school, and it was in a grade 13 English class that a teacher suggested she write about her time there.

“I wrote 100 pages about what happened to me, and he was floored,” she says.

After unsuccessfully trying to take her story to the Globe, her lawyer put her in touch with another woman who’d had a similar experience, and they managed to get the attention of Maclean’s.

“When I went to Maclean’s, I was 25 years old. At first, I was proud of what I did because I thought, you know, I’m bringing forward an issue that could potentially help other people and make this stop, and then maybe other people won’t get hurt like I did.”

She started a 1-800 number and was inundated with calls from across the country, from both women and men.

“I was a young mom of two little boys, with a husband that wasn’t very supportive. And it all nearly made me insane,” she says. “But all I wanted to do was help these people and make sure that they knew that they weren’t alone.”

She describes the cover as a turning point.

“It was a defining moment,” she says. “Because my face is on that cover in 1998 with ‘RAPE IN THE MILITARY’ beside it, any military official that tries to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that this was an issue,’ you can say, ‘Well, here in history, in 1998…’ It’s undeniable.”

Dawn is hopeful that this time, with the new report coming from Madam Justice Louise Arbour, things will be different.

But she’s tired of all the waiting, knowing that so many reports have already laid bare the problems within the military. And she’s also worried about those people who will continue to be hurt in the meantime.

A Zoom screencap of a women with glasses and a headset mic speaking from what appears to be her living room couch. In the corner, it says D. McIlmoyle, Witness
Dawn McIlmoyle, who appeared on the cover of Maclean’s in 1998, was among those who gave testimony to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on the Status of Women last month.

“Madam Justice Marie Deschamps did a beautiful review and revealed it’s an issue,” she says. “And now we’re going to have another review that’s going to take 12 to 18 months, which means that we have another 12 to 18 months of people potentially getting hurt and harmed in the military before any further action can be taken.”

She points out that the military could “put some hard, fast rules into play right now. But they’re choosing not to do anything except have another review.”

Donna Ridgiual also experienced sexual misconduct in the military.

Like Dawn, Donna started off as a 17-year-old in the early 90s, with dreams of medical school and a career serving her country. Also like Dawn, Donna was sexually assaulted early into her military career. (But right now, she’s unable to talk about that.)

Donna left the military in ‘97 but eventually rejoined in 2006 to work in public affairs, believing things might have changed. But she again found a culture where constant jokes, sexualized humour, and women being objectified in uniform were all part of daily life at the base.

For the most part, she said she was able to shrug it off, until an incident at the base in Shilo, Manitoba, crossed the line: she and a student with whom she’d been working observed a man masturbating while he watched them in a gym changeroom.

She alerted the military police, who came and found the man hiding in one of the bathrooms. They promptly arrested him, but even as they were taking him away, she says other men in the unit came to his defence.

“[They were] already saying stuff like, ‘It wasn’t him, it was somebody else.’ And, ‘Oh, he was with me the whole time,’ ‘We got his back.’ And I remember thinking to myself, like, ‘What about my back? Like, I’m one of you, too. I am a member of this military, too. Why does nobody have my back? Why are you all rushing to protect him?’” she recalls.

Before she even had an opportunity to be interviewed by the military police, the higher-ups in public affairs told her to write up official “response lines” in the event that media called about the incident.

When she offered that she didn’t think she was the right person to be doing that, she says she was told, “Donna, you’re a professional. And at the end of the day, we expect you to act like one.”

Her superiors at the base stepped in to help get her off the assignment.

The case against the man proceeded as a summary trial, in which the accused gets to question the victim directly.

He was convicted and thrown out of the military in short order. Afterwards, she says, it was discovered he’d had a history of sexual offences in his civilian life.

“I think many met Justice Deschamps’s findings with a view that some women were just too thin-skinned.”

Even years after the military-justice process, Donna still felt the effects of her ordeal. Going to a gym — part of mandatory physical training — became unbearable for her. When she was told by a superior in Edmonton that she wouldn’t be allowed to skip out on it, she found herself looking through her husband’s closet for the baggiest, least revealing clothing she could find, and had a breakdown while doing so.

While Donna was struggling with the residual effects of her trauma, Operation Honour was underway, and the military was looking for people to take part in a process of “restorative engagement” — sharing stories of sexual misconduct with their chain of command, she explains, “so they can better understand the human element of this.”

She used it to report the incident, but going through that process ended up getting her in trouble.

During a break just prior to her presentation, a senior officer approached her to tell her that she wasn’t supposed to be wearing her fleece in the mess. She explained she was doing so because she was shivering.

“He said, ‘Just make sure you take it off before you go up to the front of the room.’”

She did, but when she returned to her seat following her testimony, she picked up her BlackBerry to find the officer had sent an email saying “that I should be brought up on charges because I was wearing my fleece in the mess. And I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Are you effing kidding me? Like, they sent it while I was telling the story. I’m like, ‘Are you actually kidding me right now?'”

Donna is still in the military but is in the process of being medically released for PTSD, after which she plans to go to medical school. She’s worked to develop a training course for the military, and helped form the support group Survivor Perspectives.

But the fact that victims need people like Donna and Dawn for support is an indication of just how much the military’s own response has fallen short.

Emma Phillips was legal counsel to Justice Deschamps for the 2014 review and has some thoughts about the failure to implement some of its key recommendations.

For one thing, she says, the mandate originally given to Deschamps was actually “quite technical,” largely limited to evaluating the adequacy of official policies.

“She wasn’t being asked to review the culture of the Armed Forces,” Phillips says, adding that she doesn’t think “it would have occurred to anybody to ask her to.”

But what Deschamps found in her interviews with forces members from across the country, Phillips says, was that “there was a really significant, pervasive, sexualized culture, that that culture gives rise to more serious incidents of sexual violence, and that there was a very, very deep sense of concern among members about reporting.”

This, Phillips emphasizes, was undertaken prior to #MeToo and even the discourse inspired by Jian Ghomeshi. Deschamps realized she would have to convince the forces’ leadership that there was in fact a major issue and that the officially low incidence of reports wasn’t due to a lack of misconduct but rather to concerns about “reprisals and stigma and what would happen to survivors who come forward.”

“But we’re at a very different moment in time now,” she says.

“There was this deep resistance to the very idea that this was a real problem within the Armed Forces, and I think many met her findings of this sexualized culture that she described with skepticism, with a view that some women are just too thin-skinned.”

The cornerstone of Justice Deschamps’s recommendations was the establishment of a Sexual Misconduct Response Center (SMRC). But in Phillips’s view, “they really failed to appropriately implement it.”

It was supposed to be a fully independent, external body that could receive reports of sexual harassment and assault, and monitor accountability by following up on complaints.

What was created instead was closer to a hotline, able to provide support in response to anonymous disclosures.

“But it’s not authorized to receive reports of sexual misconduct, so it can’t act as a body to really hold individuals accountable, because it can’t receive those reports,” she says.

“There are ways in which the SMRC has filled a useful role, but it’s been a very limited role,” she says. “It hasn’t provided the accountability that was so central, I think, to Justice Deschamps’s recommendations.”

Phillips, however, is encouraged by the prospect of Justice Arbour’s new review, which has a broader mandate that includes examining the system of military justice, as well as promotion and leadership structures.

“She’s not facing the same hurdle that Madam Deschamps faced, of trying to just convince the leadership that there’s even an issue here that needs to be addressed,” she explains. “We know that there’s an issue, and it’s an issue that goes to the highest levels of the leadership of the Armed Forces. And there’s a crisis in the leadership of the Armed Forces because of this endemic, pervasive culture of sexual misconduct.”

She says it’s important that public pressure be kept up after Justice Arbour delivers her recommendations. “I hope that media scrutiny continues to be brought to bear on what the government’s reaction is and whether or not they actually follow through on the promises that they’ve made.”

Many survivors remain skeptical. For some, it’s been over 20 years, and they are still fighting that same fight. It can’t be overstated what a significant role the people who have come forward have played in getting the issue to this point.

“When I joined the military,” Dawn says, “I wanted to be a part of something bigger. And I did a documentary for Ryerson University, and I sent the trailer to Madame Justice Marie Deschamps.

“And she sent back, ‘How does it feel to be a part of something bigger?’”

Top collage includes covers of the May 25, 1998, December 14, 1998, and May 5, 2014, issues of Maclean’s.

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