Christine Wood, representing the group It’s Just 700 — which led the class action lawsuit against the federal government over sexual violence in the Armed Forces — spoke forcefully and eloquently before the Commons committee on the Status of Women.
Wood said victims of sexual misconduct are frustrated because many of their key recommendations to improve care for those brave enough to step forward have been ignored.
It is disheartening and dangerous, Wood said.
“The burnout and the pain is palpable,” she said. “And it should not be up to us to keep sending the same message, year after year after year. We have engaged in many meaningful consultations.”
‘They are at the edge’
Wood spoke of a close friend who she said has to write notes to herself reminding her of all of the reasons she has not to commit suicide.
“The people I know who have fought the hardest for this, for so many years, are burning out and they are at the edge,” she said.
Wood pointed to the continued absence of an independent agency for reporting sexual violence, the lack of a national online peer support program for victims and the persistent need for separate in-patient psychiatric care when necessary.
“To be clear, we are asking for the same supports we were asking for four years ago,” said Wood, adding that more and more victims come forward every year with no safety net to catch them.
“These individuals are not coming forward to report a simple discrepancy they see in paperwork. They are coming forward with their experiences of terror, debilitating anxiety and shredded self-confidence.”
A ‘national embarrassment’
The committee is looking into the impact of the ongoing sexual misconduct scandal on women serving in the military and those who have returned to civilian life.
The hearings and a separate, concurrent investigation by the Commons defence committee were prompted by allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the country’s top military commander, Admiral Art McDonald, and his predecessor Gen. Jonathan Vance.
“At this point, I believe that sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces is a national embarrassment,” said Wood. “Our collective Canadian conscience has been hit hard by the recent, high-profile allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by our most senior leaders.”
Wood said that while those two cases, which are under investigation by the military’s National Investigation Service, are important, they’ve drawn the public’s attention away from the wider tragedy.
“It is outrageous that two chiefs of the defence [staff] have faced allegations within weeks of each other, but it is even more outrageous to accept that one thousand and six hundred people report a sexual assault on average every year within the CAF,” said Wood.
Speaking before the committee, former master corporal Stephanie Raymond — whose 2011 assault by a superior non-commissioned officer made national headlines — repeated her call for an independent reporting agency to handle sexual violence cases in the military.
She spoke of how, after reporting her attacker — former warrant officer Andre Gagnon — she was provided with no shield of confidentiality and faced reprisals within her unit.
Julie S. Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate and public educator, gave committee members a thoughtful but forceful call for cultural change within the military.
She said she was heckled and harassed in 2014 when she delivered anti-harassment training to cadets at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), in Kingston, Ont.
“I was, and remain, deeply troubled by the comments cadets made with regards to sexual violence,” she said. “Victim blaming was rampant and the cadets insisted women who drink too much are asking to be raped.”
The lone exception, said Lalonde, was a naval cadet who stood up to the rest of his classmates and berated them for their attitude and remarks.
“Are CAF members uncomfortable with terms like rape culture, toxic masculinity, survivor-centred? Absolutely,” said Lalonde. “But you cannot change something you won’t even name.”
She said that since she came forward to describe what happened that day six-and-a-half years ago at RMC, she has received “thousands of threatening emails, social media messages and phone calls” — and she can no longer speak in public without security.
“I have paid dearly for my courage. So it is disheartening to see those of you with immense power shying away from the hard work that is necessary to make change.”