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DND, CAF issue apology to victims of military sexual misconduct

Anita Anand Minister of National Defence of Canada
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Formal apologies were proffered in December to generations of military members, veterans and civilian employees who suffered military sexual trauma, gender discrimination and lack of response from the institutions charged with their protection. 

“We are sorry. I am sorry,” said Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, acknowledging the failure of successive governments to stamp out sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination in the military.

“Your government did not protect you, nor did we ensure that the right systems were in place to ensure justice and accountability.”

“We are confronting and acknowledging a number of difficult truths,” said General Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff. “The harm you suffered happened on our collective watch. On my watch.”

He acknowledged abuses of power behind the behaviour, and its effects on survivors—betrayal, broken trust, crushed careers. “Assaults on your mind and on your spirit. On your dignity and your humanity. 

“As someone who has given my entire life to this institution, and who loves it so deeply, it breaks my heart.” 

On behalf of the Department of National Defence, Deputy Minister Jody Thomas, a navy veteran, apologized to a range of others affected—survivors, partners, parents, children and the bystanders who felt powerless to intervene. 

“I believe the apologies were sincere,” said Lori Buchart, chair of It’s Not Just 700, a peer support group for survivors of military sexual trauma. But some survivors, she added, will accept nothing less than an apology from the person who harmed them and for others, “nothing will ever fix this for them.”

Strong reactions were elicited online by Thomas’ disclosure of her powerlessness as a witness of misogyny, homophobia, hazing and exclusion in her navy career. It showed “a profound understanding,” wrote one viewer. Another wrote, “Deputy Minister, that was an apology I accept.” 

More than 7,600 people watched the apology live on Facebook, with commentary from viewers ranging from, “All apology and no action,” to, “Now THIS is the apology we have all been waiting for.” 

But many survivors, such as Harvey Gingras of Winnipeg, wanted to watch it later, when they had emotional support. “Politicians failed veterans, especially those like us,” he said. “Criminal things were done to us.”

The apologies came at the end of a painful year for the Canadian Armed Forces.

The apologies came at the end of a painful year for the Canadian Armed Forces, during which multiple allegations of sexual misbehaviour against senior officers were investigated. 

Public attention was first focused on the issue in 2015, when an external review by a former Supreme Court justice found an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGBTQ+ military members.

General Jonathan Vance
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General Jonathan Vance, who was then chief of the defence staff, initiated Operation Honour to eliminate harmful and inappropriate behaviour within the CAF. 

Survivors of sexual misbehaviour launched class action lawsuits against the government, which ended in a $900-million settlement in 2019. Almost 19,000 claims were submitted by the November 2021 deadline.

Aside from compensation of up to $155,000 depending on severity and effect, the settlement also provided for restorative engagement during which survivors could tell their stories to senior officials in DND and the CAF. 

Operation Honour was called into question when two women alleged Vance was guilty of sexual misconduct. After one told her story in the media, others were emboldened to come forward, resulting in investigations of half a dozen other senior officers and criticism of leaders who supported those under investigation. 

Vance was charged with obstruction of justice in July. 

Operation Honour culminated amid claims of ineffectiveness and betrayal. Two House of Commons committees launched studies of military sexual misconduct.

In November, Anand transferred investigation and prosecution of military sexual misconduct cases to civilian authorities. Vance’s case was transferred to the civilian justice system and a trial date was set for May 2023. 

The apology marks a turning point, said Eyre, who credited survivors and plaintiffs in the class action suits and advocacy groups for fighting for change.

“We have unfairly placed the onus on those who were harmed to come forward to effect change,” said Eyre. “This should not have been your burden to carry. 

“It will take tangible actions to make real and lasting change. This time we will not fail…. This work will be complex and difficult, and it demands a complete unity of purpose.

“It is work that we have
already begun.”

“The words were sincere,” said Buchart. “Words matter; actions matter more. There are still people who believe it’s not an issue and that’s a challenge.”

But, she added, “I am cautiously optimistic.” 

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