Canada’s top military commander said Tuesday he rejects the notion that sexual misconduct is “simply part of our military culture,” but MPs reacted angrily to news that the Canadian Armed Forces is three years behind in reporting criminal statistics to the defence minister.

More than a month after an investigation by two magazines uncovered allegations that sexual violence in the ranks is epidemic within the Canadian Forces, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson appeared before a parliamentary committee to answer questions about military action and allegations of a cover-up.

As CTV News earlier reported, Lawson confirmed that there will be an independent, external investigation into military sexual assault, although he could not say who will head it up or what its mandate would be.

Lawson ordered an internal review of workplace programs and policies after an eight-month investigation, published in late April by Maclean’s magazine and its French-language sister publication L’Actualite, suggested that an average of five sexual assaults occur each day within the Canadian military. The report included interviews with alleged victims of rape or sexual assault, some of whom said their cases were ignored by the military.

The report also suggested there was underreporting of such incidents because personnel feared career retribution should they go public.

Calling the article “disturbing,” Lawson said at the time that sexual violence was the exact opposite of what military culture fosters. He reiterated that stance when he appeared before the committee, which is examining sexual assault allegations in the military.

“First, let me say that I do not accept from any quarter, the notion that sexual misconduct is simply part of our military culture,” Lawson said. “Sexual misconduct of any kind is wrong, is despicable, it’s corrosive and it runs utterly contrary to everything the Canadian Armed Forces stands for.”

Lawson acknowledged however, that there are gaps that in the system. He said after the publication of the articles he “needed to be sure” that a set of policies designed to decrease incidents of harassment were in place, which is why he called an internal review.

“What came forth from that was an indication that there may be some systemic barriers in place that may be keeping individuals who felt they had suffered from sexual … misconduct of any kind from coming forward and there was also indications that there may be room to standardize the way the chain of command responded to any allegations,” Lawson said.

Delay in military reporting

The military’s top lawyer was also on the hot seat at committee Tuesday over a delay in reporting such allegations to Parliament.

The Canadian Armed Forces is three years behind in reporting military data and criminal statistics -- including alleged sexual assaults reports -- to the defence minister.

Brig. Gen. Blaise Cathcart, the judge advocate-general, said he took full responsibility for not filing the reports, which is supposed to take place each year.

“They are being worked on, they’re close to completion, and I take the full responsibility for not meeting the timeline as set out to do it on an annual basis,” Cathcart said.

The revelation angered MPs, including Defence critic Jack Harris.

“I’m quite angry to find that – from these reports – the military hasn’t responded appropriately to individuals who were victims,” Harris said.

Military law expert retired Col. Michel Drapeau called Tuesday’s proceedings an “empty shell.”

“I believe every word that General Lawson said, but General Lawson can do nothing but call for an external review,” Drapeau said in an interview on CTV Power Play Tuesday. “We don’t need this, it’s been 14 years that they had the occasion to call an external review and make changes.”

Drapeau said what was “really on the stand” at committee was the failure of the military system to provide safety and justice for victims.

What the committee saw instead, Drapeau said, was a “judge advocate-general in breach of law” for not providing statistics on sexual assault, prosecutions and convictions.

“General Lawson can only do so much, the person I hold responsible for current state of affairs and the lack of movement, the lack of progress, is the judge advocate-general,” he said.

While Drapeau says he believes Gen. Lawson is being sincere when he says military culture does not foster such violence, he “doesn’t have the justice system to carry through to provide the kind of punishment and investigation to make sure there is no recurrence and that those who are assaulters are in fact properly punished.”

Drapeau said the forces must return to a process whereby civilian police and courts investigate and prosecute such incidents, rather than the military.

With files from The Canadian Press