Following review, military police reopen 23 'unfounded' sexual assault cases
A Canadian flag sits on the shoulder of a Canadian Forces member leaving from CFB Trenton, in Trenton, Ont., on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. (The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg)
OTTAWA -- The Canadian Armed Forces has reopened 23 cases of alleged sexual assault after revisiting dozens of files previously dismissed by military police as "unfounded."
The move follows an internal review last year that found nearly one in every three sexual-assault complaints logged with military police between 2010 and 2016 was deemed unfounded -- a designation applied when investigators determine an offence did not occur.
That rate was higher than most civilian police forces in Canada and appeared to confirm some victims' complaints that the Armed Forces did not investigate their cases properly and hold perpetrators accountable.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, which investigates all major crimes in the military, subsequently launched a review of 179 cases and announced Thursday that 113 were indeed unfounded.
Another 43 were found to have been valid complaints that were properly investigated but did not have enough evidence to lay a charge and mislabelled as unfounded. The correct term in police-speak is "founded, not cleared."
Military investigators are now poring over the remaining 23 cases to see if additional evidence can be obtained and charges laid, said Lt.-Col. Kevin Cadman, the commander of the military's investigation service.
That includes going back to the victims for further information or reaching out to witnesses and trying to corroborate what information was provided during the initial investigation.
"We'll conduct those investigative steps until we get to a point where we are happy that we have explored every avenue of the investigation," Cadman said in an interview. "And either we will lay a charge or label the file 'found and not cleared,' or 'unfounded."'
Many police forces in Canada have been revisiting sexual-assault cases labelled as unfounded since a Globe and Mail investigation last year flagged concerns that such complaints are often under-investigated.
Military officials have previously acknowledged that investigating sexual assault cases years after the fact can be difficult, but Cadman pushed back against suggestions authorities failed victims by not properly investigating their complaints.
Previously, many incidents would have been handled by less experienced military police officers at whichever Canadian Forces base or facility the alleged incident occurred. All sexual assault complaints are now handled by the investigative service.
"One may argue that having one file that we took a misstep on or didn't corroborate information is too much," Cadman said. "But I would argue that it's a great news story in the fact that it's never too late to get it right, and now is the time to do so."
Meanwhile, the military is still working to set up a panel of outside advisers comprised of social workers and other experts to go back over all the files to ensure they were properly reviewed, which was first promised in April 2017.
Officials have cited privacy and legal concerns for the fact it remains a work in progress nearly 18 months later, though Cadman said the aim is to have it up and running by late fall and promised the panel would go over all the files again.
Marie-Claude Gagnon, a former naval reservist who founded a group for survivors of military sexual trauma, called It's Just 700, said the decision to reopen 23 files was one sign of positive progress by the Forces in tackling sexual misconduct in the ranks.
Yet she questioned why it took so long for the military to revisit the cases as well as to establish the external panel.
"The only thing we can look at is the facts that we have in front of us, which is the amount of time that they took for the review and the fact that the panel is still not in place," she said.
"At this point, at least they went forward and did something. I just wish they had done it a little sooner."