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'Significant increase' in sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, Statistics Canada reports

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Statistics Canada is reporting a “significant increase” in rates of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) last year.

According to the report released Tuesday — “Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, 2022” — approximately 1,960 regular force members, about 3.5 per cent, “reported that they were sexually assaulted in the military workplace or outside of the workplace in an incident that involved CAF or other military members in the 12 months preceding the survey.”

Tuesday’s report is the statistics agency’s third voluntary survey of active regular force and primary reserve members since 2016, and is based on responses from more than 23,000 members.

The survey collects data for instances of “sexual attacks, unwanted sexual touching, and sexual activity where the victim was unable to consent.”

The 2022 rate of sexual misconduct in the CAF is up from 1.7 per cent in 2016, and 1.6 per cent in 2018, when previous surveys were conducted, according to Statistics Canada.

The report also states instances of sexual assault were more prevalent among women (7.5 per cent), compared to men (2.8 per cent) which is “consistent with previous findings,” and is an increase for both.

They are also more prevalent among younger CAF members, those who are Indigenous, who have a disability, or whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual, according to the report.

At a press conference Tuesday, and in response to a question about the survey, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said “sexual assault is completely unacceptable anywhere, anytime.”

“It is totally unacceptable when it comes to the women and men, but especially the women, who are in uniform to serve our country,” she said. “And what I want to say to them is we hear you, we see you and our government will keep on working and do what needs to be done to ensure that you are safe.”

Sexual misconduct in Canada’s military and how to address it has been a longstanding issue, including being a focus of the Arbour Report, published last year, which includes 48 recommendations to address “cultural issues” in the CAF and Department of National Defence.

Defence Minister Bill Blair told reporters on his way into question period on Tuesday that the federal government is committed to implementing all of the Arbour Report’s recommendations, with about 17 already completed, and progress on the rest underway.

Blair also said he believes there is “a very real and sincere commitment” within the CAF to address the issue.

“But in bringing about effective cultural change, it's a process, not an event,” he said. “And it's not simply a matter of passing a regulation or a law or issuing an order, it's about building all of the systems and supports that are necessary to demonstrate, first of all, that there is respect for every member of the (Canadian) Armed Forces, and it’s a strong culture that says certain behaviours are completely unacceptable.”

The Statistics Canada report also states the level of reporting of sexual assault has gone down since previous the survey. More than two thirds of victims did not report their experience to anyone in authority, with 41 per cent of those who did not report their sexual assault citing the reason as “belief that it would not make a difference.”

About 21 per cent of victims in 2022 stated the incident was reported, compared to 25 per cent in 2018, and 23 per cent in 2016. During those two previous surveys, victims cited the situation being “resolved informally” as the most common reason for not reporting the assault.

In response to a question about the lack of reporting and the cited reasons for it, Freeland said she has “a huge amount of sympathy for women in any organization, including the military, including an organization which is necessarily hierarchical, who are concerned about the consequences of speaking up.”

“That is completely understandable,” she said. “Change is hard. Making sure that women across Canada can do whatever job they want to do and can be free from sexual assault in every single workplace, that's a really hard change.”

“I absolutely agree that we need to do more,” she added.

Freeland also reiterated that the federal government is “totally, totally committed to supporting” CAF members.

The Statistics Canada report also states that nearly half, 48 per cent, of people who reported an incident of sexual assault to someone in authority said they were “dissatisfied with the responses.” Thirty-seven per cent told the agency they were satisfied with the authority figure’s response to their reporting of an incident.

About a third of CAF members who said they were sexually assaulted in 2022 also told Statistics Canada they believe the perpetrator’s alcohol or drug use was a factor. That figure is similar to the 2016 and 2018 surveys.

When asked whether he thinks the military has a problem with alcohol and whether it should be banned in the organization, the defence minister wouldn’t say.

“Society has a problem with alcohol,” Blair said. “And I can tell you from my previous experience as a police chief, alcohol and other intoxicants are often a … factor in sexual assault and misconduct generally.”

"My message is that people should conduct themselves appropriately," Blair also said, when asked about alcohol at holiday parties, specifically.

In a joint statement Tuesday, the deputy national defence minister, chief of the defence staff and CAF chief warrant officer said the “continued prevalence of sexual misconduct in our workplace is incredibly disappointing given our sustained focus on addressing it.”

“However, we remain resolute in our commitment to eliminating this issue, and we believe our current approach, which focuses on root causes and is informed by the lived experiences of our members, stakeholders and experts, will lead to enduring change,” the statement reads.

They added some data included in the survey show positive change, including that the number of people reporting they intervened when they witnessed sexual or other discriminatory behaviours has increased.

According to Statistics Canada, more than half of surveyed CAF members reported intervening when they witnessed sexual or discriminatory behaviours, a number that’s up 10 per cent from the 2018 survey.

“The Canadian Armed Forces is committed to eliminating all forms of misconduct, including sexual misconduct,” wrote Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre in a separate statement from the Department of National Defence Tuesday. “Today’s results from the Survey on Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces shows that, while we have made progress in some areas, we still have work to do.”

“We will continue to listen to our members and their lived experiences, and to ensure they have access to the necessary supports and services if or when they need them,” he added.

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