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Women in the military more likely to face misconduct, medical release, says landmark report

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The Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs need to radically change how they treat women, according to a House of Commons committee, which laid out 42 recommendations in a new report.

The Veterans Affairs Committee report, titled "Invisible No More. The Experiences of Canadian Women Veterans," highlights how women's needs were often neglected.

The Wednesday report highlights that women make up between 16 and 19 per cent of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) but are 2.5 times more likely to be survivors of sexual misconduct during their service than men. They often need to repeat their story more than once to caseworkers to receive compensation, according to the report.

“The issue that most undermines the possibility of presenting a military career as an attractive option for women is that of military sexual trauma,” said Emmanuel Dubourg, Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. The proportion of women who make up all military staff is still under the 25 per cent target.

Women CAF members are more likely to be medically released than men, although data doesn’t indicate why, and their income will drop 17 to 22 per cent in the three years after their release. Women CAF members can face equipment challenges, such as wearing boots and rucksacks that don’t fit or body armour that crushes their breasts.

Among the 42 recommendations, the report calls for more research into women’s health, an apology to women who serve or have served in a culture where military sexual trauma has been allowed to thrive and for Ottawa to help build women-only veteran housing.

“We need to start treating women veterans like they matter; like we want them to serve our country,” said Rachel Blaney, an NDP MP who sits on the Standing Committee of Veterans Affairs.

“These are not women that came in the room as victims. These are women who came in the room asking for accountability and asking for things to get better.”

Testimony from sexual assault survivors reappears throughout the report. Some shared how they struggled to have Veterans Affairs recognize and compensate them for the pain and after-effects they suffered.

The committee also recommended the government ensure female members have access to healthcare services that are specialized for women, ensure women's health specialists are available on all military bases and that medical contracts are renewed only if the contractor can provide adequate care to women.

What next?

Lieutenant Colonel Sandra Perron was harassed and sexually assaulted during her time in the military.

Now an advocate, author and the CEO of The Pepper Pod — a retreat centre for women veterans — Perron said she’s proud of the nearly 100 people who testified for the report.

“For some of them, it was really difficult to recount their stories and they did so with such bravery,” she said. “Karen Breeck, Carly Arkell, Donna Riguidel, Rosemary Park, Vicky-Lynn Cox — These are all women that have amazing stories, that showed up that had the courage to share their stories and their lessons learned and their recommendations.”

Ray Wagner, a Halifax lawyer who represented some of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the CAF that led to a $900 million settlement, called the Standing Committee’s report very comprehensive.

“But one fundamental thing that it’s missing, I think, in terms of the culture change that’s necessary is oversight,” Wagner said, adding that he believes external influence is needed.

“If you want to change the culture, which is the fundamental problem with the Canadian Armed Forces, you have to have external experts that are regularly engaged with the highest echelons.”

When Minister of Veterans Affairs Ginette Petitpas Taylor spoke with reporters Wednesday following the report’s release, she still had to read through the full report.

The Committee asked for a formal government response. “We will be doing that,” she said, adding she had a message for those who testified.

“I want them to know that their testimony will not go in vain.” 

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