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Canada apologises for 'scourge' of military sexual misconduct – BBC News

By Holly Honderich
BBC News, Washington

Canada's defence minister joined the country's highest ranking officer on Monday to offer an apology to survivors and victims of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces – two years after a formal apology was promised.
Defence Minister Anita Anand, Gen Wayne Eyre and deputy defence minister Jody Thomas each offered unreserved apologies for all those who experienced sexual harassment and violence while serving in Canada's military.
"Countless lives have been harmed because of inaction and systemic failure," Ms Anand said. "This is a failure that our Canadian Armed Forces, our department and the government will always carry with us."
For nearly a year, the Canadian military has been engulfed in crisis as a steady stream of senior officials were removed from active service over accusations of sexual misconduct. To date, 11 military leaders – current and former – have been removed, investigated or forced to retire in relation to the scandal.
The apology was promised as part of a 2019 C$900m ($700m; £532m) class-action settlement approved by the Federal Court. Almost 19,000 claims were submitted by the November deadline by current and former military personnel and defence department employees.
"Most Nato allies have had a moment of reckoning when it comes to sexual misconduct scandals", according to Stéfanie von Hlatky, the director of the Center for International and Defense Policy, at Queen's University – but the number of top brass implicated in Canada is "unique", she said
The scandal began in February, when Global News reported that the former Chief of the Defence Staff, retired Gen Jonathan Vance, was facing two allegations of sexual misconduct. The Chief of the Defence staff is the top position in Canada's military.
Military police were investigating whether Gen Vance's relationship with a former subordinate, Major Kellie Brennan, was inappropriate and broke internal regulations. In April, Major Brennan testified before lawmakers that Gen Vance had fathered but refused to support two of her children. According to Major Brennan, her former boss told her that he was "untouchable" and "owned" the military.
Soon after, Gen Vance's replacement, Admiral Art McDonald, abruptly stepped down from his post after Canadian news outlets received tips he was being investigated over a sexual misconduct allegation as well.
The dual inquiries prompted Lt-Col Eleanor Taylor, an Afghanistan combat veteran, and one of the Canadian military's highest-profile women, to step down in protest in March.
In a stinging resignation letter, Lt-Col Taylor said she was "sickened" by the investigations, adding: "Unfortunately, I am not surprised".
"I am also certain that the scope of the problem has yet to be exposed. Throughout my career, I have observed insidious and inappropriate use of power for sexual exploitation," she wrote.
Lt-Col Taylor's letter was a "turning point", said Leah West, a former armoured officer who is now an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"No one was having conversations about sexual assault, sexual misconduct. It was outright rejection: 'that's not my armed forces,'" she said. "Eleanor Taylor was a leader to both men and women. When she got angry, it gave the rest of us permission to get angry, to start talking about it."
In the months that followed, nine other senior military officials became embroiled in sexual misconduct investigations, either as the subject of a probe or for allegedly shielding another offending officer.
"From where I'm sitting, it's not just about preventing and responding to sexual misconduct," said Prof von Hlatky. "Really, there's a culture that's been permissive of these acts of harm and abuse of power."
Monday's apology and vows of reform come nearly six years after a government report found that Canada's military was "hostile to women and LGBTQ members and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment".
More than a quarter of women in the Canadian military have been sexually assaulted during their careers, the 2015 report found. Just 23% of those women reported what had happened, and only 7% filed reports with the military police of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.
According to the survey, women in the military are almost twice as likely as the general population to have been victims of sexual assault in the previous year, and nearly 80% of all respondents witnessed or experienced "inappropriate sexualised behaviour".
Prof West, who spent a decade with the Canadian military, told the BBC that sexualised behaviour, laughing and mocking women and other minorities in the military "permeated everything".
"It just became so much of the culture, you couldn't see out of it," Prof West said.
She has previously disclosed that she was sexually assaulted by a senior officer while serving.
She was found unconscious after a house party in 2008 and taken to hospital, where a rape kit found evidence of intercourse. Military police turned the matter over to her commanding officer, but he turned the issue back to her, asking her what she wanted to do. Not wanting to rock the boat, she said nothing.
She noted that men have also been victims of military sexual assault. More than 40% of the 19,000 claims submitted to the sexual misconduct class action suit were from men.
Gen Eyre, who was named Chief of the Defence Staff in October, promised a wholesale reset of the military's culture.
"It is the greatest challenge of our times. It is existential," he said.
A slew of new initiatives are expected, including an independent reporting body for victims and survivors of sexual misconduct.
Some observers hope that newly appointed leaders can deliver the change promised for years.
"There's been a complete renewal in terms of leaders in key positions," said Queen's University's Professor von Hlatky. Ms Anand's appointment comes alongside new female leadership in key military positions.
However, Prof West was still sceptical about how thorough the military's reform may be, after years of inaction.
"This is going to take a lot of effort, time and money to actually implement change," she said. "But a changing of the guard is not a bad thing."
Eleven senior leaders of the Canadian military have been enveloped by scandal. Some are under investigation for sexual misconduct, others face charges. And others still faced sanction for their handling of sexual misconduct by subordinates.
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