OTTAWA — The federal government is promising to close what some consider significant and long-standing gaps within the country’s military court system with a new declaration of the rights of victims.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan unveiled proposed legislation on Thursday, which would provide victims in military cases with many of the same rights to information, protection and participation as those already available in the civilian system.
“This is the right thing to do,” Sajjan told a news conference at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. “This will ensure victims have a voice and that their voices are heard.”
The new legislation would also require military tribunals to consider the circumstances of Indigenous offenders when deciding on jail time and require formal courts martial for criminal cases rather than leaving some with unit commanders.
The measures, if adopted, would represent a dramatic change to the way victims interact with the military justice system, which a recent internal review found was perceived as being unfair and opaque.
The legislation is similar to changes proposed by the Harper government in June 2015, but which died a few weeks later with the start of the federal election campaign. It is considered long overdue by many inside and outside the military.
While Canada’s bill of rights for victims came into effect three years ago, it exempted the military court system, much to the chagrin of many, particularly given concerns about sexual misconduct in the Forces.
The military’s top prosecutor and a senior Canadian Forces military police officer both told The Canadian Press in 2016 that they wanted a victims’ bill of rights for military tribunals.
The federal victims’ ombudsman also flagged concerns about “the gap in the rights of victims of crime within the Canadian military justice system” in November 2016.
The proposed changes come only a few weeks before federal auditor general Michael Ferguson is scheduled to release a report on the military justice system.
Sajjan defended the fact it took three years for the legislation to be introduced, given its similarities to what the Harper government proposed, saying the Liberals took the time necessary to deliver for the Canadian Forces and victims.
“And tabling a bill just days before an election is called, you know where it’s going to end up,” he said in reference to the Conservatives. “So our government is serious about making sure that we make the changes that look after our people.”
The proposed legislation includes provisions that would let victims better track their cases, seek compensation from perpetrators, and establish special liaison officers to help military members, families and civilians navigate the system.
It also broadens the ways in which victim impact statements can be delivered during courts martial and gives victims the right to complain if they feel their rights have been violated.
The plan to strip commanding officers of their power to hear serious cases, particularly those of a criminal nature, is also a significant shift in terms of perceived fairness, but also so commanders are better able to deal efficiency with minor disciplinary matters.
“What we will have in place will make sure we have a system that is simplified and will allow unit commanders to impose much quicker discipline and in a simpler way,” said Commodore Genevieve Bernatchez, the military’s top legal officer.
Sajjan said he’s not concerned that sending all serious cases to court martial would lead to more delays in the military justice system, which has been struggling with the same backlog issues as its civilian counterpart.
“We are going to adjust resources if necessary to make sure that the process goes as quickly as possible, that we can have cases that are heard, and more importantly, justice for the victims.”
The proposed legislation was welcomed by retired colonel Michel Drapeau, one of the country’s top experts on military law, who credited Bernatchez with pushing what he argued were some much-needed reforms to the system.
“It is not a panacea,” Drapeau said of the impact the proposed changes would have on the military justice system, “but it is a very good step in the right direction.”
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press