Forces encourage more sex-assault reports but not helping victims, auditor says


OTTAWA — The federal auditor general has warned the Canadian Forces that it has failed to properly support victims of sexual misconduct, undercutting attempts to eradicate such behaviour in the ranks.

In a frank assessment released Tuesday, Michael Ferguson also blasted what he said were long delays in resolving cases of sexual misconduct and the poor level of training for service members on the issue.

Eradicating sexual misconduct has been a top priority for military commanders since a series of devastating reports several years ago uncovered a highly sexualized culture where misbehaviour was ignored or hidden.

Awareness has certainly increased in recent years, the auditor’s report said even as it underscored the importance of dealing with the problem for military’s overall effectiveness.

But the report also found that many victims are not being properly supported when they do speak up because of gaps in the services available.

There was also a lack of specialized training for chaplains and military health professionals to support victims.

The auditor general also took aim at military regulations that compel victims to report inappropriate or criminal behaviour, which then launches a formal complaint process — whether the service member wants it or not.

In some cases, victims were found to have been pressured by their commanders into filing a formal complaint.

“This discouraged some victims from disclosing for fear of being forced into a formal complaint process, which contributed to underreporting,” the report reads.

In the context of this so-called “duty to report,” the report added, “it is even more important that victims who come forward are adequately supported, since they do not all report willingly.”

One of the main concerns identified by the auditor general during a review of several dozen criminal and non-criminal cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour was the length of time it takes for cases to be resolved.

The majority of criminal cases took more than seven months to be closed by military police, who were also found to regularly skip procedures — including providing victims with a support package or refer them to assistance.

“To fully support victims and reduce the risk that they withdraw from the reporting process, it is important that all of these steps are taken,” the report reads.

Despite efforts to increase confidence in the system, the auditor general found many service members are still reluctant to come forward and report inappropriate behaviour.

It also found that poor training to all service members had contributed to only a vague understanding of what constituted inappropriate behaviour, which actually threatens to undermine military cohesion and esprit de corps.

“Many told us that it had created an environment of fear and frustration and reduced camaraderie,” the report reads.

“Some were afraid of even basic social interactions for fear of being accused of inappropriate behaviour. Other members (particularly female) told us that they felt isolated because of their peers’ fears about interacting with them.”

In its response, the military said it accepted the auditor general’s findings and would work to address the concerns identified in the report.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press