In the summer of 2004, I was zipping through an obstacle course, part of basic officer training with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), when I reached a wooden wall about ten feet high. I stepped on the back of a kneeling cadet, as we were trained to do, then reached for a platoon-mate’s hands to pull me upwards.
“You feel that, Thompson?” A fellow cadet cupped his paws firmly around my bottom. “You’re a little more than a handful back here.”
I wrenched the wooden slats underneath my armpits, pulling myself up. “Piss off,” I muttered. It occurred to me that I ought to do something. Yell. Kick him in the face. Bring my concerns to the course staff. But I didn’t excel, physically speaking, so my platoon already regarded me as weak. These men were supposed to be my family, and as a soldier, I thought I must be loyal above all else. So I dutifully leaned down to offer my groper a hand, and began my career-long harassment by a thousand cuts.
Four years later, as a Captain and the Harassment Advisor at my unit, I gave my harassment prevention lecture to every new group of soldiers. I explained the harassment criteria to a room full of mostly male students, who rolled their eyes in boredom or stared blankly into some unknowable abyss. Nearly all of my harassment scenarios were derived from my personal military experiences: nicknames and crude jokes about my breasts; grabbing and groping; the two Corporals who saluted my Captain bars and told me they were saluting me in other ways, too.
By the time I was released from the CAF in 2011, despite being a trained Harassment Advisor with nearly ten years of service, I’d never filed a complaint.
Women have served in the Canadian Armed Forces since 1885. After a 1989 complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, women were permitted into combat roles. Sandra Perron subsequently became Canada’s first female infantry officer. Forced to accommodate Perron, the CAF seemed to lack a strategic plan for integrating women; they plunked Perron, and the women who followed, into roles where they then faced harassment. Today, only 15 percent of the CAF is female. A military sexual misconduct survey conducted by Statistics Canada indicated that more than 27 percent of female troops have experienced harassment or assault; that number is likely an underestimate, given the low rate of reporting in other populations. (According to a civilian 2009 Statistics Canada General Social Survey, nine in ten non-spousal sexual assaults were never reported to police.)
An external review of harassment in the Forces, conducted by former Justice of the Supreme Court Marie Deschamps, determined “there is an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.” Notably, several harassment lawsuits against the CAF are currently meandering through the court system. Former sailor Nicola Peffers launched a suit in 2016 claiming her chain of command didn’t protect her after sexual advances from a superior, and an organization called It’s Just 700, which provides resources and support for victims of military sexual trauma (MST), has helped coordinate four cross-country class-action filings that seek to change policy surrounding MST and harassment.
It’s Just 700 was founded in 2015 by Retired Leading Seaman Marie-Claude Gagnon, who left the Forces after experiencing retaliation when she reported her assault. Gagnon was frustrated by the treatment options available to victims of MST, and how they compared to the degree of care and consideration afforded to combat-related PTSD. “We’re treated like a different breed of veteran,” says Gagnon. If It’s Just 700 wins their coordinated lawsuits, victims could be eligible to receive Veterans Affairs benefits and access funded treatment. As it stands, Veterans Affairs policy dictates that to receive benefits, the injury or illness must be attributed to military service, which is challenging for MST victims who have not submitted official reports to document their traumas. “A lot of these victims have never received treatment from Veterans Affairs because there’s been no documentation of harassment and assaults,” says Retired Leading Seaman Amy Graham, one of the main complainants in the It’s Just 700 lawsuit.
An informal survey of the It’s Just 700 group members noted that just 7 percent of survivors who reported their assaults and harassment were able to stay in the military. The vast majority were medically released—meaning they lost income, and had no access to support or treatment from the military.
While the numbers pertaining to harassment in the Forces are dismal, the military isn’t blind to the issue. The CAF’s Harassment Prevention and Resolution Guidelines offer outlines of appropriate behaviour, along with reporting steps. Operation Honour, created in 2015, provides a one-stop shop for soldiers to report incidents and access support and resources through a website, hotline and app. For veterans, there is the Operational Stress Recovery Program in Vernon, BC, which runs a female-only program that treats military and RCMP service-related trauma surrounding bullying and harassment. Veterans Affairs Canada foots the bill, and since it’s the only program of its kind in the country, attendees come from all over Canada and are put up in a hotel for the duration of the treatment.
And yet studies show harassment is still pervasive in military culture, and that female soldiers have good reason to be hesitant about reporting. Sandra Perron’s book, Out Standing in the Field, chronicles the persistent sexual harassment, including horrific rape, that she experienced over the course of her sixteen-year-long career; it also chronicles her decision not to report. “I didn’t feel my voice would have been heard and that it would have ruined my career,” Perron says. “You risk becoming the enemy of the organization that you still want to be loyal to, and that you serve, and that you love.”
Julie Lalonde, a social justice activist and sexual violence educator who made headlines in 2014 when she was harassed while giving a harassment lecture to cadets at the Royal Military College, explains, “Sexual harassment is par for the course and the price many women feel they need to pay in order to prove themselves worthy of being in that club.”
The CAF prizes its “military family” mentality, in which your colleagues are to be considered more than colleagues—they are the people who will keep you alive at war. This mindset creates a fierce bond with fellow troops and cultivates loyalty to the Forces as an organization.
Retired Master Corporal Lena Martinez* echoed this sentiment after her own rape by a military colleague, when she was nineteen years old. “I knew for a fact that I wasn’t going to speak. Knowing the military, [even] in the short period of time, I learned to shut up,” Martinez says. “In my mind, I started to try to justify [the rape]. ‘Oh, he just came back from Bosnia.’”
Corporal Donna Strutt* experienced a home invasion by a fellow soldier who was known to have a drinking problem. She woke in the middle of the night to find him inebriated, sitting at the end of her bed, watching her sleep. When she reported the issue to her superiors, they were dismissive and mentioned that she risked ruining her aggressor’s career. “I think I got about ten people telling me that oh, he’s got a disease, he’s an alcoholic, and I should be more sensitive to that.”
Even if an assault or harassment is reported and the perpetrator is successfully charged or prosecuted, the punishments are dismal in the military court system, sometimes as little as a $500 fine. “There is no deterrent [to discourage] people from actually committing these crimes,” says Amy Graham, whose perpetrator received a demotion and $2,500 fine after his court martial. The message to perpetrators is that there is little career risk for their crimes, especially compared to the fallout experienced by female victims.
While the CAF’s harassment guidelines promise zero ramifications for reporting, reality dictates otherwise. After submitting a complaint, Strutt was treated with hostility. During my time in the CAF, I also witnessed complainants having their careers stunted—no longer offered prize courses or promotions—after speaking up.
Justice Deschamps’s report agrees: “Interviewees stated that fear of negative repercussions for career progression, including being removed from the unit, is one of the most important reasons why members do not report such incidents.” Tellingly, though I live near a military base with a large pool of former colleagues, I was unable to find any currently serving women willing to speak with me on the record.
To address systemic sexism and rape culture in their organization, the CAF will need to embrace sweeping change. “The reality is that sexual violence, the sexualization of women, and homophobia are deeply embedded in military culture writ large and it’s going to take an enormous and sustained effort to address it,” says Lalonde. This culture has thrived on masculinity and bravado for thousands of years, and change can’t come fast enough to protect the health, safety and happiness of women in the Forces.
So where do we start? Ideally, in military training facilities, at the very beginning of budding careers. After Lalonde’s experience at RMC, a student claimed he might have listened to her if she hadn’t been a civilian. And while my own experience as a harassment lecturer casts doubt over that statement, having listened to the stories of former CAF members, I see immense value in having new recruits attend a speaker panel of female veterans. Once female veterans are distanced from the arm of career repercussions, they’re able to discuss their experiences in honest detail. Their words could be a powerful tool of change in the next generation of service members.
Building mentorship programs with female comrades would also lead to a more united stance against gendered mistreatment. Perron admits to avoiding the other women in her platoon simply as a method of self-preservation. “You’re all about survival. So you don’t want to associate yourself with those who are seen as weaker. And that’s all wrong,” she says. Fostering mentorships would encourage third-party reporting after witnessing harassment while empowering survivors to speak out. The CAF must also train their leaders to recognize and report harassment incidents, and instill appropriate investigative measures and punishments.
The most vital change required is in the CAF’s method for handling harassment complaints, which would be improved by allowing outside entities to investigate. “The military has stated, time and again, whether the issue is sexual violence or mental health, ‘We have the experts in house. We don’t need outsiders,’” said Lalonde. “But if that were true, why haven’t they solved these issues?” Indeed, Justice Deschamps’s report recommended just such a setup, which would help reduce fear of career reprisal and retaliation in reporting. And, of course, the military and Veterans Affairs must provide care and protection for victims. Gagnon of It’s Just 700 insisted that a focus on care, not just on reporting statistics, is vital for the members who have already experienced harassment.
In Paul Gessell’s otherwise positive review of Perron’s Out Standing in the Field for Quill & Quire, Gessell finds Perron’s continued admiration of the CAF, despite repeated assaults, troubling. Her account, he writes, “reads like the travails of a hostage suffering Stockholm syndrome.”
I’m sometimes asked if, despite my negative experiences, I would still encourage women to join the CAF. My answer is always yes. For me, like Perron and many other women currently or formerly serving, loyalty to the military coexists with our frustration about its failure to protect us, and this loyalty is why we advocate for change. While I had amazing experiences in the CAF, I also think of all I could have achieved if I hadn’t had to be permanently on guard with my fellow troops. It’s in the CAF’s best interest to change its policies and culture to reduce the assault and harassment of female service members, so they can be more assured and effective in service to their country.