Military police officers should get training now on how to apply victims rights to sexual misconduct investigations, a new report recommends —regulations that one official hopes will be in place sometime next year.
In a 400-page report tabled to Parliament on Tuesday, former Supreme Court judge Morris Fish, who was tasked with the third independent review of the National Defence Act last November, issued a total of 107 recommendations.
Calling on the need for “rapid implementation” of “pressing reforms,” the report echoes sentiments captured in several past probes into the state of affairs in the Canadian military. “The nature, extent and human cost of sexual misconduct in the [Canadian Armed Forces] remain as debilitating, as rampant and as destructive in 2021 as they were in 2015,” it noted.
He recommended officers receive “appropriate training” on how to apply the Declaration of Victims Rights to guide investigations of sexual misconduct. Federal legislation introducing the declaration came into law in June 2019, but it has not yet come into force and is not yet complete. The country has a separate military justice system from the civilian justice system that since 1998 has initiated legal cases involving sexual offences.
“Even before its entry into force, the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC), with the help of the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal, should design [a] training module” on this declaration, the report said. Mr. Fish noted he was given “no firm or even target date” for the declaration’s implementation, but one official speaking to reporters during a virtual technical briefing said the hope is to have it kick into effect sometime in 2022, a target later repeated at a press conference.
Over the last several years, there has been a slow trickle of people, in particular women, coming forward to the media with allegations of sexual misconduct in the military. Judge Advocate General Geneviève Bernatchez said that signalled a need for the institution to take a “victim-centered approach” in their handling of such allegations. Mr. Fish, in his report, said speedy movement on his recommendations “will help spare victims of sexual misconduct the inevitable harm to their health and careers that delayed implementation would cause.”
Ms. Bernatchez said she hopes the declaration, which is at the “heart” of many of the suggestions flowing out of the retired judge’s report, comes into force “no later than the spring of 2022,” after the regulatory process completes.
Under Bill C-77, which received Royal Assent in June 2019, the government committed to creating such a declaration that outlines victims’ rights to “information, protection, participation, and restitution in respect of service offences.” (Those seeking recourse through the civilian system are entitled to similar rights since 2015.) But that has yet to take effect, as regulations are still being drafted by Ms. Bernatchez, who acknowledged Tuesday the report “puts fire under our collective feet,” and the lack of a declaration is “not something that can be left as is.”
Calling for “continued momentum,” she said the pandemic briefly threw a wrench into the consultation process to draft the document, but “extensive” consultation has now taken place with the SMRC, which was established in 2015, the ombudsman for victims of crime, and other victims survivors groups. An online survey is active for those impacted by the system, along with a webpage set up for general public feedback. That means efforts are “well advanced and underway,” said Ms. Bernatchez, adding her office has provided the department with “drafting instructions for 50 per cent of the required regulations” under the bill. The department has in turn wrapped up “20 per cent of the drafting of the regulations,” she said.
In @OurCommons I tabled the report on the Third Independent Review of the National Defence Act. I have accepted all of the 107 recommendations, in principle.
— Harjit Sajjan (@HarjitSajjan) June 1, 2021
Ms. Bernatchez’s remarks come as the government continues to face sustained scrutiny of its handling of sexual misconduct allegations, which have rocked the feds over the last several months. It’s the subject of two parliamentary committee probes and has prompted concerns from survivor groups who worry Ottawa is dragging its feet on the file, all at the expense of those who come forward to share their stories.
Mr. Fish’s report comes a month after Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), who’s held the post since the Liberals took office in 2015, tapped former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to lead an external review of the military’s handing of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. Her appointment to lead that broad review was made almost six years after Supreme Court judge Marie Deschamps wrapped up her damning review on a similar topic, which led to the recommendation to set up an external centre for people to report their complaints. The SMRC, which has no oversight powers, is civilian run and still operates in connection with the Department of National Defence (DND).
After Mr. Fish’s report was tabled, a release from the department listed a swath of recommendations that the CAF and DND vowed to move forward on “in the short term as additional analysis is done” on others. The recommendation to prepare a training module was not included in that list. Asked about that absence, Mr. Sajjan, speaking to reporters, hinted legislative changes take time. “There are some areas where we have to put working groups together,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re actually meeting Justice Fish’s intent on the recommendations and he has offered up his support in this regard.”
He added the feds accept all of Mr. Fish’s recommendations “in principle,” and the report will help “inform” the development of the declaration, which he said Ottawa is moving forward with “as quickly as possible.”
“We know that we have a lot of work to do to create a culture of dignity and respect for every member of the Defence team, and we are committed to doing this work,” he said. “We want to make sure we get this right … it will require a significant amount of work.”
Mr. Sajjan said the department is putting together a plan to respond to the report that his team will present to the House National Defence Committee in the fall. That promise comes as MPs last fall avoided a snap fall election in the minority Parliament and as election speculation picks up with the Liberals coming up on the two-year mark, after the October 2019 vote. Under a minority, the government can fall at any time if opposition parties band together and vote against it on a confidence motion.
The Hill Times