Sex assault lawsuits seek culture change in Canada’s military

Armed Force's new diversity strategy is "lipstick on a pig," says lead plaintiff Nicola Peffers

A recently announced review of military uniforms, ceremonies, badges and drills – part of a new diversity strategy aimed at making a broad swath of equity-seeking groups feel more welcome in the Canadian military – drew a chuckle from Navy veteran Nicola Peffers. She’s one of two lead plaintiffs in sexual harassment and assault class actions filed against the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

“It all comes down to lipstick on a pig,” says Peffers, a former marine electrician whose account of discrimination, insults and abuse is chronicled in her new book, Refuge In The Black Deck (Caitlin Press). 

“Nothing has changed,” she says. 

In December, Peffers, 32, filed a notice of civil suit in the BC Supreme Court claiming “persistent sex-, gender- and sexual-orientation-based discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual assault” in the CAF. Peffers says she’s still dealing with the effects of PTSD brought on by four years in the forces and, specifically, a six-month deployment on HMCS Winnipeg in 2009. 

Her claim follows a legal action filed two weeks earlier in Nova Scotia by Glynis Rogers, 29, whose dream of becoming an aerospace engineer officer was dashed by sexual assault and an atmosphere she describes as “misogynistic and encouraging degradation of, and hostility toward, women.”

These legal actions – launched by a new generation of once eager recruits who came up against the same barriers that military officials promised to eliminate more than two decades ago – are the latest in a series of lawsuits, reports and media investigations that have kept the CAF in damage-control mode.

In November, Statistics Canada tallied 1,000 sexual assault reports among the regular armed forces over a one-year period (a rate significantly higher than for the general public). Shockingly, half the female respondents said their perpetrator was an immediate supervisor or someone with higher rank. 

A 2015 study by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps identified “an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGBTQ members and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”

The CAF has been criticized for failing to take the issue seriously. 

Former chief of defence staff Tom Lawson famously remarked that sexual violence occurs because people are “biologically wired in a certain way.” The CAF’s recently created sexual assault hotline has also come under fire because it operates during times when it’s least likely to receive calls: weekdays from 7 am to 8 pm.

While the CAF’s current head, Jonathan Vance, has expressed public concern, launching Operation Honour in 2015 (but derided by many soldiers as “Hop on her”) to address “harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour,” he quickly embraced the findings of an internal report that downplayed the incidence of sexual assault at Kingston’s Royal Military College (RMC).

Michel Drapeau, an Ottawa-based lawyer who handles military justice cases, notes that because the review was conducted by currently serving and retired senior military members, “it is anything but surprising that this report presented a far more subdued and tame account of the significant problems present at the RMC, [including] an impermissible sexualized culture.”

For graduate Rogers, whose lawsuit recalls “a general culture of objectification of women,” sexist abuse was part of her daily grind at RMC.

It continued in her training at CFB Borden. She says she was reluctant to report being sexually assaulted, since she and other assaulted women she knew were concerned about retaliation, not being taken seriously, being branded as troublemakers and subsequently passed over for advancement. 

Having to work alongside her perpetrator, whom she also saw at mealtimes and in social settings, Rogers developed significant depression and anxiety, lost 30 pounds and feared she would be medically released if she disclosed her physical and psychological maladies.

A fellow soldier eventually convinced Rogers to report. The man who assaulted her was found guilty in a court martial but acquitted on appeal. It was the last straw for Rogers, who was released from the CAF with occupational PTSD and major depressive disorder three months before launching her lawsuit.

The legal teams for both Rogers and Peffers reveal there is significant interest in joining the lawsuits. More than 75 individuals have signed on to the Nova Scotia action alone, and there’s a bump in the number every time the issue receives publicity.

Both former CAF members hope their actions will speed up the glacial pace of culture change identified by Deschamps’s landmark report, which declared, “It is not enough to simply revise policies or to repeat the mantra of ‘zero tolerance.’ Leaders must acknowledge that sexual misconduct is a real and serious problem for the organization, one that requires their own direct and sustained attention.”

Despite the potential for protracted legal proceedings, Peffers is hopeful.

“I have healed my anger toward my abusers and am motivated by justice,” she says. “The military punished me with impunity to the point that I no longer felt my life was worthwhile. I want to stop that from happening to future soldiers.”

She recalls her enthusiasm walking into a recruitment centre after tiring of dead-end customer service jobs. She was attracted to its walls “plastered with pictures of women doing all kinds of military things. I specifically remember a picture of a female pilot smiling at the camera with her helmet on. I thought, ‘That could be me.'” 

While Peffers never became that pilot, she says, “I still consider myself a soldier. Instead of serving the CAF, I now serve the many victims of the CAF.” | @nowtoronto

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