Military Response to Rape Charges | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Military Response to Rape Charges

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 8, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

Three young naval officers turned up for training at Canadian Forces Base Borden last week, the creases in their blue shirts knife sharp despite the hot sun.

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 8, 1998

Three young naval officers turned up for training at Canadian Forces Base Borden last week, the creases in their blue shirts knife sharp despite the hot sun. The first thing on their agenda was sexual harassment training - with Borden staff passing out copies of the latest issues of Maclean's, detailing reports of sexual abuse in the military. "This is the first thing we talked about," one of the cadets said. From the highest offices of the Canadian Forces in Ottawa, to the bars on the most isolated bases, the topic of the treatment of female soldiers topped the discussions. And even as many members of the military said that the allegations of rampant sexual assault and harassment were overblown, other women stepped forward - either to Maclean's or to the new special toll-free hotline opened by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Maurice Baril on May 28 - to tell their stories. Among them was one former air defence technician who says she was raped by another soldier in 1993. "I used to recommend the Forces to people," she says. "Now I'm not so sure. I'm not sure they are going to change."

As rank and file soldiers argued over the seriousness of the Forces' sexual assault problem, their top general debated the same issue with his own conscience. In an interview with Maclean's, Baril said he is still not sure what to make of the allegations. While he hopes the media scrutiny will prompt more victims to come forward, he also said he resents the fact that suspicion has been cast on every man in a Canadian Forces uniform. The general worried as well about the impact of the allegations on morale - especially at a time when Canada's military was only beginning to recover from the battering its reputation took during the Somalia affair. But Baril spoke optimistically about the possibility of clearing the air. The positive thing, he said, is that some victims may now decide, "To hell with this - I'm going to speak out."

Baril's plea on May 19 for victims to call him, or to tell their stories to social workers, chaplains or medical officers on their bases, has already been taken up by some women. As of the end of last week, seven had contacted his office, while another seven had called the special toll-free hotline. Those cases are now being reviewed. (A total of seven women spoke to Maclean's; some of them also turned to the military with their stories.) And just how vigorously the new investigations are pursued is in the hands of Canadian Forces Provost Marshal Col. Patricia Samson, the blunt-spoken, 22-year Forces veteran who heads up the military police.

In an interview, Samson said members of the military's National Investigation Service are looking into every case of assault discussed in Maclean's with enough detail to allow for a follow-up, including those in which previous investigations did not lead to charges. They are also examining cases in which senior officers are alleged to have interfered with military police to save assaulters from prosecution. Samson touted the NIS, set up last fall to handle serious and sensitive cases, as the key to making sure these new inquiries are beyond reproach. "No one can try to influence the NIS," she said, stressing that the 110 officers in the new service ultimately answer only to her - not to officers in the regular chain of command.

Last week, Samson released a report on the activities of the military police in 1997, revealing that they had investigated 145 sexual assaults and other "sexual related incidents" during the year. The report, the first of its kind to be made public, provided a statistical profile of sexual crime in the military. It showed that 52 per cent of sexual offenders investigated by the military police were serving in the regular Forces, with the rest divided among reservists, the cadet corps, civilians employed by the department of national defence, and others. Of the victims, however, only 13 per cent were full-time Forces members. Teenage cadets were the most frequent targets of assault, victimized in an alarming 26 per cent of the cases investigated. Civilians made up 24 per cent of the victims, military dependants 13 per cent and reservists 10 per cent, with the rest made up of DND employees and others.

Samson drew a contentious conclusion from her statistical overview: that the sexual assault rate is substantially lower in the military than among the rest of the population. (The overall Canadian rate of sexual assault last year was 89 incidents for every 100,000 people, well above the incidence of 64 for every 100,000 in the Forces.) In varying degrees, that has been the position put forward by other military spokesmen, from Defence Minister Art Eggleton down to some of the rawest recruits. But critics say many incidents of sexual abuse in the military go unreported because women are afraid they may not be taken seriously - or will be further victimized for speaking out in an atmosphere that prizes the code of silence. And even those who doubt the allegations that abuse is rampant within the Forces admit that some problems cannot be ignored.

Among them are the statistics about sexual assaults involving cadets. A 1992 study by the military cadet organization - run jointly by the DND and the Army Cadet League of Canada - found at least 150 cases of reported sexual assault in the organization between August, 1987, and December, 1991. The study, portions of which were obtained by Maclean's, also noted that "it is evident that numerous incidents have not been reported to" cadet headquarters. Lt.-Col Gary Merritt, director of the air cadets, says all the cases listed in the study were investigated and turned over to civilian police, but that the cadet organization nonetheless found the report "shocking and disgusting" and took immediate action, implementing new reporting and abuse prevention measures. About 55,000 young people across the country are members of the cadet organization; Merritt says no study has been made since 1992 to determine whether the number of assaults has changed.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, meanwhile, stepped forward last week to refute the allegation, made by military sources and reported in the June 1 issue of Maclean's, that a 1988 case of sexual assault at CFB Gagetown involving five soldiers and a woman - described by one source as "mentally defective" - had been hushed up. MacKenzie, who was the commander at Gagetown in part of 1988, said in an interview last week that he had no recollection of any such incident. But after the allegation appeared in Maclean's, he said, he asked "people in low places" about it - and determined that the incident had apparently been nothing more than a party, "which over 10 years has grown disproportionately into something that it wasn't." To the best of his knowledge, MacKenzie said, five men did have sex with one woman, but it was consensual - and the woman was not mentally handicapped. "Stop calling it rape," MacKenzie told Maclean's. "It might be immoral and unethical to you and I, but it was not illegal."

MacKenzie says he learned that the authorities got involved when photos of the incident came to the attention of military police, who launched an investigation. It was halted, he says, when the woman and her husband did not want it pursued - and because a civilian prosecutor said there was no case. Capt. Guy Ingram, in charge of base security at Gagetown in 1988 and now a teacher at the security training school at Borden, also says that the investigation ended, as far as he can remember, "because we had a lack of evidence." But he also says it was initiated because of a "complaint" - although he says he cannot recall the details. Last week, Baril said that the allegations are being investigated by the NIS.

At Borden, meanwhile, a training base that has earned a reputation as one of the worst spots for sexual assault, young female soldiers scoured base stores last week for copies of Maclean's. "It's worrying," said one, "really shocking." All four young women said they were confident that the military leadership is committed to fixing the problems - and that they will have careers largely free of harassment. "We feel it is being addressed, and they're doing OK," one of them noted. "But yeah, we're concerned. It's all anyone is talking about."

Most male members of the Forces at Borden said the allegations came as a complete shock to them. And among female members, opinion was evenly split between women who said they had experienced some level of harassment - although nothing like the experiences recently described in Maclean's - and those who said they had never been troubled by sexual harassment or abuse. Some reacted angrily, saying the reports painted a vicious picture of the military and its male soldiers that is unfounded - and that they resent being perceived as abuse victims. One even said she fears the stories have jeopardized her ability to do her job: "Now, all of my male colleagues and my staff are afraid to even look at me in case they end up in some harassment case. Men I work with aren't even going to talk to me."

But new victims continue to come forward. Tannis Babos-Emond was a 19-year-old trainee army cook when, she says, she was raped by another soldier on a deserted road near Borden in 1983. She says she did not report the rape for fear that no one would believe her. Terrified and guilt-stricken, she quit the military months later and did her best to put the rape out of her mind - until last week. "I always blamed myself, because I never tried to fight him, and I never said anything," says Babos-Emond, now married and living in Cold Lake, Alta. "So Monday morning, I just picked up the phone, called the military police in Borden and said, 'I have something to report to you.' " They referred her to CFB Cold Lake, where military police called the NIS. Babos-Emond also called the new 1-800 line. The next day, the NIS sent a team of officers to interview her. "It took three hours and it was rough," she says. "But they were nice, and I think they're on my side." NIS staff are now trying to track down the man who allegedly raped her, and have told her charges will be pressed if the investigation is successful.

For some women, these new investigations may be the way to heal old wounds. One former supply technician who called Maclean's last week said she started to confront the darkest aspects of her 8½-year military career after she read the stories of the other women. She says she was raped four times, and forced to perform oral sex once, during the first 18 months she was in the Forces. The assaults occurred at CFB Shearwater in Dartmouth, N.S., where she was sent as a 19-year-old private after basic training. "The first time, two guys were fighting over me at a party, and I thought it was a joke," she recalls. "Then one picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. I hit my head on a concrete wall and I was knocked out and I woke up in bed with him on top of me." She never reported any of the assaults. The irony of her situation, she says, is that she joined the military to flee from an abusive home - "I went out of the frying pan into the fire" - and says she now thinks she was targeted for abuse because the men around her sensed her vulnerability. Traumatized and depressed, but still keeping her secret, she finally quit the forces in December, 1994 - and now intends to call Baril's hotline.

Master Cpl. Suzie Fortin called the 1-800 line last week. Fortin, an army supply technician at CFB Kingston, Ont., last year successfully pressed charges against a senior non-commissioned officer. She reported harassment (comments such as the suggestion that she should spread his sperm on her face to clear up acne) and an assault in which he pinned her to her desk and shoved his hands down her shirt in January, 1996. In a bitter irony, her attacker was the designated harassment officer for her unit - the man to whom she was supposed to report such abuse. Although the assault charges against him were stayed in a court martial, he was found guilty of five counts of contravening "good order and discipline" last October. Fortin, a 19-year-veteran of the military, continues to be happy with her career.

But Fortin says she wants Baril to know what she went through to win that case: she had to continue to work with her attacker, and says she was discouraged from proceeding at every turn. "I called the complaint line, and they were great, they wanted to know how they could help and what I need," she says. "They're waking up now. They are going to know, this was done to me, and it was wrong, and how I suffered for the way the case was handled." Fortin hopes that by forcing the military to confront her experience, she will smooth the way for other women who wish to join up. "I'm doing this for others," she says. "I don't want them to be naïve. And I don't want them to be afraid."

"Society is Asking us to be Better"

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Maurice Baril spoke to Maclean's Ottawa Correspondent John Geddes late last week in his office at the Department of National Defence. Excerpts:

Maclean's: Has the problem of sexual assault in the military been presented fairly?

Baril: As someone who wears a uniform, I don't like to be called a rapist - nobody likes to be tarred like this. There are a lot of good people out there in the Forces who have been hurt. And how many of the cases are absolutely what Maclean's is reporting? But I am very disturbed because people were afraid to come forward. What your articles have done for me, from a positive point of view, is that I hope some women who have been abused, or who are still being abused, are not going to take this stuff any more.

Maclean's: There has been some debate over whether sexual assault is any more prevalent in the military than it is elsewhere in Canadian society. What is your view?

Baril: If your daughter was assaulted in university, you'd feel devastated, but you have no control over it. If the same thing happened in a cadet corps or a recruit school, as a parent I'd say: "Where the hell is the leadership here?" I, as a mother or father out of uniform, would expect more from the Forces. Sometimes, it is not very pleasant to be expected to be an angel, but that is what the public is expecting. Society is asking us to be better, more professional. We're a very visible national institution. When we go out of line, we do so big time. The numbers become irrelevant to me.

Maclean's: You have urged any woman who has been assaulted to come forward, even to contact you directly, and you set up a toll-free line. What has the response been?

Baril: What I have seen in my office, in terms of hard cases that were brought to us, is seven. The 1-800 line has been active and, as of May 28, it also had received seven calls. I didn't know if I was going to get a thousand calls or five or six or seven. In looking at the numbers, I thought: "Only seven," or is it: "My God, seven"? I still don't know what it means.

Maclean's: A report last week from the military police showed that cadets were the victims in about one-quarter of military sexual assault incidents last year. Is that of particular concern?

Baril: We have between 55,000 and 60,000 boys and girls, between 12 and 18 years old, of which 20,000 go into summer cadet camps. But like any large organization, like hockey or churches or Scouts, we are vulnerable. We do have sexual assault among kids and from the staff, which is intolerable - even if there was only one. These young men and woman are given to us by their parents and they have to be safe. I shall assign some pretty harsh, clear direction - I cannot guarantee that it is going to be perfect, but I can guarantee that it is going to be the safest cadet training that we can have.

Maclean's: How has the attitude towards women in the military changed over the course of your career?

Baril: I know what was tolerated 35 years ago. When I was a battalion commander, there were no women in my organization - it was not even discussed. We could tell any kind of stupid jokes in our messes. Then, I was a member of the special commission of the chief of defence staff in 1986 for integration of women in combat. Maybe they didn't know what a favor they did by assigning me to the commission at that time. All the prejudice I had disappeared - not only because I saw the light, but because all the prejudice I had, it was made clear, was groundless. My reaction at that time was: "If I go into a combat patrol, I'd like to be with the biggest, strongest, meanest person." I started to use the word "person" instead of "man" or "woman." So, from that time, I changed my approach.

Breaking the Family Silence

Maj. Mary Ellen Timperon was 28 when she enlisted in the Canadian Forces in 1984. She was tough enough to brush aside suggestions by some superior officers that sex might earn her favorable performance reviews, and she rebuffed the soldiers who got drunk and tried to climb into her bed. Instead, she became a military psychologist - and a crusader for women. She helped establish a status-of-women committee and the Athena Centre for women at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., did controversial research that uncovered sexual misconduct endured by female cadets and convinced CFB Borden to recognize International Women's Day. Today she remains determined to change the minds of those soldiers who can't stand the presence of, as she says she has been described, a "feminist bitch" in uniform.

Her latest adventure - the establishment last June of a Conflict Resolution Centre at CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont. - has earned her, she says, the nickname "female gestapo." Until last week, when reports of sexual misconduct prompted the military to set up a 1-800 line for those seeking help, Timperon's centre - designed to investigate conflicts between soldiers and educate those involved about proper conduct - operated the country's only military help line for sexual assault victims. Now, based on her concept, similar centres are about to be established on bases across the country as pilot projects. "We've come a long way," says the 43-year-old major, "but we've got a long way to go."

According to Timperon, the military has had difficulty dealing with sexual abuse and harassment because of a reluctance to air its problems in public. "The military is an old traditional family," she notes. The prevailing ethos, she says, is that "there is nothing wrong inside this house, when you go out that door you put a smile on your face, and the problems stay inside these walls." Timperon estimates that 15 per cent of men in the Forces remain seriously opposed to having women serve in combat units, although most of them, she feels, could be persuaded through education programs. "But two per cent are not salvageable," she says. That two per cent, she adds, should be removed from the military.

Recent allegations of rape and chronic sexual harassment in the military have not surprised Timperon and her colleagues who deal with gender issues. She was at national defence headquarters in Ottawa on May 19 when the Maclean's story broke. "There were people jumping all over the place, but it didn't come as a shock to us," Timperon says. "We just thought, it's about time." Last week, her own base commander, Col. W. R. Reid, gave her Conflict Resolution Centre a ringing endorsement by informing troops at CFB Borden they could ignore the chain of command and call the centre's special phone line with reports or questions about abuse or harassment.

Timperon is glad to see the issues she has worked on throughout her14-year career finally being addressed. But she remains cautious about the future. She was troubled by comments made by Reform defense critic Art Hanger, who, in response to the Maclean's reports, suggested that women did not belong in combat units. "Don't take away from us what we've struggled for for so long," Timperon says. Women have achieved a beachhead, and with some reinforcements, they want to soldier on.

Maclean's June 8, 1998