Rape in the Military. That was the headline on a Maclean’s cover in 1998—one of four cover stories that year stemming from a nine-month investigation into disturbing behaviour in the Canadian Forces. Now, 16 years later, Maclean’s and its sister publication, L’actualité, have come together to publish another months-long investigation into the sexual violence that still plagues our military. L‘actualité reporters Noémi Mercier and Alec Castonguay talked to dozens of victims, attended court martials, culled statistics and documents under Access to Information, and visited bases across the country and Afghanistan. This story is the result of their investigation:
Lise Gauthier doesn’t have enough fingers to count the number of times she was raped, assaulted or sexually harassed by fellow soldiers.
The 51-year-old, from Sherbrooke, Que., spent half her life in the Canadian Forces. When she signed up at 18, she was young and idealistic, and couldn’t wait to get her hands on the engine of a fighter plane. For the next 25 years, she wore the blue uniform of the Royal Canadian Air Force proudly, like it was a second skin, convinced she was serving a greater cause.
Yet the whole time, she was actually waging a private war. And the battlefield was her own body.
“I think about the attacks all the time, 24 hours a day. There’s no escape. I wish no one had to go through what I did. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. You stop living. You’re in survival mode. The best you can do is breathe,” she says, rocking herself in the solarium of the house she shares with her partner, her eyes welling with tears.
The first time it happened, Gauthier had been serving for barely a year. It was October 1982. A bus driver raped her in a bedroom on the Saint-Hubert military base. He grabbed her by the throat so hard it left fingerprints on her neck. She will never forget him whispering in her ear: “If you talk to anyone about this, you’re dead.”
She only remembers flashes from the second assault, which happened the next year at a party on the Trenton base in Ontario. She recalled being mysteriously dizzy. Someone insisted on taking her home. Next thing she knew, he was trying to yank her clothes off. Then a blank. She woke up in the middle of the night on the back seat of a pickup truck. Three months later, her belly started to bulge. She had an abortion.
But that wasn’t the end. One night, in the mid-1990s, a man locked her in the toilets at a bar on the Bagotville base near Chicoutimi, Que. He grabbed her head, forced it between his legs and told her he would let her go if she performed oral sex. Another time, she was putting bottles away in the back of the same bar and she felt a hand cover her mouth. Another hand pulled her pants down. The voice of the man trying to sodomize her was strangely familiar. “No one will believe you. Who would think I would want to screw a lesbian? I’m married with four kids.” When she turned around, she couldn’t believe her eyes. It was someone she’d worked with for years.
Every time it happened, she had the same suffocating, primal terror.
Her private hell took a new shape in the 2000s, at CFB Bagotville, when some of her superiors started making explicit sexual advances. When she refused, they just tried to make her life harder. “This is going to cost you your career,” one told her after she had warded off his drunken advances in a bar. A few weeks later, she learned she was being released from the military. The official reason: health problems. But Gauthier is convinced it was just an excuse to get rid of her.
In June 2007, Lise Gauthier finally submitted a 159-page letter denouncing the totality of the harassment and violence of which she had been victim over the previous three decades. It was brushed aside before the ink was dry. Gauthier can barely contain herself when she reads the words of the commanding officer who received the letter. “Considering the scale of your complaints,” he writes, “which concern more than 15 different alleged perpetrators [ . . . ] over as long a period, and without any witness to back up your allegations [ . . . ], I have to conclude that your story is simply implausible.”
That’s how, one October day in 2007, after desperately trying to hold onto her job, master corporal Gauthier turned in her uniform—and with it, a piece of herself. “I was proud of who I was, proud to have served my country, helped the people around me. I should have walked out of there holding my head high, and when I wanted. Now I have to go all the way. I have to keep fighting until someone believes me, until someone says, ‘Lise, it happened. We’re sorry. What can we do to make up for the suffering we have caused you?’ ” That suffering led her to a psychiatric hospital several years ago, after a panic attack that gave her seizures. “Working was what kept me alive. When they kicked me out, I was lost,” she says, her voice fading to a whisper.
Every day, five individuals in the Canadian military community become victims of sexual assault.
According to statistics obtained through Canada’s Access to Information Act, military police have received between 134 and 201 complaints of sexual assaults every year since 2000. That’s an average of 178 per year. Most specialists agree that hundreds of other cases are not reported. Statistics Canada estimates that only one in 10 cases of sexual assault is reported to authorities. That means a total of 1,780 sexual assaults per year in the Canadian Forces. Or five per day.
“It’s a huge problem,” says Alain Gauthier, director-general of operations in the ombudsman’s office of the Canadian Forces. The office is considering putting in place a systematic investigation of harassment and sexual violence in the military, he says. “There are lots of signs that things aren’t working.”
In most cases, the aggressor is a man and the victim is a woman—but not always. There have been cases of newly enrolled soldiers who abuse female soldiers, of high-ranking officers who assault subordinates, and of groups of men who commit assaults together against other men. Ten per cent of complaints are filed by army cadets. And the problem touches every level of the military hierarchy: last month, Maj. David Yurczyszyn was demoted to captain after a military judge found him guilty of sexual assault and drunkenness. Yurczyszyn was, until last year, a commanding officer at the Canadian Forces base in Wainwright, Alta.
Some of the main trouble spots are garrisons where large numbers of soldiers live in close quarters in barracks during their training. Over the last decade, the Borden military base in Ontario—always swarming with young soldiers learning skilled trades—had the highest number of sexual assault complaints. The Gagetown base, in New Brunswick, and the Kingston base, in Ontario, which has a military college, were both in the top five. Valcartier, close to Quebec City, was fifth.
The five years of court martial judgments reviewed by L’actualité paint a harrowing picture of the kind of assaults that have taken place during that time. Women are woken up in the middle of the night by tipsy aggressors who find their way into their quarters. Incidents happen during dinners in mess rooms, on army ships, in a tent in the middle of a training field. One took place during an afternoon drill, in a vehicle parked in a gravel pit. Another in a hotel room, another in the barracks’ laundry room. Some of the victims were on deployment in Afghanistan.
Behind every incident, there is a life that gets jolted and starts to unravel, like aftershocks of an earthquake. It’s not just the sexual violence itself. It’s the way the military machine handles it—or doesn’t.
Although the military claims to be doing everything it can to protect its soldiers, it sometimes still closes its eyes to victims of sexual assault, and even punishes the women who denounce their rapists, rejecting them the very moment they start heading down the spiral of trauma. The military milieu is a tight one. The hierarchy, all-powerful. It’s an organization built for war, where the success of the mission comes first. And it has its own parallel justice system, with its own rules.
Twenty-five years ago, Canada was ahead of its time. It was one of the first countries to allow women to fight in combat. Even though women make up 15 per cent of the Forces today, a sexist climate persists, and it remains a challenge to recruit more women.
In the United States, sexual violence in the military has reached epidemic proportions. According to a Pentagon survey, an alarming 26,000 active-duty members experienced undesired sexual contact in 2012—or 6.1 per cent of women, and 1.2 per cent of men. That’s a 35 per cent increase from 2010. The United States Department of Defense estimates that barely more than 10 per cent of victims report the incidents to authorities. Military schools are fertile grounds for sexual abuse: during the school year 2011-12, between 10 and 15 per cent of female officers in training, and between one and three per cent of their male counterparts, were sexually assaulted, according to the annual Service Academy Gender Relations Survey.
U.S. authorities have been scrambling to stamp out the scourge of sexual violence in the military. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel promised to make it a priority. Congressional committees have held fractious hearings denouncing the inability of military justice authorities to address the problem. “It’s the biggest challenge to the system since the Vietnam War,” says Eugene Fidell, a Yale University professor and authority on military law. Last December, President Barack Obama signed a law enacting more than 30 reforms and directives to force the Department of Defense to wage war against its worst internal enemy. “For those who are in uniform who’ve experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander-in-chief that I’ve got their backs,” he promised earlier last year.
But on this side of the border, not much is happening. That could be about to change.
Alain Gauthier, of the ombudsman’s office, says he’s heard the same story too often. A victim contacts the office to find out how to file a complaint, then gives up because she’s afraid of the possible backlash. “The fear of repercussions is blatant,” says the dynamic retired colonel. “Esprit de corps is still a big part of military culture of the Forces. Team spirit comes before everything. If someone has a problem with someone else in the group, that person is singled out as a black sheep and treated like an administrative problem. Until we put in place a culture where the approach of the chain of command says that is unacceptable, where complaints are taken seriously and treated within a reasonable time, the system won’t change.”
Right now, he says, the ombudsman’s office is thinking big. Over the next few months, it is hoping to put in place a team of two or three investigators who would thoroughly analyze the Forces’ complaint procedures for sexual harassment in general, and sexual violence in particular. “We will be reviewing the procedures from A to Z,” says Gauthier. “From delays to treat cases, to follow-ups on complaints. We’ll also look at the fear of retaliation [felt by] women who file complaints, and the role of the military chain of command. We’ll question the military police about criminal aspects. And we’ll make recommendations to the minister of defence about improving the efficiency of the system. We want to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.”
The Canadian Forces’ most recent study on sexual harassment in the workplace—L’actualité saw a preliminary version—is clear: sexual harassment is a heavy secret for victims. In a 2012 survey of 2,245 military employees, nine per cent of women and 0.3 per cent of men claimed they were victims of sexual harassment or of undesired sexual contact in the last 12 months—that includes obscene jokes, sexual touching and rape. Only seven per cent of victims file official complaints. The rest keep quiet, citing as reasons: they don’t see the use of complaining; they want to take care of the problem themselves; they worry filing a complaint will adversely affect their work situation; they fear being labelled a troublemaker; and finally, they believe complaining won’t change anything.
Stéphanie Raymond doesn’t need statistics to show her how these fears play out in practice. In less than two years, the former corporal from the Quebec City area went from being a model employee—ready for a promotion—to being an administrative burden. She thinks she knows why.
In that period, she filed a complaint for sexual assault against a superior in her regiment.
Raymond, 30, doesn’t skip a detail as she tells us her story. We are sitting in the kitchen of her apartment, on a summer evening in Saint-Romuald, Que. She speaks bluntly, in a frank tone; only her tear-filled eyes indicate her distress.
On Dec. 15, 2011, she had Christmas lunch with her regiment in a restaurant in Lévis, Que. The drinks were flowing. At the end of the meal, she found herself alone with a superior officer in a military building. In the mess hall on the second floor, he forced her into an armchair and pressed his lips against hers. She resisted, but things quickly escalated: he bit her breast, inserted his fingers into her vagina, then tried to penetrate her. She told him to stop. “I’m not interested,” she told him. “You’re hurting me,” and finally, “No, please, I don’t want to continue.”
She told the story to the military police in Valcartier two weeks later. As far as they were concerned, Raymond hadn’t refused the superior officer’s advances forcefully enough. They told her she should have said “no” more firmly. The man had been drinking. She had followed him up the stairs of her own free will. Two days later, they rejected her complaint, she says. Case closed. As for the officer, he was not questioned.
For Raymond, the shock was beyond brutal. It was a knife in the ribs. Her bosses and her co-workers had abandoned her. She cried in rage. The idea of driving off the Pierre Laporte Bridge even crossed her mind. “I felt worthless. It was like being assaulted a second time, except this time it was even worse.”
Raymond would try to get her story taken seriously for months. But she would lose her career in the process.
Inside the dull, windowless conference room in the Ottawa headquarters of Canada’s military police, stories like Stéphanie Raymond’s seem to belong in another universe. We were greeted by two lieutenant-colonels, Gilles Santerre and Brian Frei, who, between them, have half a century of military service under their belts. We quickly realized, they shared one firm belief: “There are no roadblocks for a victim that wants to report.”
The military police have authority over all Department of National Defence (DND) property anywhere in the world. When an assault involving military personnel is reported in DND territory, it is always the military police that investigate. If there is an accusation, the case goes straight to military court. However, if an incident happens outside DND territory—in a downtown bar somewhere, for instance—the local police also have authority and can decide to take over the case, which is then tried in a regular criminal court.
“We take every allegation of sexual assault seriously and we investigate it thoroughly,” says Lt.-Col. Frei, commanding officer of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, the Forces’ specialized group of criminal investigators. His colleague, Santerre, deputy commander of the Canadian Forces Military Police Group, adds: “Some commander on the base can’t tell us he doesn’t want us to do this type of investigation or to interview this individual. We are independent.”
But if a commanding officer can’t stick his nose into military police investigations, he or she still has the power to influence the outcome of the investigation—in other words, whether a formal accusation is made or not. In cases where there is no doubt a criminal act occurred, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is called and makes formal accusations. But in lower-level cases—“unwanted touching over the clothing, for example,” says Frei—then it’s the suspect’s boss (not the victim’s) who decides how to proceed.
There’s no way for a victim to file a complaint to the military police without informing her superiors—and those of the suspect. In other words, there is no way to keep a complaint from a victim’s “chain of command.” A trooper’s entire professional career depends on their chain of command, whether they want to ask for a transfer or see a doctor. According to Santerre, this oversight by the chain of command is more of a blessing than an obstacle. “The chain of command looks after its people. There are some support services it can provide to victims, it can make sure that they are in a safe environment, especially if the incident happened between two colleagues. In my experience, the chain of command is very supportive.”
But there’s a catch. The hierarchy is influential, and not always impartial. Ritu Gill and Angela Febbraro, two social psychology researchers who work at Defence Research and Development Canada, tried to ring the alarm bell with a study they published last year in the scholarly journal Violence Against Women. The authors interviewed 26 servicewomen from combat units at the Petawawa base in Ontario, some of whom had been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. Their conclusion? Women who filed complaints suffered mockery, were ostracized, and worse—some were threatened. And they didn’t always get support from their chain of command. According to the researchers, “The focal point should not be the number or percentage of women who are victims, but rather how safe women feel in using the formal reporting process and whether their concerns surrounding the reporting process ultimately deter them from reporting. The results of this study also suggest that the reporting process needs to be re-evaluated and revised in order to provide an environment that allows a victim to safely report harassment without negative repercussions.”
While corporal Stéphanie Raymond was telling investigators her harrowing story in an interrogation room in the basement of a building in Valcartier, her complaint was making its way up the military hierarchy, climbing from her immediate supervisor all the way to the commanding officer of her regiment. She quickly felt the noose tightening around her neck, and decided to start recording conversations on a phone hidden in a pocket.
Her superiors called her to their offices about 20 times over the next few months, she says. They told her how unhappy the hierarchy was about her complaint. They made excuses for the behaviour of her presumed aggressor, and urged her to drop it. The three recordings we were able to listen to confirmed this. “You will learn from this,” one of her superiors told her in a concerned tone. “You’re just lucky he didn’t go all the way. It could have been worse, like, if there had actually been penetration.” Said another: “I want to make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot with this, in the medium or long term. It looks like you’re heading that way.” Finally a third said, “You’ll have to put this case behind you some day or it will affect your whole career.”
No sooner had Raymond filed her complaint than she learned her attacker got a new job in the office where she worked. When she requested that they be separated, the military sent her to a new unit. She kept trying to get authorities to take her complaint seriously, but new obstacles kept popping up: she didn’t get positions she applied for, even when she was the only person, or the only qualified person who applied; she was reprimanded for an impertinent Facebook entry. “The backlash just never stops,” she says. “I’m blocked everywhere. I can’t get a promotion. Everywhere I go, everyone knows about my case. I feel like my superiors just hate me.”
Finally, in the fall of 2013, Raymond got the final slap in the face: a notice telling her she was being released on the basis she was “unfit to continue her service.” She was putting an “excessive administrative burden” on the Canadian Forces, the note explained.
Yet after more than two years of Kafkaesque efforts, and compiling a dossier as thick as a dictionary—including some 300 emails, 15 letters, complaints and grievances—the military finally responded. A letter from a military prosecutor assured her that the man she says attacked her was facing sexual assault charges on the basis of new evidence in her case. A general court martial trial is set for August.
Only at that time will we know whether Raymond’s allegations will be proven in court, but, as she told us in our last meeting in her kitchen, the ordeal has left a bitter taste: “Maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, but sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just shut my mouth.” She recently started studying business administration at university. “I lost everything: my job, my salary. I have no money. I really saw my future in the military. I was going to be an officer. And now who’s paying the price? Me.”
By remaining silent, the military hierarchy may even have allowed one sexual predator to continue serving for years before he was finally brought to justice. According to court martial documents reviewed by L’actualité, former petty officer James Wilks used his job as a military medic to ogle and sexually assault at least 20 women between 2003 and 2009, in Thunder Bay, Sarnia and London. It was Wilks who performed the routine medical exams recruits had to pass to enrol, and that military employees had to take every year. Saying it was part of the “physical,” he would make women undress and stretch or bend into suggestive positions. He touched their breasts, and rubbed up against them with his penis.
“This guy was ﬂagged a long time ago, and the proper steps were not taken to protect people,” says Phillip Millar, a London lawyer. A former infantry officer, Millar filed lawsuits against Wilks and the Department of National Defence on behalf of seven victims. “It echoes the Catholic sex abuse scandals. If you know somebody has had some issues, you don’t allow them to be in this position of trust and power over people.” The commanding officer for Wilks’s detachment first raised concerns about him in the spring of 2007, and the clinical supervisor had gone over the proper procedure for the exams, reminding him that no one had to take their clothes off and that breasts weren’t part of the exam. In short, Wilks’s bosses appeared to have expressed concerns, but let him keep doing his job.
The military police wanted to know why Wilks’s superiors had turned a blind eye, despite their suspicions. They launched an investigation “to determine if appropriate action was taken by Mr. Wilks’s chain of command when staff was made aware of his actions in the workplace,” says a spokesperson. The investigators decided not to ﬁle formal charges against Wilks’s former bosses, then handed the case over to the chief of military personnel (basically the military’s head of human resources), which could apply administrative penalties to employees who had failed in their duties.
It took a shy, but courageous, Aboriginal teenager to finally put a stop to Wilks’s behaviour. In December 2009, 17-year-old Robbie Williams walked out of Wilks’s examination room in tears and called the police. A long list of victims followed her example. “I knew something wasn’t right as soon as I walked in the room. You wanna meet the right procedures and everything, so I followed through with everything he got me to do. For a long time after that I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. He made me feel worthless.” Williams spoke to us, her eyes brimming with tears, shyly delivering her story in short sentences, sitting at a picnic table outside a government building in Gatineau, Que., last September. Inside the building, James Wilks was being tried a second time at a court martial. Williams had driven 10 hours with her family to be at the trial.
Wilks had already been convicted for indecent gestures in December 2011. This time he was found guilty for 25 charges against 15 women—10 for sexual assault and 15 for breach of trust. According to military prosecutor Maj. Dylan Kerr, Wilks may end up being tried a third time if other victims decide to speak out.
But that depends on whether they think they can trust the system enough to talk.
Cases like Wilks’s are what prompted retired colonel Michel Drapeau, founder of one of the few law firms that specialize in military law, to demand a complete revamp of the military justice system. “Sexual assault cases show how deficient the structure is. Canada is in the Middle Ages. Our military employees are treated like second-rate citizens,” says Drapeau. More and more countries are simply demilitarizing the legal structure that governs their military; in Drapeau’s opinion, it’s high time Canada followed in their footsteps.
The strapping, white-haired Drapeau began his law career in his late 50s, after 34 years of service in the Forces. In his 11 years of practice, between 40 and 50 military employees have come to him with sexual assault complaints. Most were young women, many still in military college. Speaking to us in his cramped, cluttered ofﬁce in a downtown Ottawa building, Drapeau speaks compassionately about his clients, like they were his grandchildren, pausing every now and again to emphasize his point.
Drapeau says his biggest challenge has been convincing victims to push forward with their complaints. “These young women are afraid. Let’s say you were assaulted by a corporal, or a captain, or a colonel. If you go to the military police, you’re going to have to talk to a corporal. Right off the bat, you’ll take a look at their rank and their uniform, and you’ll doubt their impartiality.” To explain the legal labyrinth of the Canadian Forces, Drapeau pulls out a yellow legal pad and starts scribbling boxes and arrows in different colours. In the system, he explains, the legal representatives are soldiers themselves. They are supposed to be impartial, but the badges on their uniforms mean they have to respect military hierarchy and prove their loyalty to the institution, above all. As Drapeau explains it, that itself creates the perception that the military chain of command is influencing justice. The only way to make military justice look independent, impartial and trustworthy in the eyes of victims, he says, is to cut if off from the military hierarchy completely.
Uniforms and rank “shouldn’t be part of it,” says Drapeau. “Military justice is meant to operate like hockey penalties: players are sent to the bench to cool down so they can get back in the game and play. The idea is to rehabilitate guys so they can go back to their unit and fight. Does that really make sense for someone who has raped his fellow combatant?”
But Lt.-Col. André Dufour, director of the Military Justice Strategic Response Team, says the military needs a parallel justice system because criminal courts won’t necessarily take their special needs into account. “When soldiers are deployed, they have to work in teams. Otherwise we can’t win wars. It’s about our operational efficiency. Criminal courts might not take that into consideration. I think we have a good system in place that gets results.” To prove his point, Dufour pulls out three thick reports produced by independent judges in 1997, 2003 and 2011. “There’s nothing in these reports about sexual assaults, and no indication there’s anything wrong with the system,” he says.
In many countries, rank and uniform have simply been taken out of the equation. Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have all handed key aspects of military justice back to civilian authorities. In Britain, a special civilian police force investigates serious offenses in the defence department. France, Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium have erased military courts.
Yet Canada is moving in the opposite direction. Far from shrinking, the scope of activity of Canada’s military courts has been expanding. Military courts did not try cases of sexual assault until they became authorized to do so in 1998. Prior to that, cases were handled in criminal courts exclusively. Then in 2008, Canadian Forces were granted an extraordinary power. Though it has never been used, Canada’s chief of the defence staff can temporarily exempt a member of the services from registering on the National Sex Offender Registry, while he or she is fulfilling “operational obligations”—in other words, if it serves “the mission.”
Every morning, afternoon and evening, a long line of traffic works its way down the main strip of Petawawa toward the military base located there. The 16,000 residents of this small Ottawa Valley town all live on military time. Almost everyone either works in the barracks or lives with someone who works there. Yellow “support our troops” ribbons adorn storefronts and the windows of houses from one end of the town to the other. In the last few years, the Petawawa base has competed with CFB Borden for the highest number of sexual assault complaints. Victims looking for a quiet spot to recover in Petawawa have few options: rumours in this town spread faster than in a high school.
Some victims find comfort 15 km away, at a women’s centre in the neighbouring town of Pembroke. The small bungalow where the centre is located is easy to miss. There’s no sign on the door, not even a street number—just a purple door with a small plaque. Victims can arrive here without anyone noticing. “Most women choose not to report it. They’ve watched sister soldiers fall on that sword and some of the fallout that they’ve experienced,” says JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County.
At CFB Valcartier, sexual assault victims also seem reticent about using the services available to them. The stairs leading up to the second ﬂoor of the health centre, where psychological services are offered, are known as “the stairs of shame.” “Victims probably go outside of the base to get out of the military environment,” says psychiatrist Mathieu Bilodeau, director of the centre’s mental health clinic.
There used to be another option for women who wanted to get help anonymously: a 1-800 line for victims of harassment and sexual assault. According to a report by the chief review services at the Department of Defence, the line received between 150 and 190 calls per year. But the Forces shut the line down in 2006.
After flying over a lunar desert encircled by a ring of soaring mountaintops, the plane lands in the middle of a swarming, dusty fortress. There are thousands of residents living here; the place never sleeps. Jets and helicopters fly in and out 24 hours a day with a deafening roar while explosions resonate from further off. It’s hot, really hot: the mercury reaches almost 50° C in the shade in the summer. Welcome to Kandahar Airfield, also known as KAF, NATO’s biggest base in Afghanistan.
The city buzzes with dozens of languages and accents spoken by soldiers from across the world: Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovakia, the Netherlands, the U.K., the U.S. and more—not to mention the thousands of civilian employees, Afghans and foreigners, who supply the services that make this huge machine work. “It has everything: violence, gangs, crime, you name it. Even prostitutes,” says Capt. Richard Clerk, an adjutant with the military police regiment. Certain zones are so dangerous that Canadian military personnel were ordered to stay away. Soldiers—especially women—were told not to go out alone at night even if they were armed.
As Clerk explains, cement walls were built to protect the base from rocket fire, but the flipside is that they fill the base with dark alleys and dimly lit corners. “You feel like a rat in a maze.”
On Sept. 10, 2006, it was getting dark when Sgt. Cheryl Ross only had 500 m to go to get back to her tent. She was leaving the laundromat at the Kandahar Airfield with two bags of clean clothes. The soldier, in her 40s, had to cross through another country’s zone by walking along a path that followed a chain link fence. There were lines of tents on one side, and a recreational centre on the other. Her tent was at the end of the path. She knew it would only take her five minutes to get to her tent. That was all it took for a stranger to ambush her, and turn her life upside down. He came at her from behind, put one hand over her mouth and held a knife to her throat with the other—she could feel the point of the knife on her skin. Crushed up against the wire fence, she couldn’t see her attacker’s face, just the skin between his sleeve and his glove, and his boots, which were U.S. Army issue. Her head spun, but everything slowed down. She knew exactly what was going to happen.
“I knew that I had a decision to make,” explained Ross, now 52. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, my best odds are to just let this go, let this happen, and just go away from myself.’ I guess I made the right choice, because my children still have a mother.”
While the soldier brutally raped her, she mentally escaped. She also decided she would never breathe a word of what happened to anyone.
When it was over, Ross collected herself, took her laundry to her tent, had a shower, threw the clothes she had been wearing in the garbage, pulled her uniform on and headed back to work. There were emergencies to take care of that evening. The Canadian Forces were in the middle of their bloodiest battle, Operation Medusa—which would kill 12 troops in a month, including a friend of hers. Ross was a clerk with the military police. There were a lot of injuries, and bodies, so there was a lot of paperwork to do.
There was simply no way she was going to tell her police colleagues she’d been raped, she explains. No way she would be treated like a victim. “I would have been immediately medically assessed and returned home. My records would have been viewed by about seven other clerks and they wouldn’t have kept their mouths shut,” she said. “Having been returned home, I would have lost all the allowances that I was supposed to be getting for being on deployment. So I would have been raped, come home, and not even gotten my campaign star. Is that fair?” she said, her gaze unflinching, her forceful voice filling her small apartment in Ottawa. During her last seven months in Kandahar, Ross decided to bury the rape in the back of her mind. Only one thought disturbed her: she didn’t know her rapist, but he knew her. “He could be sitting beside me in the dining hall and I wouldn’t know, right?”
But she got to the point where she couldn’t suppress her grief and anger any more. After returning to Canada, Ross worked a few more years as a military clerk. Then, in the fall of 2010, the dam broke. All the pain she’d been holding back poured out in a single torrent, and it nearly drowned her. To this day, she has thoughts of killing herself, night terrors wake her up, and bouts of anxiety keep her from going out. But she’s carrying on. Last September, the Forces released her because of post-traumatic stress disorder. She decided to go back to school to become a paralegal. “What makes me the most upset is that the military didn’t have a system in place for me to turn to and be confident in.”
Between 2002-12, 15 cases of sexual assault in Afghanistan were reported to Canada’s military police. Not a single one led to an accusation against a Canadian. In four cases, investigators decided the complaint was unfounded. In five others, they said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to identify a suspect and the cases were closed. Since the authority of Canada’s military police only applies to Canadian citizens, five cases involving foreign suspects were transferred to the police of their respective countries—following which at least two offenders, an Afghan and an American, were charged, found guilty and punished. One last case also fell out of Canadian jurisdiction, but was never treated by another authority.
For every woman who reports a rape, how many Cheryl Rosses decide to keep their mouths shut?
Some sources suggest the threat of sexual violence in Afghanistan was much more widespread than official statistics indicate. In 2006, Capt. Nichola Goddard (who would become the first female soldier in Canadian history to die on the battlefield) wrote about the problem in a letter to her husband, later transcribed by journalist Valerie Fortney in a biography of Goddard. “There were six rapes in the camp [Kandahar] last week, so we have to work out an escort at night,” she wrote.
In times of war, when the success of a mission becomes the supreme goal, the rule of silence is perhaps all the heavier for victims of sexual abuse. The code of silence is often self-imposed, out of a misguided sense of loyalty, and because they want to remain in action, which is the key to their career advancement. “Everybody wants to get that tour,” says lawyer and former infantry captain Philip Millar. “These women so want to be part of the team. They build strong powerful relationships, with a lot of guys. And they don’t want to let them down, so they don’t complain.” In five years of private practice, Millar says some 30 women have contacted him about being sexually assaulted while in service. One said she was raped by five men on a ship during a deployment in the Middle East a few years ago. Her superiors told her if she filed a complaint they would send her home. “It’s an underhanded way to tell her not to complain,” says the lawyer. “They should have said: ‘Those five guys will be sent back, and you can stay here and be accommodated.’ But she didn’t make a complaint, because she didn’t want to lose the tour.”
In some cases, the imperatives of war can literally trump those of establishing justice. In 2008, corporal Timothy Leblanc was accused of using brutal force to rape a fellow soldier in her bedroom at CFB Edmonton. According to the transcripts of the verdict and sentencing viewed by L’actualité, the court martial trial for sexual assault was delayed so Leblanc could serve in Afghanistan for six months. In 2010, he was tried, found guilty, sentenced to 20 months in prison and placed on the National Sex Offender Registry. (Leblanc was acquitted in a second trial in 2012, this one ordered by the Court Martial Appeals Court after he appealed the conviction. By then, four years had passed since the alleged events, and according to the trial transcripts, the complainant just ran out of steam. “Going through this incident for a second time in court was traumatizing her again,” and she had “no clear desire to remember,” the verdict reads, which made her at times “incoherent,” “aggressive” and “unreliable.”)
As multinational military operations become more and more the norm for Canadian soldiers, military personnel are likely to find themselves in places like Afghanistan, where there are soldiers from 50 different countries with their own recruitment methods—and widely differing ideas about the equality of the sexes.
What has happened in the military is not that different from what has happened in other places of employment where men outnumber women and have more power. When women start moving into male sanctuaries, some men feel threatened so they strike back by using humiliation or intimidation, explains psychologist Jennifer Berdahl, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and a specialist in workplace mistreatment. The same thing happens in the construction industry, even some university faculties, in fire departments and with police. Sexual harassment doesn’t always escalate to sexual assault, says Berdahl, but the two behaviours go together. If one is tolerated, there’s a risk the other will happen. A 2003 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense and published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine backs this up. Researchers in Iowa interviewed some 500 women veterans about the risk factors that lead to rape. The women who described the army environment as hostile—a place where they felt targeted by sexual comments and unwanted advances—were six times more likely to have been raped over the course of their career. If one of their superiors used or tolerated the use of sexually demeaning comments or gestures, the likelihood of being raped was three to four times higher.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Forces seems to be on the verge of dispensing with one of the best tools it’s ever had for dealing with poisonous work environments. The Forces’ Conflict Resolution Centres have had some success resolving sexual harassment complaints between colleagues informally, so employees can avoid the weighty complaint procedure. Until the fall of 2012, the Forces had 19 such centres across the country. As of next year, there will only be four left.
The Iowa researchers put their finger on another key element of the problem: leadership. The Canadian Forces boasts a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. But unless military leaders act on it, the policy never makes inroads. “If people think leadership really believes that this is unacceptable behaviour, and if there are meaningful consequences for people who engage in it, then you can really reduce its incidence,” says Berdahl. “There are some very good examples of military leaders explicitly addressing the problem and putting it at the top of their agenda, and the change is almost immediate.”
One female officer, who was being taunted by fellow soldiers during a training exercise several years ago in Wainwright, Alta., confirmed this. The infantrymen, who amused themselves singing a sexist jingle whenever she walked by, posted a photo in the cafeteria of some of her personal items. The unit’s commanding officer, a major, knew what was going on but didn’t lift a finger. After three months of torment, the woman (who asked to remain anonymous) decided to take her case up a few ranks and complain to a colonel. “He just put a stop to it, that very day,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I could have solved the problem right away if I had gone to speak to him first.”
“Stand up! Sit down! Stand up! Arms up! Sit down! Arms down!”
Sgt. Evan Duff is doing what he can to shake up 60 uniformed bodies crammed into his classroom at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean, Que. The young recruits, some barely past their teenage years, have come from all across the country. This is week four of 14 in the training program to become members of the regular Forces, and they are already showing signs they’ve been well groomed in the art of obeying.
On this September afternoon, they will have to sit through a three-hour lecture on “Serving in a diverse workplace,” a monotone speech delivered by an authoritarian instructor reading directly from the slides of a projector.
This type of course, which soldiers are required to take at regular intervals in their career, is one of the things that the Canadian Forces considers as a shield against sexual misconduct. Yet on this day in the program, the subject of sexual violence hardly comes up. The recruits earnestly scribble down notes, but the content is mostly jargon-laden legalese that the instructor reads verbatim. The topics include equal pay, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, prevention of harassment and racism.
But sexual misconduct? The topic is covered in 10 minutes with three slides. There isn’t a single word that could help recruits learn how to detect signs of sexual violence—nothing about the resources available for rape victims, or about how to file a complaint. In three hours, the words “sexual assault” are uttered exactly two times.
This despite the fact that military police actually recommended that the Canadian Forces beef up its training on sexual misconduct. We obtained a copy of a 2009 report with statistics about the sexual offences that had led to formal charges from 2004 to 2008. Among the report’s specific recommendations: teach recruits how to recognize sexual assault, inform recruits that victims of sexual assault will get support, and instruct them about how to report sexual crimes to authorities.
The halls of the Saint-Jean military school feel like a high school, but with one big difference: the students are ultra-serious, over-determined and march through the halls in step. For the first five weekends of their training, recruits aren’t allowed to leave the school or have visitors. In this crucial early stage, they learn to bond with fellow recruits, like bricks in a wall. This is the essence of esprit de corps: forget yourself for the common good of the group.
We get permission to speak to a small group of students between classes. Their faces beam with a kind of bliss you could mistake for a romantic crush. They’ve only known each other for a month, but they are convinced their comrades will never hurt them, and never let anyone else hurt them either. “It doesn’t matter if we’re guys or girls. We’re all working together. We have to help each other out,” says Benjamin Hébert. “The minute we step into this school, we are equals. We don’t think so-and-so is black, or I’m the oldest,” says Carole Perron, a mother starting a second career. “The possibility of harassment didn’t even cross my mind when I joined. I knew the army would support us. There will be resources available for whatever problem comes up. If someone ignores a case of harassment, what does that say about team spirit?”
Yet team spirit is also part of the problem: it often pushes victims to keep quiet.
Even for some survivors, like Lise Gauthier, the sense of belonging to a team never really wears off. On the wall of her office, at her home in Sherbrooke, is a charcoal drawing of Gauthier in her work overalls, standing next to one of the CF-18 fighter planes she used to take care of in Bagotville. The drawing was a going away present when she left the Forces.
Even today, at one of her lowest points ever, there are moments when she thinks a real soldier should never let her comrades down. “They tell us we are like a big family. If something happens, everyone will be behind you, everyone will back you up. By denouncing them, I am betraying them. Once a soldier, always a soldier.”
Despite the rapes, and the wounds she still carries, deep down, Lise Gauthier is still wearing a uniform.