When Rajinder Sahota had the idea to place an ad in CFB Esquimalt’s military newspaper encouarging victims of sexual assault in the Canadian Armed Forces to come forward, he thought it would be simple.
The ad from Sahota’s law firm, Acheson, Sweeney, Foley and Sahota, offered a “safe and supportive environment” for victims to tell their story and included a quote from Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, about sexual assault and harassment being a “real and present threat to our institution.”
The firm submitted the ad in December to run in CFB Esquimalt’s newspaper The Lookout, and didn’t think it would be difficult to get published — but it’s been anything but easy. After a number of intitial edits which Sahota called “subtle” and “cosmetic,” the ad has since been rejected by senior leadership at CFB Esquimalt.
According to Sahota, the purpose of the ad was to provide survivors of sexual assault, harassment, abuse or sexualized discriminiation with another avenue to come forward and speak to someone confidentially, if they feel uncomfortable reporting such incidents to their superiors.
“I anticipated it would be encouraged and seen as productive by the Department of National Defence given what top leaders were saying about the situtation, namely that they were aware of the problem and wanted to do everything that they could to change the culture within the forces that led to this and of course, one of the things that’s necessary in that process is to hear from the survivors of this type of behaviour,” Sahota said. “Clearly there’s no cultural change that’s occuring.”
Capt. Jennifer Jackson, public affairs officer for CFB Esquimalt, said the topic of the ad was not considered to be controversial, but did not meet the intent of the newspaper.
“The chain of command takes this issue extremely seriously, and continues to employ a variety of strategies and approaches to instill institutional change,” she said in an emailed statement, adding the newspaper is open to accepting ads from the firm that meet the newspaper’s policies.
In December, former sailor Nicola Peffers, who was based in CFB Esquimalt, launched a class action lawsuit against the armed forces, alleging sexual assault and harassment of female and LGBTQ members. Sahota’s firm set up a hotline for former members of the armed forces to report incidents of sexual assault or harassment. Since then more than 100 people have come forward alleging single incidents of sexual harassment to multiple sexual assaults with weapons spanning the length of a career.
In 2015 an independent review by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found sexual misconduct was “endemic” in the military and tolerated by the highest levels of leadership. Shortly after, Canada’s top general Jonathan Vance launched Operation Honour, aimed at ending the problem.
But the decision to axe the ad has raised concerns for Sahota, who called it a “missed opportunity.”
“Instead, their decision was to, it appears, to censor the ad,” he said.