Ever since a Victoria-based law firm set up a hot line for current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces to report incidents of sexual assault or harassment, the phones have been ringing off the hook.
The hotline has received numerous calls day and night since it was set up by Acheson Sweeney Foley Sahota law firm a week ago. The calls range from members who were subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace to sexual assault while serving in the Forces.
The hotline has become a way for the firm to mount a growing class action lawsuit against the Forces. Earlier this week, former sailor Nicola Peffers launched the lawsuit against the Forces, alleging sexual assault and harassment of female and LGBTQ members.
In the lawsuit, Peffers, who was based in CFB Esquimalt, alleges she was subjected to “systemic” discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual assault. It also alleges Forces personnel and officers were aware of and condoned an “atmosphere of misogyny and objectification of women,” and were negligent for failing to take steps to prevent the occurrences from happening.
Peffers joined the navy in 2007 at the age of 23 because she wanted to “serve her country” and be “a part of something bigger than herself,” according to documents. She alleges officers treated her as though she was inferior at her job because of her gender.
One encounter occurred two weeks into a deployment on HMCS Winnipeg, when Peffers’ said her boss made advances on her when they were alone in an isolated place. During the six-month deployment, she recorded two incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual touching.
Peffers was medically discharged from the navy in 2012.
Other members also allege they were subject to unwanted and non-consensual sexual contact including sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon and sexual assault causing bodily harm.
Natalie Foley, Peffers’ lawyer, said her story isn’t surprising.
“There’s a systemic problem that has to be addressed. All of the individuals who have been touched by discrimination and by conduct that’s really not acceptable in our society,” said Foley, noting the number of calls they’ve received through the hot line indicates a need for the lawsuit.
“There’s clearly a need for this class action based on the recent studies that have come out that this problem has not been adequately dealt with.”
Sexual assault in the military has been pushed into the spotlight in the last few weeks.
Last year, 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.
Most recently, a Statistics Canada study commissioned by Vance found women in the Armed Forces are four times more likely than their male counterparts to say they have been sexually assaulted over the past year, and more than 27 per cent of military women said they had been assaulted at least once since starting their careers.
It’s a culture lawyer Raj Sahota hopes to change.
“The purpose behind this lawsuit is to try to institute positive change within the Canadian Armed Forces so as to encourage a decrease or elimination of sexual harassment and assault . . . and to provide an open space for survivors of sexual assault to speak honest and tell their stories,” he said.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. A statement of defence has not been filed.
To call the hotline and join the class action lawsuit, call 1-877-275-8766.