When Nicola Peffers heard the results of a recent Statistics Canada survey that found nearly 1,000 members of the Canadian military had been sexually assaulted within the last 12 months, she wasn’t surprised.
It made her think about her own experience during her time as a sailor with CFB Esquimalt. Twenty-five years old at the time, she thought she’d hit the jackpot when she was deployed to sail on HMCS Winnipeg for six months in 2009.
Peffers was the only female ordinary seaman in the engineering department on the ship. Two weeks into the deployment at the first foreign port, her boss made advances on her when the pair were alone in an isolated place.
“He basically insisted that if I didn’t please him at that moment while he was naked with only just underwear on that I may not get my watch,” said Peffers, who declined his request.
“I just thought I’ve never had to have sex with my boss before and I’m not going to start now.”
Peffers was left with a sinking feeling that the man who’d asked for sexual favours was also the man responsible for her career on the ship. He made her life hell, said Peffers, giving her lots of secondary duties once they resumed sailing amongst a list of other questionable things.
But it wasn’t the last time Peffers would be left feeling uncomfortable during that deployment. By the time she returned to CFB Esquimalt, Peffers had recorded two incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual touching. Sexual banter was also everywhere.
“I felt pretty helpless,” said Peffers. “I was at the lowest rank and I had really no voice so I couldn’t say hey this is not cool. I couldn’t do anything, really.”
Back in Esquimalt, Peffers sat on what happened for a while since the person she’d be making the complaint to was the person who tried to make advances on her at the first foreign port. Eventually she went to the military police, but the case was closed without an investigation. She launched a complaint with the complaint commission, but that also went nowhere.
In 2012, Peffers was medically released from the military and later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to a near miss incident involving a refueling at sea.
Last year, an independent review by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found that sexual misconduct was “endemic” in the military and tolerated by the highest levels of leadership. She raised warnings about a sexualized culture that subjected women in uniform to abuse ranging from sexual jokes and harassment to rape, and also found that sexual misconduct is vastly under reported.
Shortly after the report was released, Canada’s top general Jonathan Vance ordered an end to sexual misconduct and launched Operation Honour, aimed at ending the decades-long problem plaguing the military.
Since then, the Canadian Forces military police have launched a team to support the investigation of criminal sexual offences throughout the Canadian Armed Fores and Department of National Defence. They’ve also opened a new independent sexual misconduct response centre that’s fielded more than 100 complaints of sexual assault or harassment from members and civilians since it opened in September 2015. Military police at CFB Esquimalt have been encouraging victims to come forward as well, assuring their file will be handled appropriately.
According to the Statistics Canada study commissioned by Vance, soldiers, sailors and aviators are far more likely than other Canadians to be violated sexually.
Women in the armed forces were four times more likely than their male counterparts to say they had 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. Half of the female victims identified their supervisor or someone of a higher rank as the perpetrator.
When it comes to reporting the incidents, less than one quarter of respondents who’d been victimized reported the assault to someone in authority and just seven per cent said they contacted the military police or the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.
Vance said the survey shows some people were victimized after the launch of Operation Honour, and the fact that some victims won’t report or haven’t reported or are concerned that their report won’t be taken seriously is a huge concern.
Peffers isn’t sure what exactly the solution is, but she still has hope that things can change — in time. The problem, she said, is a lot of people that perpetuate the incidents are high ranking and necessary for the ship to sail so the victim is removed instead of the abuser.
“If the admiral can change his priority and say this ship isn’t going to sail, it’s too corrupt, maybe change that until at least we can see some improvement,” said Peffers, who’s since penned a memoir, called Black Deck, about her experience at sea, and has heard several other women in the military talk about harassment or sexual assault, particularly on deployment.
“I am hoping that things will change and people can feel safer coming forward. It has been four years (for me), but having said that, it’s only been four years. I really don’t know much has changed since I left.”