Five class action lawsuits filed against Canada in regard to sexual assault, harassment and gender-based discrimination in the Canadian Armed Forces now have national representation after reaching a consortium earlier this month.
Plaintiffs in the five separate suits, filed in Victoria, Ottawa, Toronto, Quebec City and Halifax, are working together to pursue policy changes within the military and compensation for survivors of sexual misconduct.
Reaching a consortium is important, said Rajinder Sahota, a Victoria lawyer representing class action clients in the Capital Region. He said roughly 130 people have contacted his firm to speak about their experiences. “In unison, combined as a class, their voices cannot be ignored,” he said. “Once you get past dozens, or hundreds or thousands [of cases], this is endemic. It’s something that’s not being addressed.”
Sahota said ‘Operation Honour,’ the program the CAF launched to address harmful behaviour, report incidents or access services, is known within the military as ‘Operation Hop on Her.’
Nicola Peffers, lead plaintiff in the Victoria case, said the program gives the illusion of addressing a culture she describes as homophobic, and not respectful to women or the LGBTQ community. ‘Operation Honour’ includes a hotline set up for survivors to report incidents.
“I called it lipstick on a pig, because to me it’s so blatantly, ‘call the hotline, everything will be fine.’ It hasn’t changed anything structurally within the legal department of the military,” she said.
Peffers was a 24-year-old university graduate with a boatload of debt, looking for a steady job with good pay and health benefits when she enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in 2008.
“Growing up, you learn about current events and about the world and I wanted to be a participant in the global theatre,” she said. “I wanted a piece of the action.”
But the action Peffers was looking for wasn’t the kind she was offered. She said she was regularly sexually harassed; a fellow seaman would whisper rape fantasies to her and when she swore at him, she was charged with insubordination. She routinely turned down sexual advances from her superiors, the same chain of command she was required to report such behaviour to.
A 2016 Stats Canada report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces said 960 regular force members reported being victims of sexual assault over the previous year, either in the military or in situations involving military members. In the Canadian workplace, 0.9 per cent of people report being victims of sexual assault; in the armed forces 4.8 per cent of women have reported incidents of the same nature.
But the number is likely higher, Peffers said, because people who were deployed at the time weren’t surveyed. And then there are the incidents that go unreported. “My first day on ship one of my bosses referred to me as ‘girl’, and not by my name or my rank,” she recalled. “When I told a fellow female member I planned to report it, she said ‘that’s a really bad idea, you do not want to go down that road.’”
While posted to HMCS Winnipeg from 2009-2010, Peffers remembers fellow sailors playing a game called ‘pig of the port’ whereby men would compete to bring back to the ship the biggest women they could find. This behaviour extends beyond those who serve, she said, adding that it’s steeped in tradition.
“The navy seems to be the last bastion of male power. Women have only been on ships since 1995,” she explained. “Right now where we stand, people who are about to retire at the highest ranks on the ship still remember a time before women were onboard.”
Sahota doesn’t think that’s a good enough excuse. In every other sphere of civil society in Canada, the type of conduct that is being alleged in this national class action now has been dealt with or eradicated, he said.
“I’m at a loss for words as to how an institution as large and well resourced as the Department of National Defence has continued to condone this culture in the way that it has this long,” he said. “I don’t know what to say, it’s 2017.”
The case will next go before a certification hearing next summer, and if granted, will move to discussion with Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. Sahota said in Canada the attorney general represents the Department of National Defence.
Peffers was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and bi-polar disorder before being honourably discharged in 2012, a diagnosis she said health officials in the military expedited in order to ‘pigeon-hole’ her.
“I think the public needs to know about how bad it can get, how bad it really is,” Peffers said. “I want to create a safer environment in the military for anyone of any gender to serve in a safe capacity.”
In a statement released in May 2017, the Canadian Armed Forces said it “takes all reports of sexual misconduct by its members very seriously and, in all cases, action is taken to determine facts, conduct applicable investigations, analyze available evidence and, if warranted, lay the appropriate charges.”
Calls made to the Ministry of Justice, the legal representation for the CAF, were not returned before deadline.