Canada’s military has turned down a former military member’s request that RCMP officers be asked to investigate her claim that a senior military leader raped her, CBC News has learned.
The move goes against a key recommendation of retired Supreme Court justice Morris Fish’s report urging sweeping changes to the military’s judicial system. In that report, Fish called on the military to surrender control of sexual assault investigations to civilian authorities until it reforms the way it deals with victims’ rights.
When Fish’s report was released in late May, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the federal government accepted its recommendations in principle. More than two months later, the military confirms it has yet to hand over a single sexual misconduct investigation to civilian police.
WATCH: Stéphanie Viau describes alleged sexual assault
Stéphanie Viau shares her story of alleged sexual assault by current military head of HRViau said Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson’s inappropriate behaviour escalated to rape onboard HMCS Provider decades ago 9:17
In March, former military member Stéphanie Viau alleged her superior Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson raped her in 1991 onboard a navy ship docked in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. She was 19 at the time and Edmundson was a superior and lieutenant commander, she said. Edmundson has denied the allegation and remains on leave with pay from the military.
Viau’s lawyer Paul Champ said the military told him it would not ask for RCMP officers to be assigned to the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) to investigate Viau’s case. He said Viau now has to move forward with a military investigation she doesn’t trust.
“It’s remarkably tone-deaf,” said Champ. “It was such a simple request … It was a reasonable request. I just don’t know what they’re thinking.
“If this case can’t be handled in the sensitive and independent manner that it requires, how can any woman in the Canadian military come forward and feel confident that her complaint will be investigated properly and thoroughly and decisions will be made in an independent manner?”
The military has been in the midst of a sexual misconduct crisis since January that has swept up multiple senior leaders. The military is starting to release the results of its investigations.
On Friday night, the defence department released a statement saying Admiral Art McDonald would not face criminal charges in relation to an investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct.
McDonald replaced Gen. Jonathan Vance as chief of the defence staff in January; he stepped aside just a month later after news of the allegation and investigation went public.
Vance himself has been charged with one count of obstruction of justice related to an ongoing military investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Vance denies the allegations and McDonald has not commented publicly.
Viau’s case could be seen as an early test of the willingness of the Liberal government and the military to follow the Fish report’s recommendations. Champ said the government failed that test.
Viau has said she has no confidence in the ability of the CFNIS — the military’s investigative branch — to thoroughly investigate allegations against a senior military leader.
Edmundson was a commander in charge of human resources management for all military personnel when Viau went public. The military has since replaced Edmundson; his lawyer says it was unfair to remove him from his post before he had a chance to defend himself against “untested” allegations.
WATCH: Military HR chief was investigated over claims of inappropriate behaviour
Military’s human resources commander was investigated for inappropriate behaviourCBC News has learned the commander in charge of human resources for the Armed Forces was investigated for allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the 1990s. The discovery comes as the Canadian military has two senior officers facing allegations of sexual misconduct. 1:59
Viau also said she was raped by a military police officer, according to her application for the sexual misconduct class action lawsuit filed in 2020.
In his report, Fish said the military’s current system is rife with the potential for interference from the chain of command and urged sweeping changes. Fish said military judges should be civilians and the military’s top police officer should be appointed independent of the chain of command.
He also said sexual assault claims should not be investigated or prosecuted in the military system until certain conditions are met, such as extending to military complainants the victims’ rights enshrined in the civilian justice system in 2015.
Champ said he asked CFNIS to task experienced RCMP officers to Viau’s case and for them to seek an independent legal opinion about whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction. CFNIS wouldn’t agree to either request, according to email correspondence viewed by CBC News.
“All sexual assault complaints reported to the CFNIS are investigated by the CFNIS as there are no other resourcing alternatives,” Insp. Chris Pallister — an RCMP officer seconded to CFNIS as a major case adviser — wrote to Champ.
“I am the only RCMP Officer seconded to the CFNIS. My position is strictly advisory in nature and while seconded to the CFNIS, I report to the CFNIS Chain of Command, not the RCMP.”
But Champ cites a 2007 case he was involved in which saw RCMP officers seconded to an investigation of the military’s top police officer.
The defence department said it would not comment on Viau’s case. The military continues to have jurisdiction over sexual assault cases and decisions about where and how they are investigated, the department said.
The military has started implementing 36 out of 107 of Fish’s recommendations and an implementation plan for the remaining recommendations will be tabled in Parliament in the fall, the department said.
The department added that a victim can file a complaint with “any police force at any time.”
WATCH: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to report on military justice system
Defence minister addresses report on military justice systemHarjit Sajjan talks about a report issued by former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish on the military justice system. 1:08
The decision to leave RCMP out of the investigation was made despite Sajjan’s assurances that Viau would be supported through the process. According to a statement from his office issued March 31, Sajjan told military officials to ensure Viau had all the support she needed, including help with “obtain[ing] the appropriate police investigation that she requests.”
Megan MacKenzie is the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University and is leading an international project studying sexual misconduct in the military. She said Viau’s case further undermines complainants’ confidence in their ability to come forward and seek justice.
She said it’s the responsibility of Sajjan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ensure the military is carrying out Fish’s recommendations quickly.
The Liberal government has said it accepts the Fish report’s recommendations in principle and it will implement them as quickly as possible. (Canadian Press)
“It’s a failure and it’s very high profile,” said MacKenzie. “The dysfunctional institution cannot fix itself, especially when it comes to a problem that involves so many senior leaders.
“I think we have a prime minister who’s identified as a feminist prime minister, but he and the minister of defence have zero credibility on this file. They have zero trust, especially from victims of sexual assault in the military. We just haven’t seen the kind of leadership we would expect.”
The prime minister’s office said the government’s focus is on supporting sexual assault survivors.
“We need for every woman or man who serves in our military to work in a workplace free from harassment and we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that is the case,” said Trudeau’s press secretary Alex Wellstead in a media statement.
Sajjan’s office said he does not get involved directly in police investigations and remains committed to the “complete cultural overhaul of the CAF.” The office points to an independent review by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour now underway and a new in-house position focused on reforming the military’s culture.
Deputy minister contacted Viau’s boss
Champ said Viau’s case has been handled poorly from the start. After Viau went public, he said, Deputy Defence Minister Jody Thomas contacted her workplace — another government department — and spoke to her deputy minister about the case. A message was sent down the chain to Viau that Thomas wanted to speak to her, said Champ.
“Stephanie was devastated,” said Champ. “She couldn’t understand why they would do something like that. She was embarrassed. It made it awkward for her to continue working for a while.”
Thomas later apologized, said Champ. The defence department said the intention was never to make Viau uncomfortable, but rather to ensure her workplace was providing her with support.
Champ said it would be difficult for Viau to go to the RCMP directly since her case took place outside of Canada on a navy ship, which raises jurisdictional issues.
Edmundson’s lawyer has not yet responded to CBC’s request for comment.