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Canadian military reports steady decline in sexual-misconduct complaints

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OTTAWA — Canada’s military says it is making progress in its battle against sexual misconduct in the ranks, citing a new report that documents a steady decline in the number of complaints lodged with commanders over the past three years.

The war, however, appears far from over: despite the decline, Forces members continue to report hundreds of incidents of inappropriate or even criminal behaviour to their chain of command each year.

Commanders received a total of 302 complaints of sexual misconduct during the last fiscal year between April 2018 and March 2019, according to the military’s sexual-misconduct incident tracking report released Tuesday — a decline of 25 per cent from 2017-18 and 33 per cent fewer than 2016-17.

“Our collective efforts are beginning to yield results,” said Commodore Rebecca Patterson, the head of the military’s sexual-misconduct response team, although she acknowledged that more information would be needed to ensure the trends are real.

The tracking report only includes incidents reported by service members to their superiors, who are required to enter it into a database specifically designed for the purpose. Officials say many other incidents are never reported, including when victims do not want to raise it publicly.

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada released the results of a survey of 36,000 service members that found 70 per cent had seen or experienced sexualized behaviour over the previous 12 months — 10 per cent fewer than when a similar poll was conducted two years earlier.

The Statistics Canada survey indicated “members are witnessing and experiencing less sexualized and discriminatory behaviour,” Patterson said, “and the decline in overall reported incidents in this report backs up those findings.”

Patterson nonetheless acknowledged the military has more work to do, noting: “It takes time to build trust and achieve lasting results.”

Much of the decline in reported sexual misconduct over the past three years could be traced to a sharp decrease in what the military describes as “inappropriate sexual behaviour,” which includes the use of sexual language, displaying sexual materials and indecent acts.

Yet Marie-Claude Gagnon, a former naval reservist who founded a group for survivors of military sexual trauma called It’s Just 700, worried the numbers didn’t reflect progress but a growing loss of trust by victims that complaints would be properly handled.

“Since 2015, the Canadian Armed Forces has been enticing victims to report sexual misconduct yet not provide them with adequate support and not consulting with them when they made very important changes that impact victims,” she said.

She specifically pointed to the large number of service members who reported seeing or witnessing sexual misconduct — especially sexual assaults — in the Statistics Canada survey and the comparatively small number of incidents reported to commanders.

According to the Statistics Canada survey conducted in November 2018, 1.6 per cent of regular-force members — which works out to about 900 full-time military personnel — reported having been the victims of sexual assaults over the previous 12 months.

The rate among reservists was even higher, with 2.2 per cent — about 600 part-time military personnel — reporting they had been victims of a sexual attack, unwanted sexual touching or sexual activity without consent in the previous year.

Eighty-four sexual assaults were reported to the chain of command last year, according to the tracking report, compared to 114 in 2017-18 and 63 in 2016-17.

“In my opinion, if we do a comparison between the results shared today with the findings from the Statistics Canada survey, we can see a loss of trust,” said Gagnon, who nonetheless hoped several new initiatives providing victims with more rights and support will help.

Commanders have grappled with the issue of sexual misconduct in the ranks since media reports in April 2014 that a large number of military sexual assaults were being ignored or played down.

An independent investigation by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in April 2015 found an “underlying sexual culture” in the military that was hostile to women and left victims to fend for themselves.

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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Canadians killed in Afghanistan honoured during emotional dedication ceremony

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OTTAWA — Emotions ran free in Ottawa Saturday as the more than 150 Canadians killed in Afghanistan were honoured during a sombre ceremony attended by hundreds of family members, many of whom continue to struggle with the loss of their loved ones.

The ceremony involved the re-dedication of a cenotaph built during the war in honour of the fallen. It stood first in Kabul and later at the Kandahar Airfield, where the Canadian Forces was headquartered for most of its time in Afghanistan, serving as a place of reflection and remembrance for those overseas.

Under overcast skies, the families and former comrades of the fallen listened as Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance and others spoke of the enduring legacy left behind by those who fought and died during Canada’s 13-year war in Afghanistan.

One-hundred-fifty-eight Canadian soldiers died during the mission, which started shortly after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry, journalist Michelle Lang and two civilian contractors were also killed during the war.

“Because of their sacrifice, the Kandahar stadium is used for playing soccer,” Sajjan, who served two tours in Afghanistan, told those in attendance. “Because of their sacrifice, young girls are allowed to freely go to school. Because of their sacrifice, we are safer at home. We will never forget the price these women and men paid.”

Yet much of the ceremony focused on the families of those who died, whose lives were irreversibly changed during the mission even as much of the rest of the country moved on, turning the page on the war in Afghanistan when the last Canadian troops returned home five years ago.

Families like that of Pvt. David Robert James Byers, whose daughter was born a few months after he and three other Canadian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in September 2006. Byers’ mother Catherine Jane Byers and his daughter were among the 600 family members to attend Saturday’s ceremony.

“We’re the ones that live with this every day,” Catherine Jane Byers said as she stood outside the specially built memorial hall where the cenotaph, comprised of plaques bearing the names and pictures of the fallen, is housed. “We’re the ones that celebrate birthdays. See our grandchildren grow up without a father. That is our reality.”

The re-dedication ceremony at the Department of National Defence’s new headquarters building in west Ottawa was actually a redo for the military, which came under fire after holding a private event in May. Some families were angry they were not invited at that time, prompting an apology from Vance and plans for Saturday’s event.

Afterward, Catherine Jane Byers and several other relatives of those killed in Afghanistan told reporters they were grateful for the second ceremony, during which Payette, Sajjan and the rest underscored this country’s gratefulness to those who paid the ultimate price — and the loved ones they left behind.

“All of you who lost someone … you know what has been lost,” Payette said. “A wound that this memorial can acknowledge even if it cannot fully heal. But it must be acknowledged, and that is why we are here today, to focus our attention on these brave men and women and the people who loved them.”

While many family members struggled to contain their emotions during the ceremony, which included the laying of wreaths, a flypast by Canadian Forces aircraft and the playing of the Last Post and the Lament, they weren’t alone; Vance was forced to stop several times during his remarks to gather his composure and wipe away tears.

Vance served two tours in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, a time period that coincided with some of the worst losses for the Canadian military during the war. He recalled his visits to the cenotaph when it was in Kandahar, saying it served as not only a place of mourning but also of solace and comradeship for those who served on the mission.

“The cenotaph contains the grief,” Vance said, “but also carries the hopes and fear, the courage and vitality of the people who lived and those who died and the mission they were trying to accomplish.”

Some have questioned whether the cenotaph, which was designed and built by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, should be in a more public space rather than its current location inside what is essentially a security zone. Anyone wishing to visit it now must register with the Defence Department for a guided tour.

Theresa Charbonneau, whose son Cpl. Andrew Grenon was killed along with two other soldiers when their armoured vehicle was attacked in September 2008, supported the current location in part because of that security but also because of its day-to-day proximity to other service members.

“I know it’s under lock and key. I like it under lock and key,” she said, adding: “Where else would we put it so that it could be close to their comrades? NDHQ is the perfect spot. Their lives were involved here. This was their second family. This is a good place for it.”

The government has promised to build a separate national memorial for the war in Afghanistan that will be placed in a public site near the Canadian War Museum.

Jim Davis, whose son Cpl. Paul Davis was killed when his vehicle flipped in Kandahar in March 2006, said he would continue to visit the cenotaph, which carries a special meaning for the families of the fallen as well as all those Canadians who served in Afghanistan.

“I feel not only my son’s spirit, I feel the spirit of his fallen comrades,” Davis said. “I can go to his grave and he’s not there. But if I go in here, his spirit’s in here. I feel it.”

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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For recent immigrant youngsters, nascent soccer club provides continuity

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soccer player

OTTAWA — Omran Alahmad has played soccer every week since his arrival in Ottawa almost four years ago, much the way he did as a boy growing up in Syria.

Alahmad, 18, travelled through Jordan to come to Canada in 2015 with his parents and five siblings, but he was determined that it wouldn’t mean giving up on the sport he’s played since he was just three years old.

“I’ve been playing since I was three years old,” he said. “We started playing on the street.”

Before long, Alahmad soon found himself a member of Eagles FC — a soccer club comprising nearly 60 newcomers to Canada, including immigrants and refugees, that established itself as a full-blown club last September.

“I used to see kids playing soccer in the park … some of them were really talented,” said team manager Noor Sakhniya, who helped the players in establishing their own club. “They couldn’t play with a club because they couldn’t afford it.”

The registration fees at Ottawa soccer clubs vary between $600 and $2,000, he said: “That’s a lot of money for an immigrant family that has two or more kids who want to play soccer.”

Immigrant kids risk ending up spending a lot of time on the street if they aren’t occupied by a sport they like, said Sakhniya. “When we make them commit with the team at least for two or three days a week, we save them from troubles.”

The number of soccer players in Canada is growing every year. According to the Canada Soccer Association, there were more than 810,000 registered players, coaches and referees involved in soccer in the country in 2018.

Much of that popularity has been driven by immigration. Nearly 7.6 million foreign-born individuals who took part in the 2016 census said they came to Canada through the immigration process, representing 21.9 per cent of Canada’s total population — a proportion that continues to overtake the 22.3 per cent recorded during the 1921 census, the highest level since Confederation.

Some of the immigrant players have pursued soccer in different countries. Abbas Ali, 20, is a computer engineering student. He’s played soccer in Syria, Turkey and Canada since he fled war-torn Iraq 16 years ago.

“I’m going to carry on (playing soccer), for sure,” Ali said.

The time he spends playing the game is an opportunity to make friends and to engage in other social activities with his teammates. “These guys are all my friends,” he said, gesturing towards his teammates.

Sport is a social institution that brings people together and it’s a part of the culture, said Karen Foster, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “It can help people get out of isolation.”

Foster said familiar social activities are vital in helping immigrants integrate into Canadian society, and are especially important for teenagers who are likely feeling displaced and don’t have as many opportunities to get involved in activities without their families.

The men’s team is now competing in Ottawa Carleton Soccer League — “our goal is to qualify to Ontario Soccer League,” said Sakhniya — and the club has already established three other teams for kids under 12. “We are going to start a team for girls as well.”

The club is a not-for-profit organization, so the players are only charged for the cost of the activities including the league participation fees. The next thing is to find a sponsor, he added.

“I want to help immigrant kids to showcase their talents, so Canada’s soccer can benefit from their talents,” Sakhniya said.

“It’s the most growing sport (in Canada), and immigrants need to tap into this sport to help their new country. We have some excellent players, who are 14 to 16 years old. They could go play for university teams, famous clubs and even the national team when Canada co-hosts the 2026 World Cup.”

Maan Alhmidi , The Canadian Press

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august, 2019

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