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Military continues sex-misconduct fight with new guide for members, commanders

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  • OTTAWA — The Canadian Forces have a new manual on how to respond to sexual misconduct, aiming to close many of the gaps identified in the military’s policies on abuse in its ranks.

    But some concerns remain unaddressed — including the “duty to report” regulation, which critics say discourages victims from seeking support if they aren’t ready or willing to begin a formal complaint.

    The information in the 100-page document was previously spread in many places, which a Defence Department assessment published in February cited as a big reason many service members were confused and uncertain about the issue.

    Some had only a vague understanding of what constituted inappropriate behaviour and what to do when an incident occurred, including how to support victims.

    The new manual, which was developed in consultation with the military’s sexual-misconduct response centre (a counselling-oriented agency outside the chain of command) and a group of outside experts, goes to great pains to address the latter question in particular.

    One of the first sections talks about how and why some people affected by sexual misconduct prefer to be called “victims,” others want to be referred to as “survivors,” and still others don’t like either identifier.

    It also spells out the roles, responsibilities and training available for every service member as well as the additional responsibilities that commanding officers have in supporting victims and investigating incidents.

    In a report last November, auditor general Michael Ferguson found many victims were not properly supported when they did speak up because of gaps in the services available and a lack of suitable training and policies.

    To that end, commanders are also being given a new handout to help them wrap their heads around how sexual-misconduct cases are to be treated step by step — with a reminder at every step to check in with victims.

    Those check-ins are not to be one-way updates, either, but opportunities to make sure each victim is getting the support needed and has input into how the case is handled.

    The sexual-misconduct response centre is also working on plans to provide case workers, or victim-liaison officers, to service members affected by sexual misconduct.

    But the “duty to report” regulation remains. It compels military members to report inappropriate or criminal behaviour, sexual or not, and begins a formal complaint process.

    Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance has said the idea is to require anyone who learns of sexual misconduct to tell authorities so cases don’t get hidden, but the effect can be to drag them into the open against victims’ wishes. Ferguson and former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, who conducted an explosive analysis of the extent of sexual misconduct in the Forces in 2015, have criticized the policy as actually discouraging victims from coming forward.

    Vance has said the military is looking at ways to maintain the requirement while better protecting victims.

    Ferguson also warned that military police often failed to provide information to victims about supports they can use or give them updates on cases, and there were concerns about a lack of training for chaplains and military health-care providers to help victims.

    The federal victims’ ombudsman has also raised concerns about proposed legislation around victims’ rights in the military justice system, specifically that it does not require military police, prosecutors and others to inform victims that they have rights.

    Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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    More than 6,700 veterans from Afghan war receiving federal assistance for PTSD

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  • OTTAWA — Canada’s war in Afghanistan ended five years ago but the price of that effort continues to grow.

    Newly revealed figures show the number of veterans from the war in Afghanistan receiving federal support for mental-health conditions nearly doubled between March 2014 and March 2018.

    The figures are in a report obtained from Veterans Affairs Canada through access-to-information legislation and underscore the enduring toll the war has taken on the mental health of many military members who served there. They also highlight the importance of adequate mental-health services for veterans, which successive federal governments have sought to address over the years with mixed results.

    The report was provided to former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in January upon her appointment as veterans-affairs minister, a post she held for only a few weeks before resigning amid the SNC-Lavalin affair.

    According to the document, more than 6,700 military members who served in Afghanistan received disability benefits for mental-health conditions in March 2018 — an increase of nearly 3,200 from the same month in 2014.

    In both cases, the vast majority of those receiving benefits for mental conditions were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder “directly related to their service in Afghanistan,” according to the report.

    In fact, PTSD was found to have been the top medical diagnosis for Afghan war veterans applying for assistance, as compared to hearing loss and ringing in the ears for service members who had not deployed to Afghanistan.

    More than 40,000 Canadians served in the 13-year Afghanistan mission, which began with fighting the Taliban after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and progressed to trying to stabilize and rebuild the war-torn country.

    That means nearly 17 per cent of all Canadian military personnel who deployed to Afghanistan have received federal assistance for psychological trauma sustained during the war.

    Successive federal governments have been criticized for years over the support provided to such veterans, with concerns raised about financial assistance and long wait times for mental-health services.

    Veterans Affairs Canada recently revealed nearly 40,000 veterans were waiting at the end of November to hear if their applications for financial assistance would be approved, 11,000 more than the previous year.

    And more than one-third of them had been in the queue longer than 16 weeks, which was also an increase and a sign that veterans were waiting ever longer to find out whether they were entitled to assistance.

    While Veterans Affairs did not say how many of those applications related to psychological injuries, an internal report obtained by The Canadian Press last year found demand for mental-health services routinely outstripped available resources.

    The federal auditor general has also reported on long wait times for such services.

    Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s spokesman Alex Wellstead said there has been an overall increase in the number of former service members who have “put trust in their government and come forward to get help.”

    And while he acknowledged that “there is more work to do,” Wellstead said the government is spending billions of dollars on new supports and services as well as additional staff to ensure veterans get the help they need.

    The newly released report shows the officials approved 96 per cent of the 2,453 applications for assistance from veterans with PTSD in 2017-18, whereas the approval rates for many other medical conditions were between 75 and 85 per cent.

    At the same time, Wellstead noted the department recently established a partnership with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre to research psychological trauma and provide better advice and support to health-care professionals.

    “When it comes to mental-health supports, we work with over 4,000 mental health professionals across the country to ensure veterans get the help that they need,” he said in an email.

    “As well, we have hired over 700 new staff to replace the ones the previous government fired, which is helping the processing times. … There is more work to do, but we’re going to continue to do the important work that Canadians expect.”

    Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press



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    Rain, wind equals no 4-20 blow out for Parliament Hill, but West Coast shines

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  • OTTAWA — It was a blow out, man, the kind that’s a total drag.

    Protesters dotted one half of Parliament Hill’s front lawn on a blustery, rainy Saturday at the climax the first 4-20 “Weed Day” demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana.

    The turnout disappointed organizers who expected thousands more, but a festive atmosphere prevailed as the Peace Tower clock struck 4:20 p.m., sparking simultaneous smart phone photography and the lighting of joints, bongs and pipes.

    “The weather didn’t co-operate. It kind of shut us down,” Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said moments earlier. “Coming and going, we’ve probably seen about 3,000, but right now, probably about a thousand.”

    A bout of blowing rain earlier in the afternoon meant the shutdown of a public address system, and a made for a sparse gathering of perhaps several dozen people, most huddled under plastic ponchos or tarps.

    Sara Bakir, 29, of Ottawa was one of early arrivals, dressed in a dark hoodie under a black umbrella.

    “It’s still nice to be out with a few like-minded people,” she said laughing, and casting her eyes at the empty and soaked brownish yellow lawn. 

    Organizers learned a tough lesson even before the rain started falling — new freedoms bring great bureaucracy.

    Mac said his group is encountering more red tape Saturday than on past April 20 protests.

    Organizers can’t use the steps to the now-closed Centre Block, which means spectators will need a front row position on the lawn to see or hear — something Mac calls a “huge letdown.” 

    “Hearing is already a problem so not being able to see is a crushing blow,” he said.

    Organizers have also been told to limit musical performers to just two, Mac said, adding that isn’t in the rules of how to hold a public event on the Hill. 

    New limits on auto access also meant organizers had to haul equipment and material by hand up to the lawn from Wellington Street, he added.

    “It’s frustrating because legalization was supposed to … make things easier and not more complicated,” he said.

    Lingering post-legalization concerns are sustaining a sense of protest among 4-20 event organizers across the country.

    They include concerns over the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana, slow progress on legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession, and the fact that provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land-use laws for growing pot.

    The federal government also has yet to legalize edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so. 

    “Everything about legalization has made things harder, which is the opposite of what is was supposed to be,” said Mac.

    Others were more upbeat and saw Saturday’s event as an inspiration to the world.

    “Again, the world is watching, and I’m very proud of Canada today and Canadians,” said Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia.

    She said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot, and she expected people from Germany and Britain to take part in Saturday’s festivities on the Hill.

    It was a far cry from Ottawa’s subdued festivities on the West Coast, as hoards of people crowded Vancouver’s Sunset Beach to mark the city’s 25th annual 4-20 event warmed by rays of glorious spring sunshine amid a low lying marijuana haze.

    A much smaller crowd gathered at the front lawn of British Columbia’s legislature in Victoria, but the mood was equally celebratory and defiant.

    “Today, in many ways, is bittersweet for us,” said long-time marijuana activist Ted Smith, who led the countdown chant to 4:20 p.m. in Victoria. “We’re happy it’s legalized, sure, but there’s a lot of things to protest.”

    Smith, in between puffs from a large joint, said the current marijuana rules are biased against entrepreneurs who want to sell their products in much the same way as craft brewers and winemakers.

    And a downpour didn’t dampen the festivities at Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end, where revellers trampled through the muddy grass to the steady thrum of house music.

    Cannabis artisans sold their wares at tarp-covered stands, many expressing hope that they could one day emerge from the “grey market” to set up shop at brick-and-mortar storefronts.

    Justin Loizos, owner of the Just Compassion marijuana dispensary in Toronto, said the mood Saturday was more celebratory than in past 4-20 gatherings, which felt more like protests.

    The current regime may not be the “legalization people asked for,” Loizos said, but the cannabis community should take heart in just how far Canada has come.

    “I see a lot of people complaining, whatever — don’t,” he said. “We’re just going to celebrate here and enjoy the day.”

    — with files from Adina Bresge and Dirk Meissner.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press




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