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No plans to eliminate 'duty to report' for military sex misconduct: Vance

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OTTAWA — Canada's top general is promising better support for victims of military sexual misconduct, but says he will not get rid of a regulation that Canada's auditor general has warned discourages some victims from coming forward.

The "duty to report" regulation compels service members to report any type of inappropriate or criminal behaviour — whether sexual or not — to higher authorities, which begins a formal complaint process.

Military police have previously cited this requirement as having helped increase the number of reported cases of sexual misconduct brought to their attention, particularly from bystanders or other third parties. 

However, auditor general Michael Ferguson reported in November that the requirement had contributed to underreporting of sexual misconduct among victims who did not want to trigger formal complaints.

In an interview, defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance said military officials are looking at ways to ensure victims are better supported and empowered when they or someone else reports misconduct.

"If you're a member of the armed forces and you see a crime, you're supposed to report it," Vance told The Canadian Press. "We all want this to stop, and one of the ways to stop it is to not turn a blind eye. Failure to report could also be deemed turning a blind eye. And so you can't have it both ways."

Eradicating sexual misconduct has been a top priority for military commanders since a series of devastating reports several years ago uncovered a highly sexualized culture where misbehaviour was ignored or hidden.

The auditor general did not specifically call for the regulation to be rescinded, but emphasized the importance of providing adequate support to victims when they do come forward given that some do not do so willingly.

Vance admitted the Forces had fallen short on that count in the past, but said the military is now looking to address those shortfalls and ensure that victims of sexual misconduct don't go through more hardship than they already have.

"Duty-to-report and a bunch of other ways that we've dealt with victims has made that journey from being a victim to recovering too hard," he said. "So we're going to address that."

Exactly how remains to be seen. The military's sexual-misconduct response centre is seized with the problem, Vance said, while outside experts are being consulted to determine the best way forward.

The head of the response centre recently revealed that the organization was planning to start providing victims with case workers who will provide continuous support from the moment an incident is reported to the end of the case.

Vance suggested victims could also be given more power over when a formal complaint is launched after an incident is reported to a commanding officer or using alternate-dispute resolution rather than launching a formal hearing.

"Where the challenge will lie is if there's a potential crime and the police want or need to get involved," he said in reference to the fact military police operate independently of the chain of command. "We're working through that. How do we manage that so the victim is best cared for?"

In addition to the duty to report, the auditor general also flagged concerns with a lack of specialized training for chaplains and military health professionals to support victims.

Most criminal cases took more than seven months to be closed by military police, who were also found to regularly skip procedures — including providing victims with support packages or referring them to assistance.

The audit also found that poor training for all service members had produced only a vague understanding of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, which actually threatened to undermine military cohesion and esprit de corps.

"I don't consider it negative criticism," Vance said of the overall report. "It basically said to us: 'You've gotten a start. Here's some areas we've found that you need to work on. Keep going.' We think the same thing."

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press