Message from the Ombudsman (May 28, 2015)

Ombudsman Clarifies Office’s Mandate on Sexual Harassment and Assault

The Office of the Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces was established in 1998 under Ministerial authority in large part as a response to media reports of sexual assaults and sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces. However, the first Ombudsman, the Department of National Defence and the government of the day negotiated a mandate that excluded the powers necessary to look into individual sexual harassment and assault issues.

Since then, every appointed Ombudsman has urged that the Office’s mandate be legislated to allow for broader powers beyond those currently granted by the Minister of National Defence. Maybe it is time.

Despite limited powers to assist victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, the Ombudsman’s Office remains the only organization independent of the military chain of command and civilian management that is able to provide oversight and ensure procedural fairness in cases of reported sexual harassment. Granted that our ability to assist is restricted – particularly with regard to alleged sexual assault, which is a serious criminal matter requiring police investigation – we nevertheless help victims of alleged assaults by ensuring that they are referred to the appropriate police, medical and counselling services.

In cases of sexual harassment, with the permission of the complainant we can engage the chain of command to inform them we will be tracking how the case is handled through existing departmental and military mechanisms on the member’s behalf. This is an important oversight to ensure procedural fairness for the individual.

The recent Deschamps Report contained an assertion that the Ombudsman’s Office, in the opinion of Justice Deschamps, is not the place where victims of alleged sexual harassment or sexual assault should go. The fact remains that there are no other independent organizations where those affected feel they can go.

Of note, my Office has consistently flagged concerns that sexual harassment incidence rates were being significantly understated by both the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence. In 2012, we testified twice on this issue before the Status of Women’s Parliamentary Committee.

During the November 22, 2012 Committee hearing, a senior National Defence official testified that there was a (founded) sexual harassment incidence rate of just one case per year for the entire department and Canadian Forces over the previous 10 year period. During the December 4, 2012 Committee hearing, this Office’s acting Director General of Operations stated there was a disconnect between departmental reporting and actual incidence rates. He referred to Canadian Forces harassment survey results, which showed that 14% of women felt they were sexually harassed – a huge contrast to the number that is actually reported. He explained that a fear of reprisal, delays in complaint processing, and lack of real consequence for wrongdoing were reasons people do not come forward on alleged sexual harassment.

The fear of re-victimization on the part of sexual assault victims has been well documented in Canadian society in general. Clearly, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence need to do far more to combat the problem within its own ranks. Canadian Armed Forces leadership has acknowledged as much in their response to the Deschamps Report.

Given that individual case files are held by the Ombudsman’s Office in strict confidence – one of the key tenets of any Ombudsman’s Office – I was not able to participate in Madame Deschamps anecdotal review of the experiences of individual members of the Canadian Forces. I explained those reasons in a letter I sent to her on November 7, 2014. I did provide statistical data, however.

As Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces I do not have an advocacy role for individuals. I do, however, advocate fairness for both individual and institution alike. Impartiality and independence are vital to being effective. With 17 years of proven success in helping resolve more than 20,000 cases – many of which were complex – my Office stands ready to assist the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence to whatever level is required, in order to improve the way individuals with sexual harassment and assault allegations are treated.


* Since January 1, 2007, the Ombudsman’s Office responded to 586 contacts related to harassment, 31 of which related specifically to sexual harassment.


Gary Walbourne

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