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Sexual assault and harassment not part of military culture, says top commander

OTTAWA - There will be an independent, external investigation into allegations that sexual assault is rampant in the Canadian military, but the country's top commander could not say Tuesday just how far-reaching that review will be.

Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada's chief of defence staff, was also at a loss to define the scope of the problem, except to say he believes it's possible some victims are not coming forward.

"I think there is an under-reporting going on," Lawson testified before the House of Commons defence committee, which is examining sexual assault and harassment in the Canadian Forces.

"We need to do everything we can to deal with any issues that stand in the way of someone coming forward."

An internal review last month identified "some barriers" that prevent alleged victims from speaking up, he added.

Lawson said the review, which he wants carried out by an "eminent Canadian," will have the authority to interview military members and could end up uncovering fresh allegations of assault.

The terms of reference have been drafted and approved by Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, but Lawson would not indicate the probe's mandate nor whether it might rise to the level of a judicial inquiry.

Lawson's comments echo the military's response last fall to a series of suicides among veterans of the war in Afghanistan, which shone a spotlight on what critics have called a mental-health crisis within the Canadian Forces.

In essence, Lawson said victims need to come forward and trust the system.

But trust appears to be in short supply — not only among the rank and file, but also among MPs from all parties who fired tough questions Tuesday at Lawson and others, including the military's judge advocate-general.

The genesis of that anger is a recent magazine report that claimed sex assaults have reached epidemic levels inside the ranks of Canada's military.

The story, published by Maclean's and L'actualite magazines, interviewed several victims and examined a decade's worth of statistics documenting reported attacks.

It said military police get as many as 200 complaints of sexual assault each year, with many more cases going unreported by victims who fear the potential consequences from within the military hierarchy.

Lawson told the committee he found the allegations disturbing, and acknowledged the courage of those victims who spoke out.

But he said he does not accept the notion that sexual violence and harassment are part of military culture, citing a recent internal survey that suggested harassment of all kinds has been declining steadily over the last decade.

Lawson said only two per cent of those who took part in the 2012 survey said they've faced harassment, but he conceded the numbers are higher when the results are parsed by gender.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris didn't buy those assurances, saying the issue has resurfaced time and again since a similar media expose was written in the late 1990s.

"As a Canadian I'm more than concerned and disturbed," said Harris. National Defence is three years behind in reporting criminal statistics within the military to Parliament, he added.

"I'm quite angry to find that — from these reports — the military hasn't responded appropriately to individuals who were victims."

Military statistics lump sexual assault and harassment into a category of other disciplinary-related offences, making it difficult to know the extent of the problem.

Brig.-Gen. Blaise Cathcart, the judge advocate-general, took responsibility for not filing the reports to Parliament as prescribed by law and said he'd consider more transparent reporting of the assault data.

Liberal MP Judy Sgro was skeptical, saying she'd heard similar assurances from the RCMP when the issue of sex assault in the federal police force was in the headlines two years ago.

"I'm sad to be sitting here today, and infuriated," Sgro said.

When RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson testified in 2012 about assault and harassment allegations on the force, he said all the right things to convince the committee the force was on the right track, she said.

"You know, I believed him. I actually bought his story. And, you know, maybe he was sincere that day, but it went straight downhill from there."

The RCMP now have more stringent guidelines that prevent members from speaking out, Sgro noted.

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