October 04, 2016 - 1:30 AM
OTTAWA - The Canadian Forces says it is taking a close look to ensure there are no policy gaps when it comes to protecting its cadets, as figures show many alleged military sexual offences involved youth in uniform.
Military commanders declared war on sexual misconduct in the ranks after a scathing report last year found an "underlying sexual culture" in the Forces that was hostile to women and left victims to fend for themselves.
What few have mentioned, however, is that 30 per cent of alleged sexual offences reported to military police last year involved cadets. The actual number of complaints has more than doubled — from 19 in 2013 to 39 in 2015.
Brig.-Gen. Kelly Woiden, the commander of the national cadet program, said he believes the growing number of complaints is a positive indication more young people are coming forward to report inappropriate behaviour.
"I absolutely abhor that the incidents are still occurring," he told The Canadian Press on Monday, "and I'm encouraged that the serving members and cadets are coming forward in higher numbers than before because what it means is that we're reporting all levels of sexual misconduct."
Nonetheless, Woiden said a number of measures have been implemented over the past year to better protect cadets, ensure complaints are properly handled and that victims are supported.
Those include stronger reporting mechanisms and extra guidance to staff before the summer training cycle. Now, cadet commanders are reviewing the training program provided to cadets and staff, which was first implemented in 2010, to make sure it is still appropriate.
"I'm the first one to say: 'Look, just because we looked at this six years ago doesn't mean we've got the perfect widget here'," Woiden said. "We need to go back and say things continue to evolve. The knowledge and the expectations that are out there in Canadian society (have) continued to evolve."
About 54,000 Canadian youth between the ages of 12 and 18 are currently enrolled in the land, sea and air cadets. The program, which has a budget of about $250 million, relies on 7,800 instructors who are drawn from local communities and receive special commissions as military officers.
Military officials say the program is designed to teach youth how to become good citizens. It is also seen as an important way to familiarize young Canadians with the Canadian Forces, though cadets are not serving military members and officials say there is no attempt to actively recruit them.
A number of cadet instructors and volunteers have in recent years been charged with sexual offences. But military police say that fellow cadets are perpetrators in the vast majority of cases.
"In a given calendar year, somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of our cases involve cadets," Lt.-Col. Brian Frei, deputy commander of military police, said in a recent interview. "And within that, roughly 80 per cent of those are cadet-on-cadet. So the offender is a cadet, the victim is a cadet."
Many of those complaints stem from cadet summer camps, which bring together youth from across a province or region for periods of between two and six weeks. Woiden said that's why extra training was delivered before about 20,000 cadets congregated at 23 different camps this summer.
While military police may be involved in such investigations, officials say any actual criminal case is handled by civilian authorities because cadets are not military members.
Woiden said he has repeatedly hammered the message to instructors and volunteers that there will be "zero tolerance" for sexual misconduct in the organization.
But the recent controversy over a booklet for prospective members produced by an air cadet squadron in St. John's, raises questions over whether such messages are being absorbed. The booklet included a dress code that referenced "boobs, belly, bums and boxers," and referred to girls' breasts as "developing bits."
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance blasted the document as completely unacceptable. Woiden said he had ordered all such documents reviewed to ensure they met the military's values, but he acknowledged more work needs to be done.
"The protection and safety and welfare is my highest priority, and I will not tolerate inappropriate behaviour involving them, their instructors or anyone involved in the cadet program," he said. "So when you see and hear about documents like this, all I can do is continue to reinforce that this is unacceptable."
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016