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New fund aims to reimburse legal fees for victims of military sexual misconduct

Centre will review applications to reimburse in response to 2022 recommendations
Canadian Forces personnel stand at CFB Kingston in Kingston, Ont., Tuesday, March 7, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The military’s independent sexual misconduct support and resource centre is creating a new fund to help victims pay for legal services, defence officials said Thursday.

The centre will review applications to reimburse military members and those who say they have faced misconduct by a military member for their legal fees for criminal proceedings, and for up to four hours of legal advice.

“They can attest to ‘it was an incident of sexual misconduct,’” said Linda Rizzo Michelin, the response centre’s chief operating officer, during a briefing to reporters on the Canadian Armed Forces’ efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct.

“So it’s not regarding reporting or an investigation or anything of that kind. We’re looking to support the individuals that need this type of independent legal assistance.”

That was one of the 48 recommendations made by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour in a May 2022 report.

Arbour’s review was prompted by what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then called a “failing of the entire system,” at a time when sexual misconduct scandals had led to the departures of several high-ranking members of the military.

The Defence Department laid out a plan last December to implement those changes.

One of the report’s “most impactful” calls, the department said in a media release Thursday, was the recommendation to transfer jurisdiction of criminal sexual offences from the Canadian Armed Forces to the civilian justice system.

In her report, Arbour said the change was necessary to address widespread mistrust and doubt about the military’s ability to properly handle such cases. But she also noted that some police forces and associations, including the Ontario Provincial Police, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and its counterpart in British Columbia, opposed the recommendation.

Ontario’s solicitor general wrote a letter to Defence Minister Anita Anand complaining that the new caseloads were putting a strain on resources, and last July it was made public that civilian police services had refused to accept 23 cases.

There are agreements in place with the RCMP, Sûreté du Québec and now the Ontario Provincial Police to refer cases to police for investigation.

However, in a technical briefing provided to reporters Thursday morning, officials refused to give an update on the number of cases that have been referred and the number that have been rejected, if any.

The support and resource centre also announced Thursday it would expand its services to include cadets, junior rangers and members of the defence community who are at least 16 years old.

And officials told reporters that they are launching a call for members of the defence community who’ve been the victims of sexual misconduct to join a consultation group.

Rizzo Michelin said that’s to allow people to share their experiences and help develop future programs and services.

—Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Ottawa’s plan to off-load military sexual assault cases sparks feud with provinces