$900-million deal reached in class actions on sexual misconduct in military

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. The federal government is paying $900 million to settle multiple class-action lawsuits lodged on behalf of survivors of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual assault in the military. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

OTTAWA - The federal government promised $900 million in compensation Thursday to settle multiple class-action lawsuits lodged on behalf of survivors of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual assault in the military.

The settlement provides $800 million for members of the Canadian Armed Forces and $100 million in compensation for another class of employees of the Department of National Defence.

Over the past few years, participants in several lawsuits alleging similar misconduct and systemic problems in the military agreed to co-operate in their legal actions against the government.

One claim, filed by three former members of the military, said the Armed Forces was "poisoned by a discriminatory and sexualized culture" that encouraged sexual misconduct and was caused by a failure in leadership.

Amy Graham, a primary plaintiff in that case, said the settlement was not just about monetary compensation, and she was most excited for policy changes included in the agreement. Graham was assaulted by a superior while returning from a deployment in Afghanistan.

One of the most exciting things, she said, is a "restorative engagement" program where victims could share their experiences with military leadership.

From there, Graham said, "we can go about getting some real change to decrease the amount of victims."

Reducing the number of victims was the main motivation behind the suit in the first place, Graham said. The problem continues, she noted, citing a recent survey from Statistics Canada that showed little improvement in the rates of sexual misconduct in the military.

Another positive aspect of the settlement was that it could help provide closure for people who were never able to come forward or have their cases investigated, Graham said.

"I'm hoping they can move forward and start the healing process."

In a statement Thursday, deputy defence minister Jody Thomas and the military's top general Jonathan Vance said they acknowledged the "obligation to ensure a safe work environment for all women and men" in the military.

"We hope that the settlement will help bring closure, healing, and acknowledgment to the victims and survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination," the statement said.

The settlement notes that the government is not admitting liability.

The government had sought to defend itself in court against the lawsuits, filing documents in December 2017 in an attempt to quash them.

But after facing criticism, the government moved to begin settlement proceedings in early 2018.

Class members will mostly be eligible for between $5,000 and $55,000, with higher compensation for people who were subjected to exceptional harm and were denied disability benefits related to that harm. Those members could receive up to $155,000.

The specifics of the payout will depend on the size of the class in the case — the number of people who come forward saying they were the subject of sexual harassment, gender discrimination or sexual assault.

The settlement also calls for an external review of existing anti-harassment programs and revisions to how the government deals with disability benefits for survivors of sexual assault or harassment.

While Graham is hopeful about the policy changes included in the settlement, she said changing the culture of the military will not come easily.

"It's been entrenched, ingrained in the military for so long — decades — that it's not going to be a quick fix," she said.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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