Employment & Labour

MacDonald addresses Commons committee on military harassment

By AdvocateDaily.com Staff

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) must do more to protect its female members from discrimination and harassment, says Toronto employment lawyer Natalie MacDonald.

MacDonald, principal of MacDonald & Associates and author of the influential book, Extraordinary Damages in Canadian Employment Law, was recently invited to address the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on the Status of Women.

“The military is doing a terrible job on this front, and continues to take a beating for it,” MacDonald tells AdvocateDaily.com. “The CAF needs to be educated in terms of how they can do better in cases of sexual harassment.

“I am concerned that they are moving as slowly as they are,” she adds, noting the CAF has yet to act on a number of recommendations made by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Marie Deschamps in her devastating 2015 report on sexual misconduct, which concluded that the military’s pervasive “sexualized culture” made it a hostile environment for women.

MacDonald is also acting for a former naval officer who launched a human rights complaint against the armed forces after she alleged prolonged discrimination and harassment drove her to attempt suicide.

Her client, who also addressed the Commons committee, is raising a child alone, and claims superiors targeted her for her “family issues,” effectively forcing her to choose between her child and her career before her release on medical grounds in 2017.

“It was really quite moving to see her testify,” MacDonald says. “And she is not the only person who this has happened to.”

MacDonald has her own set of recommendations for the CAF to show it is serious about improving the lot of its female members:

Overhaul the military’s grievance system

MacDonald’s client has seen her complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) languish for more than five years because federal legislation requires the completion of any other administrative procedure, including an ongoing internal military grievance, before it will hear cases.

“It should not — and can not — take five years to reach a decision,” MacDonald says.

Further, she says additional checks and balances are needed to ensure neutrality of the grievance process.

“It has to be given to an impartial party who is not part of the CAF to move it along,” MacDonald says. “You can’t have the same people making decisions on the grievance who are responsible for the grievance in the first place.”

Another option would be to amend the law to allow complainants to choose whether they wish to bring a grievance internally or to the CHRC, she adds.

“The CHRC shouldn’t be the last place the griever can go, because it allows the CAF to drag the whole process out,” MacDonald says.

Amend CAF policies

“The CAF’s policies are discriminatory by their very nature and need to be amended,” says MacDonald, who explains that the military defines both sexual harassment and misconduct too narrowly.

“There is no consideration that jokes and innuendo could be considered within a definition of sexual harassment, which is problematic, and sexual assault is not defined in the same way under the Criminal Code,” she adds.

Based on her client’s experience, MacDonald says CAF policies seem to be designed with a focus on two-parent families, as opposed to single-parent or other non-traditional family structures.

For example, MacDonald says a male officer with a wife and house in the same class as her client received room and board under a relocation policy that was not available to her as a single mother.

“It was blatant discrimination in that respect,” says MacDonald, who adds that the CAF’s limited daycare provisions are not conducive to family accommodation requests.

“It’s imperative that the CAF start recognizing that we are living in 2019 instead of the 1950s,” she says.

Improve medical care

“When CAF members are on temporary or medical release, they are not well taken care of,” MacDonald says.

Those in mental distress are particularly likely to fall through cracks, she adds.

“The same therapies and counselling that are available to someone whose leg is blown off in combat are not available to someone in mental distress or with suicidal ideation,” MacDonald says. “The medical system needs to be revamped, considering the suicide rate is hundreds of times higher in the military than the national average.”

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