Victoria lawyers file sexual harassment suit against Armed Forces

A former sailor from CFB Esquimalt who says she was sexually assaulted by her supervisors and peers hopes a proposed class-action lawsuit will change “the culture of abuse” in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Last week, Nicola Peffers, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, filed a notice of civil claim against the Attorney General of Canada alleging sexual assault and harassment of women and LGBTQ members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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The proposed suit alleges that the institutional culture of the Forces fosters an environment where assault and harassment are the norm, and lack of effective leadership permits a culture of abuse to fester.

On Monday, via conference call from Germany, Peffers told reporters that she joined the Forces in 2007 because she wanted to be part of something bigger than herself, something with meaning.

“The Forces’ recruiter told me, and I truly believed, that I would be joining a culture of camaraderie,” said Peffers, who was 23 when she signed up.

“When I arrived, I learned that the culture was not one of camaraderie, at least not for women or LGBTQ members. The culture was one of fear and intimidation. The culture was one of abuse, discrimination, bullying and harassment. The culture was of sexual assault.”

Peffers said when she failed to comply with the sexual demands of a superior, she faced retaliation and professional repercussions.

“The abuse inflicted on me caused me mental and physical harm. The culture of the Forces tried to strip me of my dignity and my humanity,” said Peffers.

She left the navy in 2012 for medical reasons connected to the alleged misconduct, according to the civil claim.

“The Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces is aware that the Attorney General of Canada has been served with a new class-action lawsuit involving current and former Canadian Armed Forces members,” said Lt.-Cmdr. Desmond James. “As the claim has only recently been served, the details are being reviewed to determine the next steps.”

Victoria lawyer Rajinder Sahota, who is representing Peffers, said he expects there will be hundreds and eventually thousands of people who will join the lawsuit.

“It’s open to those who suffer from sexual assault and harassment across the country,” he said.

The purpose of the lawsuit is to change the culture of sexual assault and sexual harassment and to provide survivors with a safe and open environment to tell their stories, Sahota said. The application for certification of a class-action lawsuit typically takes several years.

Lawyer Natalie Foley, who is also acting for Peffers, said women and LGBTQ members are overwhelmingly more likely to face victimization in the Armed Forces.

“Attempted reforms to date have inadequately addressed ongoing complaints of discrimination. This class action seeks to right these wrongs. It has come time for the law to protect those who protect us,” she said.

Often, the perpetrators of the abuse are higher in the chain of command and can inflict professional repercussions on their victims, Foley said.

“This abuse came at the hands of peers and supervisors — people she should have been able to trust, people whose orders she was trained not to question and people whose orders she had a duty to follow.”

The culture of the Forces has become one of fear, silence and toxicity for many of its members, said Foley.

Peffers reported the abuse to the proper authorities, but they failed to take adequate action and failed to protect her, said Foley, who is encouraging others to come forward. Anyone willing to come forward will be in a safe, protected and confidential environment, she said.

Last week, a Statistics Canada survey said six per cent of women in the Forces say they have been sexually assaulted in the past year.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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