'My country fed me to the wolves:' Veteran slams government settlement for military sexual misconduct victims

ملفات اخبار العرب24-كندا: A court has designated a $900-million settlement to address the class action lawsuit alleging rampant sexual misconduct in the military and at the Department of National Defence. But it's less clear how the abusive culture will be corrected. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Deployments in the Middle East, Africa and Europe took their toll on Dale Shewchuck, but it was nothing compared to the suffering he says he faced within the Canadian Armed Forces after coming forward as a victim of sexual assault. 

That anguish bubbled to the surface again this week when the Federal Court approved the government's $900-million settlement to address the class action lawsuit alleging rampant sexual misconduct in the military and at the Department of National Defence. 

Dale Shewchuck, right, says the government is ignoring the harm done to people who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military. (Provided by Dale Shewchuck)

The court determined the federal government's settlement offer was fair and reasonable, said a statement from the law firm representing the victims. It's one of the largest settlements in Canadian history. 

But Shewchuck, who is eligible for some of that money, says the settlement fails to take full responsibility for the harm done to victims like him and neglects concrete steps to fix the continuing culture problem in the military — action he says is necessary to make sure no other Forces member faces what he's lived with for 20 years. 

"I lost everything," he said.

"I love my country and am proud I served her for as long as I could. I've battled for her, protected her and supported her, only to have her turn her back on me."

Shewchuck took a medical retirement in 2014 after struggling with untreated PTSD.

It's his disappointment in the Canadian Armed Forces and the federal government that he says have pushed him to tell his story publicly for the first time.

"My country fed me to the wolves," he said. "We were taught to suck it up and soldier on."

In 1996, Shewchuck was a 19-year-old private stationed in Petawawa, Ont. After a party one night, he says a soldier of a superior ranked drugged and assaulted him in the barracks.

Fearing repercussions, he kept the incident to himself for six months — finally coming forward when he heard the same officer preyed on another young soldier. 

Court affidavits provided to CBC News confirmed that chain of events.

Two decades of persecution

When his colleagues found out he'd "snitched," he says life on the base became unbearable.

The bathroom walls were painted with slurs about Shewchuck. Death threats were slipped under his door at night. His senior officers accused him of lying. The repercussions followed him throughout his 18-year career.

Shewchuck heard about the class-action lawsuit when it launched in 2016 and submitted his story to the prosecutors. 

Government lawyers had originally sought to stop the class-action lawsuit, but faced backlash after making an argument before a court that government does not "owe a private law duty of care to individual members within the CAF to provide a safe and harassment-free work environment, or to create policies to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault."

The case went ahead and, in February 2018, the government announced its intention to settle out of court.

Watch: Government settles military class action lawsuit

The federal government has agreed to pay nearly $1 billion to settle class-action lawsuits from Armed Forces members who allege rampant sexual misconduct in the military. 2:47

"We're a government that takes sexual misconduct extremely seriously," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said when the details of the settlement were announced in July. "No one should feel unsafe in their place of work, in their communities."

Under the settlement, class members are eligible for compensation of between $5,000 and $55,000, depending on what happened to them.

Members who experienced "exceptional harm" and who were previously denied benefits in respect of that harm could be eligible for up to $155,000.

Four months after the settlement was announced, the court signed off on it.

Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who now runs his own law firm, is happy to see progress on an issue that has tainted the Forces for decades. 

"At long last the government accept its responsibility for the failure of the Canadian Armed Forces leadership and the Department of Defence to deal with this in a comprehensive way," he said. 

"It's a very important step in the right direction." 

'It puts an end to this chapter'

Though the government agreed to settle, they did not admit liability. 

Shewchuck says he wants a formal apology from the federal government. Drapeau suggests he shouldn't hold his breath. 

"One of the side benefits of settling, particularly in a case with the government, is they don't get to admit liability. And second, they get a full release when this is done. Nobody else can wake up one morning and decide 'I'm going to sue the government,'" the lawyer said.

"It puts an end to this particular chapter and it may leave a number of people, in fact, dissatisfied with it." 

The Canadian Armed Forces told CBC News the settlement is part of the "ongoing culture change efforts."

As part of the settlement, policy changes and new programs will be put in place. A restorative engagement process between class action members and the military, a five-year external review to measure progress, consultations with the complainants and updates to Veterans Affairs policies are all on the list. 

"Institutional culture change is difficult, it takes time, and there is no template to follow for an organization the size and nature of the Canadian Armed Forces. We are continually improving as we go, using research, expert guidance and data and analysis to ensure that we're progressing and getting the desired outcomes," a statement from the CAF said.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Singh Sajjan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sajjan was the lead on the settlement file and announced the intent to settle out of court back in 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Shewchuck says it's insulting that those who have experienced sexual assaults had to reach into the government's wallet before these changes were considered. 

"What's a life worth?" he asked. He doesn't know at this point how much compensation he's eligible for.

But the conclusion of the case is cathartic, even if it's not exactly what he wanted.

"I think the most important part of the settlement will be victims' ability to be heard. The ability to tell their story and express their pain."

Just the tip of the iceberg

An external review completed in 2015 by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps found that "it is not enough to simply revise policies or to repeat the mantra of 'zero tolerance.' Leaders must acknowledge that sexual misconduct is a real and serious problem for the organization, one that requires their own direct and sustained attention."

The military launched Operation Honour in 2015 to stamp out incidents like what happened to Shewchuck. 

Data reveals only a meagre decrease. In 2018, 900 members of the regular Canadian Armed Forces, or 1.6 per cent, reported being victims of sexual assault, compared to 1.7 per cent two years earlier, according to a survey released in May.

Statistics Canada showed only one in four victims reported a sexual assault to someone in authority last year, unchanged from the survey they conducted in on the military in 2016.

Drapeau says what has been uncovered so far won't be the end. It's just the "tip of the iceberg."

Shewchuck has a clear idea of what he wants to happen next. He wants to see the military implement more mental health supports for victims and change the screening process to weed out potential abusers. He's still struggling to get mental health supports for his PTSD and adjust to "civilian life" since he left the military.

But the thing he craves desperately is an apology that may never come, and he's haunted by the years of abuse he says the government fails to understand.

"If I could do it all over again, I would have never come forward."

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