As Ottawa works to move on interim recommendations on the embattled military justice reform file, expectations for the Department of National Defence’s long-awaited victim bill of rights have heightened.

But given the department’s lag in bringing laws passed by Parliament into force, one retired colonel warns it should not be afforded such an “open ticket” with its spring timeline, which another former member of the military said is leaving many survivors “in limbo.”

Speaking to Parliament Today, military law expert Michel Drapeau said the department should follow Defence Minister Anita Anand’s lead in acknowledging the urgency of finalizing regulations for the declaration of victim rights, which were called for in Bill C-77.

In one of her first acts in the portfolio, Anand signalled her support of a recommendation to move investigations and prosecutions of sexual misconduct cases to the civilian system last week — a widely praised step that Drapeau earlier described as close to a “silver bullet” if there ever was one. (Canada has a separate military justice system from the civilian regime that since 1998 has initiated legal cases involving sexual offences.)

Passed in June 2019, Bill C-77 introduced a declaration that victims of service offices “have a right to information, protection, participation and restitution,” and enshrines they will have access to services like a victim liaison officer. But more than two years later, it has yet to come into effect.

With the feds having long been accused of dragging their feet on addressing the sexual misconduct crisis that has gripped the military in recent months, there remains “no reason whatsoever, none,” for the department to continue punting regulations down the line, said Drapeau.

“I don’t care if they need to take four or five or six people together — get it done,” he said yesterday. “At any effective law office, you would get this done within a week or two.”

He said he is “unsatisfied” with a June indication from Judge Advocate General Geneviève Bernatchez, the official charged with overseeing the drafting of the document, that the bill of rights will kick into effect “no later than” the spring.

“Spring 2022 means anything between April 1 and June 20. It’s vague and they’ve had enough time,” said Drapeau, noting a plethora of more than 200 lawyers on its legal team can be tapped to draft up such a blueprint.

For Dawn McIlmoyle, who made headlines in the 1990s while going public with her account of being raped by a colleague while enrolled in naval school, the declaration needs to come into effect in lockstep with the transfer of authority Anand committed to.

“Everything is going to change so people are worried about if their case is going to fall through the cracks, getting switched over,” she said. “What if their case was already in the military process? There’s a lot of uncertainty. … Bill C-77 should be right with it.”

Being able to request access to a liaison officer would be critical as it would act as “bridge” to the two “worlds,” said McIlmoyle, who now works as a veteran and abuse advocate. “You wouldn’t be dealing with a system you’re not really familiar with all on your own,” she said, adding it can be a “horrendous” process to navigate the structures.

“I’m hoping that they’re doing better but while we wait, how many people are being injured in some way with sexual misconduct?” wondered McIlmoyle.“I want my pain to be used for purpose, so I want something good to come out of everything that has happened. I need to see concrete things, not just dates flowing in the wind.”

Minister Anand meets with the the 2021 class of the Halifax Peace With Women Fellowship on November 10.

Declaration will highlight how ‘pervasive’ problem is, says expert

In June, Bernatchez said the pandemic delayed the consultation process to draft the document, though that had since picked back up. An online survey meant to inform the drafting closed at the end of August but “efforts to reach out to victims and survivors of service offences will continue,” per the Judge Advocate General’s office. The department did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

The government has taken sustained scrutiny on the military file as several current and former members have come forward in recent months to share their harrowing accounts within its ranks. A trickle of media reports have also detailed high-ranking officials implicated in those cases.

Anand was moved to the portfolio after an impressive showing as procurement minister, where she spearheaded the securing of vaccines before taking over for the embattled Harjit Sajjan, who has also faced scrutiny for his response to the crisis.

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who studies the culture of leadership within the CAF, agreed the pending enforcement of the bill of victims rights would rebuild trust and encourage people to come forward and report their experiences. “If they are supported both financially and psychologically throughout the process, I think it can go a long way to create [that] environment,” she said.

Taking a “step back” would highlight “how pervasive the problem of sexual misconduct is,” Duval-Lantoine said, though only time will tell the “tangible effects” of implementing the declaration.

“As long as it’s not put in place, we don’t know how to measure” its effectiveness, which would put the onus on the forces to log and tweak the document over time. She noted that the spring timeline will also likely coincide with a final report from retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who was tapped by Ottawa in April to lead a review into harassment and misconduct and whose work is expected to take about a year.

Anand’s announcement last week came just hours after reports that Arbour handed down an interim recommendation to move on that transfer to the government in an October 20 letter. Duval-Lantoine said she’s “hopeful” the reforms will be brought in as “expectations” will be high for the feds to get a handle on the crisis in light of Arbour’s final recommendations.