Columnists

Matthew Behrens
Colliding worlds in an Ottawa courtroom highlight Canada's gender-based violence

| June 20, 2014
Photo: 4 Cdn Div/4 Div CA - JTFC/FOIC/flickr

Trigger alert -- references to cruel acts of male violence are contained herein.

An Ottawa courtroom recently witnessed the rare intersection of numerous taproots of violence undergirding Canadian society. In 2010, 22-year-old Ashley White was brutally beaten by her then-boyfriend Patrick Halcro, aged 36, an Afghan war veteran with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) whose assault landed her in hospital for facial reconstruction surgery, concussive syndrome and PTSD. In the chaos she experienced that night, White, her face bloodied beyond recognition and fearing for her life, grabbed a knife and stabbed Halcro in the chest, causing a minor wound to his lung. By night's end, White was in detention, where she would spend the next five days, her injuries untreated, charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. Halcro, despite admitting his assault against White -- in which he said her head "bounced" off a doorframe after the first of his many closed-fist punches -- mysteriously walked away with no charges being laid.

Though the attempted murder charge was dismissed, White was found guilty of aggravated assault, and the Crown vigorously sought a one-year prison term for a young woman who sought to defend herself against what Judge L. Ratushny described as conduct that "can only be characterized as criminal in nature and also vicious and appalling….violent and reprehensible."

In sentencing her, Ratushny refused to accept the Crown's request for a one-year jail sentence, making note of White's outstanding pre-sentencing report and a number of other mitigating circumstances, "including your response to a situation that made you think you were going to die. I agree that you are not a bad person. You are a young person who found herself in the most horrifying of circumstances and you committed a serious crime. I have concluded that you are a good young person who made a very serious mistake."

A prison of PTSD and physical pain

Though she will spend no time in jail, and Ratushny rightly acknowledged the outrageous act of violence committed against her, White nonetheless continues to be punished for defending herself, facing two years of supervised probation, a six-figure legal debt that will delay her post-secondary education for years as she works full-time to pay it off, a curfew, a DNA order, the stain of a criminal record, and the Halcro-imposed prison of PTSD, post-concussion syndrome, and other injuries which have caused her to suffer nightmares, migraines, severe anxiety attacks, neck pain from damaged nerves, runaway heart palpitations, difficulties seeing, and loss of balance.

As I witnessed the court proceedings, including the "victim impact statement" in which Halcro never apologized for what he did to White, and seemed to blame her (and not his war trauma) for the sad state of his own life, I had to wonder where the cycle of violence in this case began. Needless to say, Ashley White lives in a Canadian society where violence against women is so epidemic (and still vastly underreported) that 500-plus full-to-capacity women's shelters are often forced to turn women away when they seek asylum from the persecution and torture faced in their own homes. And while the plight of returning soldiers who cannot get treatment for PTSD and veteran suicides are a national scandal that the War Dept. continues to sweep under the rug (a report last week revealed that an internal memo on how to clear the backlog of suicide investigations was ignored), where are the headlines about the need to provide PTSD treatment for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced women and children who annually escape from the war zones in their Canadian homes? Needless to say, where is any sense of responsibility for Canadians' contribution to making Afghanistan a nation that suffers PTSD by the millions?  

Halcro is a product of that sexist society as well; he also no doubt picked up on the hypermasculinity of life in the Canadian Armed Forces, a body that is riddled with sexism and violence against women. Halcro's own defence of his assault on White is couched in military terms like "proportional force" and, as White testified, he told her during the attack: "'I'm trained to kill and will kill you' or words to that effect…I thought I was going to die."

Meanwhile, the military continues to treat sexual assault with kid gloves. The former commander of Wainwright training base, David Yurczyszyn, was convicted in April of sexual assault in a case that heard of "porn and chicken nights" where soldiers unwound by munching on KFC and watching porn, with Yurczyszyn in one video overheard saying "get her while she's drunk." He was sentenced by a military judge to a mere demotion in rank.

Notably, not everyone in the military is so inclined; indeed, a number of military members were among Ashley White's strongest supporters.

Myths of glory, honour

In confronting the sickening myths of glory and honour that this year's celebrations of the two world wars are meant to inspire, it is helpful to remember that soldiers are, in the words of former warlord Rick Hillier, trained to kill; they are indoctrinated and deadened to the consequences of their actions, and then hung out to dry when their fragile humanity is confronted with and unable to deal with the horrors of war. Indeed, the vulnerability of PTSD and the growing numbers of soldier suicides fly in the face of the military's recruiting tropes of glory, heroism and manliness. Mr. Halcro, who must consume a daily cocktail of prescription drugs and can go nowhere without his PTSD therapy dog, will not be featured in upcoming War Dept. recruitment videos. He has been discarded by an institution that no longer finds him useful.

During the trial and sentencing of Ashley White, there was someone missing in the court. A general, perhaps, or the military historians who glorify war, the high school guidance counsellors who facilitate military co-ops to (illegally) train child soldiers, or the recruiters who never tell what war is really like -- someone who would take responsibility for a product of their training, who could have helped shed some light on whether Halcro developed before the military the profound disrespect for women that would lead him to pummel someone 14 years his junior. Or were Halcro's actions in smashing in Ashley White's face consistent with the militarized petrie dish in which he spent a number of years before being discarded as "medically unfit"?

Two weeks before White was sentenced, L'Actualite magazine published an exhaustive report based on eight months of research revealing that at least five women in the Canadian Forces are assaulted each and every day by their male colleagues (there are also cases of men assaulting other men). The report speaks of women experiencing "suffocating, primal terror" at the hands of fellow soldiers, whether while on training, on deployment overseas, or during dinners in mess halls. Other women speak of dismissive superior officers who, for example, believe the women have not resisted the advances of male colleagues "forcefully enough," and individuals alleged to have committed assaults never being questioned. "Women who filed complaints suffered mockery, were ostracized, and worse," says the report, reprinted in Maclean's.

Retired Colonel Michel Drapeau says, "Military justice is meant to operate like hockey penalties: players are sent to the bench to cool down so they can get back in the game and play. The idea is to rehabilitate guys so they can go back to their unit and fight. Does that really make sense for someone who has raped his fellow combatant?"

Military lawlessness

The report notes that as part of a 15-week training course for Canadian Forces leadership, "sexual misconduct" is covered in a short ten minutes, while there "isn't a single word that could help recruits learn how to detect signs of sexual violence -- nothing about the resources available for rape victims, or about how to file a complaint. In three hours, the words 'sexual assault' are uttered exactly two times."

All this comes 16 years after an earlier, 1998 Maclean's report on "the unofficial culture of rape in the Canadian military." Journalist Jane O'Hara, writing now in 2014, recalls in Maclean's that "this is going to sound crazy, but in most cases, the rape was not remotely the worst part of what happened to them. The real torture, the real evil, came after these women reported the crimes to the military command. That's when the gods of war really started raining down their particular form of vengeance. And that is when these unsuspecting women, most from poor families, all trying just to get ahead in the world, found their lives ruined, their psyches destroyed, their careers gone. There were so many of them." O'Hara concludes by saying that the military, which has had 15 years to address the issue, "will react to this latest story with another comforting set of bromides. I react to it with the same sadness and disgust I felt 16 years ago when I first discovered the darkness and lawlessness at the heart of the Canadian military."

Sure enough, two weeks after she wrote this, Canada's top warlord, General Tom Lawson, appeared before a Parliamentary committee not only with the comforting bromides about improvements in what he laughingly called a "nurturing" workplace, but also repeated some of the language that contributes to the worst rape myths. And while he said he took such stories seriously, it surely has not been reflected in the case of Petawawa Corporal Derrick Gallagher, who police believe drugged, raped and videotaped as many as 16 women. Despite this horrific list of crimes, the War Dept. is preventing police from finding out about more potential victims by refusing to publicly release all the locations to which Gallagher had been posted.

The May 27 committee hearing featured a Lawson performance that would have won him an award for disingenuousness. Despite the horrors reported in Maclean's, the committee hearing began with the odd phrasing, "We're here to discuss sexual assault in the military, and it's our pleasure to welcome the Chief of Defence Staff," followed by an understandable note of condolence over the recent death of a soldier in training. This was not matched by similar words of condolence for the 1,800-plus female soldiers who are sexually assaulted every year in the Canadian Armed Forces, nor for those brave women who stepped forward to publicly discuss their cases in the magazine stories.

Watering down sexual assault

Indeed, the military may be a brotherhood in which soldiers are supposed to have each other's backs, but not when they have been sexually assaulted. This was clearly illustrated by Lawson's pathetic performance in Parliament, where he had trouble uttering the words assault and rape, preferring the more benign-sounding "sexual misconduct." Lawson spent much time trying to shore up the War Dept.'s reputation: he consistently referred to a report stating that sexual harassment had decreased over the past 15 years, but failed to understand that the same report undermined his position. As Lawson himself noted, the same report also stated that women "may be less likely to report harassment for fear of career repercussions or due to a belief that their complaints may not be taken seriously."

Women in the military are wholly justified in knowing that very fact: indeed, anyone listening to Lawson could quickly figure out that he himself would not treat the issue seriously. His careful dissimulation is represented by cautious statements such as his declaration that there "may be a gap between our official policies and procedures, and the reality on the ground," rather than stating it outright, as Colonel Drapeau did when he told Maclean's, "Is the military equipped to investigate, police and prosecute sexual assault? We have the answer. No. They had 16 years to fix it, and they haven't."

Similarly, Lawson humiliates women who have been assaulted by reducing their trauma to a feeling or perception, using phrases like "individuals who felt they had suffered from sexual harassment" and, in response to a question about procedures for "a person who has been sexually assaulted," replying with watered down language to reassure that there are numerous ways "that someone who feels that they've suffered a sexual misconduct" can respond. Sexual assault becomes misconduct, a minor malfeasance like one sees on a soccer pitch. Assault, rape and harassment are reduced to feelings, not facts, part of a classic myth that questions the veracity of women and underscores the roots of male violence. It's also a key part of military culture, in which soldiers are always considered right, and the "enemy," whether an 80-year-old Afghan elder or the first woman to enter a previously all-male unit, is not to be trusted. Lawson later gloats about a toll-free number for "anyone who believes they've suffered sexual misconduct." Rape is not a belief but a crime: would Lawson say that a soldier who has had his wallet swiped "believes" he is the victim of a robbery?

Most members of the Parliamentary committee were united in a rare display of anger at the state of rape in the Canadian military. NDP war critic Jack Harris pointed out that another manner in which the military tends to hide or underplay sexual assault is the new format of judge advocate general ­reports (which have yet to be publicly released for 2012, 2013, and 2014). They lump in sexual assaults, which used to be dealt with separately, under the general heading of "Conduct Prejudicial to Good Order and Discipline."

Supplying regimes oppressive to women

Instead of treating sexual assault in the military as the crisis that it is, Lawson appeared in a hurry to get off to another meeting. It would seem a leader truly interested in these concerns would have told the committee he was at their disposal for as long as necessary. Perhaps he had more important military matters on his mind like meeting up with his counterparts from regimes that are particularly oppressive towards women at the massive CANSEC arms bazaar, which opened that day across town at the Ottawa airport. There, some 11,000 visitors mingled amongst 330 weapons firms that sold their wares to military delegations from some of the most brutal armies on the planet, including Bahrain, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S., and the U.K.

The Canadian military is not the only institution in our society built on and sustained by the culture of sexist violence; the hundreds of brave female Mounties who have filed a lawsuit regarding their own experience of similar assault in the RCMP are another example. And then there is society at large: whether in the peace movement or a college frat house or in the executive offices of the Royal Bank of Canada, sexual assault continues to be an epidemic that is largely ignored. Given the sheer numbers, one would think it deserves a special section on CBC broadcasts the way business and sports receive such blanket, daily coverage. Until it does, and until there is a true national strategy to end male violence, women in this country will continue to be targeted in what psycho-historian Robert Jay Lifton names "atrocity-producing" situations, while women like Ashley White will face lifetime sentences of anxiety, fear, depression and PTSD.

Individuals wishing to help pay off Ashley White's massive debt can make a contribution: mail a cheque to Toronto Action for Social Change (put Ashley White in the memo portion of the cheque) and mail it to PO Box 2020, 57 Foster Street, Perth, ON K7H 1R0. There is no overhead: every last cent will go to Ashley.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: 4 Cdn Div/4 Div CA - JTFC/FOIC/flickr

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