Military to decide whether members on trial are allowed to wear uniforms in civilian courts | TUSEN News

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The Canadian military is revising its dress code for civil lawsuits in response to online outrage over a highly decorated military commander’s recent decision to wear his uniform and medals during his assault trial.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the former head of Canada’s vaccine task force, has been charged with sexual assault in connection with an alleged incident in 1988. He has pleaded not guilty. He defended himself earlier this week in a Quebec civil courthouse, dressed in his uniform, with 10 medals on his chest.

Fortin and his lawyer have said they will not comment on cases during the trial. A Fortin spokesperson, who declined to be named due to concerns about online reprisals, said Fortin is presumed innocent and that it is appropriate that he, as an officer on duty, wear his uniform in court.

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The Department of National Defense (DND) said military members may wear their uniforms during civilian criminal trials – but it is a “personal choice for which individuals are responsible”.

DND also said that as more cases of military sexual misconduct may end up in civilian courts, the military will now “examine its policy regarding the participation of CAF members in civil court proceedings, including the subject of military clothing, to assess whether changes need to be made.”

The civilian justice system is prosecuting a range of crimes involving military members, including murder, manslaughter and assault.

VIEW | Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin denies sexual assault allegations on day 2 of trial:

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin denies allegations of sexual assault on day 2 of trial

On the second day of the assault trial for Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the former head of the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign, testified that he is not guilty and denied having any physical or sexual contact with the woman who made detailed accusations against him.

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Several military sexual trauma advocates have said that wearing the full uniform in court during a sexual assault trial is a power play that intimidates complainants and inflicts victims.

Retired Major Donna Riguidel said she wants the military to ban its members from wearing their uniforms in court during the trial — or at least advise against it.

“At best, it’s tone deaf,” said Riguidel, the director of Survivor Perspectives Consulting Group. “At worst, it’s harassment and bullying…and it will have a silent effect on survivors.”

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Riguidel has been hired by the military to conduct training sessions to improve military personnel’s response to revelations of sexual misconduct.

She said the uniform is a powerful symbol of the institution and that wearing it can make a complainant feel like he stands in front of the entire Canadian Armed Forces.

“It’s unacceptable in an organization that is trying to become more trauma-informed and try to focus on changing the culture to make things like this happen at his rank, at this leadership level,” Riguidel said.

Retired Major Donna Riguidel’s group has trained more than 2,000 military personnel of all ranks across Canada to better respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. (Christian Patry/TUSEN News)

The military is trying to recover from a sexual misconduct crisis that has rocked the defense institution and damaged morale. Since 2021, several senior military leaders have been removed from power over allegations of sexual misconduct.

The military passed a government directive last year to temporarily transfer all cases of sexual assault to civilian police for investigation and civilian courts to prosecute. In a damning report released in May, former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbor advised troops to relinquish all control over sexual assault cases.

“Over the past year, the Defense Team has committed to using integrated, transparent and trauma-informed approaches as part of its culture growth initiatives,” DND spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier wrote in a statement to TUSEN News.

DND said military members who appear at military courts-martial or summary proceedings are expected to wear their “service dress number three” (tunic and ribbons) unless a judge says otherwise.

The Military Medal Policy states that medals “may be worn by authorized personnel as appropriate”. But in a civilian trial, it’s up to the military to decide whether to wear the uniform, DND said.

Fortin’s spokesman said his uniform and decorations are an expression of his 37 years of service in Canada and he is disappointed that some find it inappropriate to wear the uniform during a trial.

The military sexual trauma group It’s Just Not 20K said some survivors told the organization they were triggered by seeing Fortin in his uniform in court. (The group has had travel expenses covered by the Navy for past consulting work.)

Some survivors of military sexual misconduct say they can no longer wear or look at the uniform because they feel the institution betrayed them by not believing them when they reported their allegations.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki wore civilian clothes in August as he publicly apologized to the families of the victims of mass shootings in Nova Scotia. The RCMP said the Mass Casualty Commissioners asked Lucki not to wear her uniform “because a uniform may trigger some individuals attending the proceedings”. The shooter was wearing a police uniform in that case.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki testified in civilian clothes in August for the Mass Casualty Commission investigation into the 2020 rural Nova Scotia massacre. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa attorney Lawrence Greenspon said other professionals — such as police officers, doctors, paramedics — testify in their uniforms in court all the time, and military members should be allowed to do the same.

“I don’t think the military should start encouraging dress codes for people accused of sexual assault,” Greenspon said. “I don’t think it has any impact on the judges handling the cases… the problems in front of the judge are that person’s credibility, not the medals on the chest of their uniform.”

Greenspon said the pendulum has swung against anyone “accused merely of sexual assault”, whether the alleged attack happened recently or decades ago, and that the “presumption of innocence goes out the window when the person’s name is published”.

“A person accused of sexual assault today is in many ways treated much worse than someone who would be charged with a much more serious crime, say murder,” he said.

Megan MacKenzie is the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University. She said she believes that once a military member is charged, that member should lose the right to wear the uniform in court.

The military uniform is unlike any other uniform in that it is a very powerful symbol of “status” in a hierarchical setting, she said. The military’s own policies make it clear that the uniform is a symbol of military ethos, public confidence and Canadian pride, she added.

The public would find it strange to see a judge charged with a criminal offense wear their robes to court because of the status it symbolizes, she said.

“Everyone is meant to be equal before the law,” MacKenzie said. “The moment someone comes in in a military uniform, and especially a uniform with medals symbolizing accolades and dedication, I really think it raises that person’s status in a way that can influence the process. I think that’s is not appropriate.”

Retired Captain Annalize Schamuhn said Fortin’s decision to wear his uniform “came across to me as overtly manipulative and recalls the days when senior military officers wrote letters on military and regimental stationery to convince the court of the sex offender convicted of attacking me.”

“I would have found it incredibly disturbing to testify in court if my attacker had been allowed to participate in a fully clothed uniform,” said Schamuhn, who has done some paid consultancy work for the Navy.

Following TUSEN’s coverage of Schamuhn’s case, military banned its members from using Canadian Forces stationery to write character references for members accused of crimes.

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