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Royal Military College head apologizes for cadets' behaviour at harassment seminars

05/21/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/21/2016 05:59 EDT
The general in charge of Royal Military College apologized to an expert on sexual assault prevention for the "unprofessional behaviour" of the school's cadets, including "several incidents that could constitute harassment," after she was invited to address the military's future leaders last fall.

Brig.-Gen. Al Meinzinger sent a formal written apology to the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres in February, five months after its Governor General's Award-winning educator Julie Lalonde complained about being whistled at, cat-called, laughed at and openly disrespected by officer cadets she had been invited to speak to.

Lalonde says cadets at the four Saturday talks she delivered at the military college in Kingston, Ont. were the most hostile audiences she'd had in a career of speaking about sexual assault prevention.

She says following one especially rowdy session, a third-year cadet made a point of giving Lalonde a visual once-over before dismissing her: "I might have listened to you if you weren't a civilian and a woman."

"The things I heard at the Royal Military College of Canada scared me, to think that people had those kinds of attitudes about women, about sexual violence, about their role as bystanders," Lalonde told CBC News.

"It scared me and I think we should all be frightened to hear about how normalized that attitude is at that school."

Students asked to attend Saturday talks

Lalonde also complained about the event organization, which she said seemed haphazard, despite three months of planning. She said there was no microphone provided for her lectures to the college's approximately 1,000 undergraduate students, all of whom had been ordered to forego a weekend day off to attend the session.

"So, before I had even walked through the door they had set up an environment in which there was hostility towards me and I don't feel that RMC refuted that in any way, shape or form."

Lalonde complained to the college and provided a timeline of problematic events. In response, Meinzinger, the college commandant, apologized at a meeting and later in a formal letter.

"I would like to reiterate my apology for the unprofessional behaviour of select officer cadets, and any challenges that resulted from the setup and organization of the presentation," Meinzinger wrote in February.

"In reviewing the timeline, I noted several incidents that could constitute harassment under the CAF/DND Harassment Prevention and Resolution Policy. My staff is working to identify the individuals who were involved in these allegations."

RMC is Canada's only federal university. It's run by the Defence Department and provides a university education and military training to young officer cadets. The cadets receive free education and roughly $18,000 a year in salary, in exchange for a promise of five additional years of service as an officer in the military.

Meinzinger did not respond to a request to be interviewed. The college provided a written statement two weeks after CBC News first sent questions about Lalonde's sessions.

"The goal of the briefing was to provide awareness to the cadets and actively engage them in the topics covered by the [...] campaign, " Capt. Yvette Grygoryev said in a statement.

"While the cadets were not at all times appropriately attentive, this issue was suitably addressed through additional follow-on training. "

Sexual assault complaints

Military law expert Michel Drapeau has handled the cases of as many as 10 RMC cadets who complained of sexual assault by male colleagues.

Drapeau doesn't know Lalonde, but he had heard about her sessions at RMC and was dismayed by the treatment he'd heard she received. He said the reaction to Lalonde's sexual assault prevention message is symptomatic of other problems at the school.

Drapeau once warned the College's board of governors it needed to deal with the problem of cadet-on-cadet sexual assault.

"All of this happening at a centre of excellence," Drapeau said. "If we can't get it right at the military college, which should be the epitome of what's best — the youth and the people who are caring for them, raising them and indoctrinating them as quality first officers — if that doesn't work there, then the chances are it's not any better, probably worse, into the regular forces itself."

RMC says it started working on a new program to prevent sexual assault and harassment in its ranks last year, before former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps had begun her external review of sexual misconduct in the military.

Deschamps' report found the military possessed a sexualized culture in which harassment and assault were under-reported and often over-looked.

RMC says its new program is being well-received by small groups of cadets briefed on the plan. In a note sent to students, Meinzinger said it would be finalized soon.

Nevertheless, this week, two cadets are being court martialed for alleged attacks on their colleagues.

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