I joined the military right out of high school. At the time, I thought of workplace sexual harassment and assault as limited to more “formal” office jobs. But at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), we all lived together and went to school together; it didn’t feel like a traditional work setting because we were so closely knit. I didn’t recognize that the inappropriate jokes were sexual harassment. I would laugh along to fit in and not bring any attention to myself.
Looking back, I realize it was a predatory environment, where older male cadets would prey upon younger cadets and get them drunk. There would be unwanted touching. I never drank after first year because it was too risky. I needed to protect myself even from rumours, which are a form of sexual harassment. My reputation was on the line even if I didn’t do anything. Having a long-term boyfriend and never drinking helped me avoid being the victim of rumours as well as assaults.
A lot of the men wouldn’t take no for an answer. They would take flirting or friendliness as an invitation or promise for sex, and could become aggressive. Women were in the minority and were objectified. However, I never thought of reporting anything that was happening because I didn’t know it was sexual harassment. It was just the way things were. Even if I had known it was illegal, I still don’t know if I would have reported, because I wouldn’t want to be at the centre of an investigation that would likely amount to nothing.
A year after I graduated from RMC, I was extremely depressed and I didn’t know why. I just thought I was predisposed to depression or I was burned out by work. But looking back, I realize it was the toxic environment making me feel that way. No matter how well I performed or what people said about how promising I was, anything could happen and my career could be affected at the drop of a hat. The sense of arbitrariness was so dislocating. I would just try even harder at work in response to any sexual harassment I saw or experienced. I thought I deserved bad things to happen to me and that I needed to compensate for how horrible a person I was.
Going public with my story has been very healing on a number of levels. Feeling heard is such an important part of healing. I received so many positive messages, some even saying thank you. I haven’t seen any negative pushback so far, which I know isn’t the case for everyone. I feel lucky that my specific case had already gotten a verdict before it went public and there was no “he said, she said” situation. I feel fortunate because most cases don’t even get go to trial.
A small part of justice happens through the legal system. For me, the most restorative aspect of justice came from reconnecting with the military community and being able to protect others. It would have made a big difference to me if I had understood the legal definitions of sexual assault and harassment, and to know there would be consequences. I want others to know they deserve to be treated better than I was.