By Steve Scherer and Moira Warburton
OTTAWA/TORONTO, July 19 (Reuters) - The Canadian government has made a C$900 million cash offer to settle lawsuits by victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender-based discrimination in Canada's military.
In the settlement announced on Thursday, the government budgeted C$800 million ($611.3 million) in compensation for members of the armed forces, and C$100 million for Department of National Defence workers.
Although the settlement must be formally approved by a federal court, the victims' lawyers have agreed to it. A court hearing is scheduled for September.
Seven former members of the military, some of whom described incidents that happened as far back as 1978, had filed class action lawsuits but claims can be filed by all current and former members, according to the government.
"To all those who have had the courage to come forward as part of these class actions – and to those who will come forward – we offer our sincere regret that you experienced sexual misconduct in our workplace," Deputy Defense Minister Jody Thomas and the military's top commander, General Jonathan Vance, said in a statement.
"We hope that the settlement will help bring closure, healing, and acknowledgement to the victims and survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination," the statement said, adding that the goal was "lasting, positive change."
Most current and former members of the Canadian military will be eligible to receive between C$5,000 and C$55,000 in compensation, but those who experienced exceptional harm or have been previously denied benefits for exceptional harm may be eligible for as much as C$155,000, according to the settlement.
As late as 2017, the government attempted to defend itself from lawsuits over allegations of sexual harassment. But after widespread condemnations, they began settlement proceedings in early 2018.
Vance began Operation Honour, a military program to address sexual offenses, in 2015 after an external investigation said the Canadian Armed Forces had an underlying sexualized culture hostile to women and gays.
"We have moved forward on changing approaches, on responding to past wrongs, and working with survivors of sexual assault and abuse to try and make sure that we end this process, that we change our mindsets in the workplace," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters while in Victoria, British Columbia, on Thursday. "But we also recognize the damage and trauma that has been done."
The settlement also outlines a "Restorative Engagement" process, a mechanism for armed forces members to "share their experiences of sexual misconduct" with senior military leadership, supported by trained facilitators.
The process will "provide opportunities for those harmed and those who take responsibility for the harm to communicate about the causes, circumstances, and impact of that harm and address their related needs," the settlement said.
Marie-Claude Gagnon, who experienced abuse as a naval reservist, called the settlement a milestone and said "acknowledging the past wrong" was important.
But she also said cultural change in the military has been slow.
Statistics Canada found that in 2018, the most recently available data, rates of sexual assault in the military were unchanged from previous years.
"There are ... a lot of promises that are being unraveled right now with Operation Honour," Gagnon said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "The deeper changes that are really needed haven't happened yet, but it is in the making."
($1 = 1.3087 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Steve Scherer and Moira Warburton; Editing by Bill Trott and Grant McCool)
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