‘Afraid’ and ‘horrified’: Complainant testifies in Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin’s sexual assault trial

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WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

A complainant at the centre of a high-profile criminal case testified in a Gatineau, Que. court Monday that she was “horrified” more than three decades ago to wake up to Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin sexually assaulting her.

The military commander pleaded not guilty to the alleged incident said to have taken place sometime between Jan.1 and April 30, 1988 when they were both students at Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Quebec. Today is the first time the details of the allegations have been made public.

Fortin was well-known during the pandemic for his role as the head of Canada’s vaccine rollout. He was removed from the job in 2021 amid a military police investigation that later led to the sexual assault charge. 

He’s one of a series of current and former senior Canadian military leaders during the military’s sexual misconduct crisis who have been investigated, criminally charged or forced into retirement since 2021 from some of the most prestigious posts in the defence establishment.

The complainant said she woke up sometime after midnight to Fortin leaning over her bed in the barracks and holding her hand “around his penis” and using it to masturbate.

“I’m taken aback,” said the woman about how she felt in the moment of that alleged sexual assault. “I’m afraid. I’m scared.”

“I freeze for a second. I don’t move except for the motion of what he’s doing and I just hold my breath and I slightly open one eye.”

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin is seen in a court sketch from day one of his sexual assault trial in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 19, 2022. (Lauren Foster-MacLeod/CBC)The woman said she recognized Fortin immediately because he was her acquaintance. He was wearing casual clothing and had his pants down, she said.

The woman testified that she tried to pull her hand away to signal she was awake. She hoped Fortin would “panic and leave,” she said. But Fortin “ignored” her at first and didn’t stop right away, the woman said. 

“He just grabs my hand tighter and holds it there,” she said. “He keeps doing what he’s doing.”

The complainant said Fortin’s other hand was groping her chest “hard.”

“At that point is where I’m pushing him and saying ‘get off me, get away’ … I’m at such shock with what’s going on, my focus was getting him away from me.”

WATCH | Military commander charged with sexual assault says he’s living a ‘nightmare’:

Dany Fortin charged with sexual assault, says he’s living through a ‘nightmare’

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin speaks to media outside a police station in Gatineau, Que., regarding a sexual assault charge he faces. He has denied any wrongdoing.

‘Demeaning me’

The court has imposed a publication ban on reporting any details that might identify the complainant.

The complainant testified that while trying to get Fortin to leave her room, she whispered her roommate’s name repeatedly. In that same tone, the woman said she told Fortin to “stop, to get off me, leave.” But said she didn’t yell over concerns someone else would walk in, the woman testified. 

“I’m horrified,” she said. “I don’t want anyone running in and finding me in that position. Somebody doing that to me, demeaning me.”

The woman said she was aware of the college’s reputation at that time and said there were ramifications for other women who reported sexual misconduct allegations.

The woman said she didn’t know how long Fortin was in her room, but that he left within about five minutes or so of her waking up.

The complainant said she was 18 or 19 at the time of the alleged sexual assault and had finished preparatory year and was in what’s called her “first year.” Fortin was a year ahead at the college, the woman said. 

Crown prosecutor Diane Legault asked the woman how sure she is that it was Fortin who allegedly sexually assaulted her 34 years ago. 

“100 per cent without a doubt,” said the woman. 

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin regularly sat alongside Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and federal ministers on Parliament Hill to provide updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Fortin’s wife, daughter, attend trial

Fortin attended the court proceeding in his military uniform, wearing his medals. He sat beside his lawyers behind plexiglass, only a few feet away from the complainant during her testimony. Fortin took notes throughout the testimony as his wife and daughter sat in the front row of the courtroom. 

The complainant said at that time at Royal Military College Saint-Jean (RMC) there were about 500 male students at the time and about 50 women. She said the females in her year had to sleep with their door unlocked.

The woman testified that after Fortin left her room she was shaking. She “pulled herself together” to get dressed and see her boyfriend who was a year older at RMC to tell him what happened, she said. 

The woman later said during cross examination that her roommate denied hearing anything in the room.

Quebec Judge Richard Meredith is trying the case without a jury at Fortin’s request. When asked if Fortin maintains his plea of “not guilty,” Fortin’s lawyer Isabel Schurman responded in French: “Absolutely.”

‘I chose to trust in our system’

The woman said she came forward with the allegation decades later in 2021 because she was “ashamed,” “embarrassed,” and “naive” when she was a student. The woman said the military had been saying complainants should come forward and report allegations and that a system was in place they should trust.

“I chose to trust in our system,” she said. “After 34 years I was not about to be ashamed and embarrassed for something that was not my fault.”

Schurman questioned the complainant about discrepancies in statements during police interviews including initially saying the alleged incident happened in 1989, rather than 1988.

The defence cross-examined the woman’s recollection of the incident, pointing out that she didn’t remember what she did before she went to bed, know if her roommate was in the room at the time of the alleged incident, or know if the alleged incident took place before or after midnight.

The complainant testified Monday that Fortin didn’t speak during the alleged incident. Schurman referenced an interview the woman did with an investigator last year where the woman said she recognized Fortin’s voice during the alleged incident.

Fortin has served in the Canadian Armed Forces for more than 36 years and has argued his reputation has been “irreparably tarnished” by the government’s handling of his case. Fortin launched a legal battle in Federal Court in 2021 to demand a job in keeping with his rank and experience, arguing politicians improperly meddled in his case. 

WATCH | Fortin steps aside amid military investigation:

Canada’s vaccine commander steps aside amid military investigation

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada, has left his post and is now the subject of a military investigation, according to a statement from the Department of National Defence. The CBC’s Murray Brewster gives the latest.

The Federal Court ruled last year that the military grievance process was the appropriate avenue to address Fortin’s claim and said that he had not fully taken advantage of that mechanism.

Fortin’s lawyers have since appealed that decision and the case is set to be heard on Oct. 5. 

Fortin was assigned temporarily to a position as senior adviser to the commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command in Ottawa. Fortin’s lawyers have argued he’s sitting at home and is not being assigned any work. 

The two-day trial is scheduled to return in court Tuesday when Fortin is expected to testify.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911. 

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