OTTAWA — The military's top general has promised to get to the bottom of what happened on a recent Team Canada tour, but says he has never heard of widespread problems with the morale-boosting trips.
The Team Canada program has been under a cloud since military police charged former NHL player Tiger Williams earlier this month with sexually assaulting an Air Force steward while participating in a tour to Latvia in December.
Since then, various media reports have painted a picture of heavy drinking and partying during such trips, which involve the military flying athletes and celebrities overseas to meet with Canadian troops deployed abroad.
Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance announced on Friday that he is banning alcohol from all future Team Canada tours and suspending the program temporarily until military officials can determine what, if anything, needs to be fixed before resuming the trips.
"If we've gone off the rails a little bit there, we'll put it back on the rails," Vance said on the sidelines of a defence conference organized by the Canadian Defence Associations Institute, where he confirmed that a planned trip in March had been cancelled.
"It's all about those many Canadians who volunteered, and sometimes repeatedly, to go raise the morale of the troops, which I'm grateful for and I don't want to stop. So we'll get it going as quickly as we can, but we'll do it right."
But the chief of defence staff also insisted media reports portraying the tours in a poor light aren't accurate, and that his own experience — and those of others — had found them to be well-run and good for the military.
"At this juncture, all I've got is my own experience and those who have been on Team Canadas before who would not characterize it as you did," Vance told reporters, adding that he has never seen "widespread heavy drinking" on such a tour.
The Toronto Star reported last weekend that several passengers on the December tour to Latvia arrived in Ottawa already drunk before embarking on the Team Canada visit, and that two were so inebriated that they urinated in their seats.
The paper also reported that the steward who Williams was alleged to have assaulted on the first leg of the tour was forced to return to Canada on a commercial flight, but that the former hockey player was allowed to continue on the tour.
Vance did not delve into specifics Friday, saying he had yet to review an internal report from the Air Force on the trip, but did defend the way military commanders responded once the allegation against Williams was brought to their attention.
And rather than setting back his efforts in recent years to shed the military's reputation as an institution that is hostile to women, Vance suggested the affair had proven that the Armed Forces is serious about dealing with misconduct.
"When it became known by an authority in command, the aircraft commander, that that had happened, the ball rolled very quickly," he said.
"It went from there to investigation to arrest in five weeks. Lightning fast.... The decision to separate and ensure that the victim was cared for was job number 1. And the RCAF did the best they could under the circumstances."
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press