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Forces ombudsman calls on MPs to make his office independent of National Defence

Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman Gregory Lick speaks during a news conference after releasing a report in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman Gregory Lick speaks during a news conference after releasing a report in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada's military watchdog used what could be one of his last appearances before a House of Commons committee on Monday to renew a push to make his office fully independent from the Department of National Defence (DND).

Gregory Lick, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, has long argued that his office should report to Parliament and not the department.

"Without legislation, my organization is subject to oversight and investigation by the same department it is mandated to oversee," Lick told the Commons defence committee, which is examining a lack of transparency within DND. "The conflict here is obvious."

It makes no sense that Canada doesn't have legislated independent military oversight like the other members of the Five Eyes alliance, Lick added.

He also told MPs that DND routinely takes months to respond to his office's reports, when it responds at all.

He said he still has not received a response to a report from five months ago highlighting the mental-health concerns of military reservists deployed to natural disasters.

Almost three years ago, at the height of the military sexual misconduct scandal, Lick delivered a blistering critique of how the senior leadership of the department deals with his office. He accused them of turning a blind eye to his recommendations and concerns "in order to advance political interests and their own self-preservation or career advancement."

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. Over half of the 2,000 complaints investigated annually by the Canadian Forces ombudsman have an 'end of career' context, he says.
Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. Over half of the 2,000 complaints investigated annually by the Canadian Forces ombudsman have an 'end of career' context, he says.

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne appears before the Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

On Monday, he reminded the committee of what he described as "problematic investigations" of the ombudsman's office during the tenure of his predecessor, Gary Walbourne.

DND ordered an independent review of the watchdog — an investigation that resulted in a Federal Court ruling which said staff members at the office of the ombudsman, who had been accused of wrongdoing, were treated unfairly and effectively railroaded.

Walbourne, who resigned from the ombudsman's post early, told CBC News in an exclusive interview following the conclusion of the court case in 2019 that he had been targeted by a political vendetta after warning former defence minister Harjit Sajjan about allegations of sexual misconduct involving the former chief of the defence staff, retired general Jonathan Vance.

To this day, Lick said Monday, DND remains silent about the flawed investigation into his staff.

"No one has yet been held accountable," he said. "There is nothing to prevent this from happening again."

Lick's tenure as ombudsman is drawing to a close. He'll be finished on July 3 but the federal government has yet to indicate who will replace him.