Canadian military commanders are often accused of showing indifference toward complaints from junior members — especially misconduct complaints.
Now, the defence department's ombudsman reports that one military member has waited for more than nine years for a grievance claim to be processed.
In a bluntly-worded letter to the country's top military commander, ombudsman Gregory Lick complained that his office has received two individual grievances that have languished for "over 912 days and 3,285 days respectively."
The complainants and the substance of the grievances were not identified.
The ombudsman's office reports that, as of mid-October, 664 grievances had been sitting in limbo for over a year and a half, awaiting final review by the Department of National Defence prior to the chief of the defence staff signing off.
It's a significant — if little-known — aspect of the sexual misconduct crisis which has shaken the military to its foundation.
The right of military members to grieve decisions played a central role in the Federal Court's recent decision to reject Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin's challenge of his removal as head of the country's vaccine rollout task force. His claims of political interference were turned aside by Justice Anne Marie McDonald on Oct. 12.
Justice McDonald ruled the career soldier had not fully taken advantage of the redress mechanism already in place for members of the Armed Forces. Fortin faces a single charge of sexual assault dating back three decades in a separate criminal case, which returns to court on Jan 5, 2022.
Fortin's lawyers had argued the grievance system was too slow and overwhelmed to properly address his concerns.
Deadlines in name only
Beyond the recent legal challenge, Lick has argued repeatedly that the broken redress system has undermined military members' belief that they can get swift, fair and impartial reviews of their complaints — whether they're administrative or career-related, or linked to allegations of sexual harassment.
Under the current rules, complaints must be acknowledged within 10 days and a decision rendered within 120 days. Those deadlines are rarely met.
"There is an immediate need to address timeliness in the grievance process and the backlog of reviews at the [final authority] level," Lick wrote in an Oct. 12, 2021 letter to chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre. The "final level" refers to the review process that takes place in the chief of the defence staff's office.
A system on the verge of failure
"These significant delays have resulted in matters being unresolved for too long and do little to inspire trust in the process," Lick added.
It's not the first time Lick has raised the matter in public. During a news conference at the end of June to address the growing sexual misconduct crisis, he warned the grievance system was about to "collapse under its own weight."
In his written response to Lick's letter, Eyre conceded the backlog was a major issue.
"Speaking directly to your point, we acknowledge that the current lack of an adjudication time limit at the Final Authority level is unacceptable," Eyre wrote. "Given limited increases in resourcing anticipated for [Canadian Forces Grievance Authority] over the near to mid-term, any time limit will need to be implemented in a reasonable, progressive and phased manner in order to be successful."
A lack of trust
Eyre told Lick that many of the grievance files are "tremendously complex" and the department has made progress on the backlog over the past 18 months.
In his landmark review of the military justice system, retired Supreme Court justice Morris Fish devoted some of his sharpest criticisms to the grievance system, which he called "broken." He said military members are entitled to a system that permits them to freely bring up their complaints and concerns.
"The military grievance system, in particular, has not done that for decades and it does not do so now," Fish wrote in his review, released earlier this year.
In a follow up letter to Eyre dated Nov. 23, 2021, Lick warned that the lack of reform has a direct "impact on the morale of Canadian Armed Forces members.
"This in turn creates a distrust in a system meant to help, not hurt them, and can negatively impact the CAF culture."