Military reeling as new defence chief steps aside amid allegations of misconduct

·4 min read
Military reeling as new defence chief steps aside amid allegations of misconduct

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces is reeling after news defence chief Admiral Art McDonald is being investigated for misconduct, only weeks after military police launched an investigation into allegations against his predecessor.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan revealed late Wednesday that McDonald had "voluntarily stepped aside" while military police investigate unspecified allegations. He is on paid leave.

McDonald took over as the chief of the defence staff last month from Gen. Jonathan Vance, who is now being investigated after allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

Vance has denied any wrongdoing and McDonald has not commented.

Canadian Army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre has been appointed acting chief of the defence staff.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan called Thursday for the government to reveal the nature of the allegations against McDonald, who used his first address as defence chief on Jan. 14 to apologize to victims of military sexual misconduct and hate.

“In the interest of morale, and for our women and men in uniform to have confidence in the senior leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces, Minister Sajjan must confirm why chief of defence staff Admiral Art McDonald is under investigation,” Bezan said in a statement.

There is clearly something wrong with the Liberal government's vetting process, said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. "There seems to be a pattern of behaviour with the government’s appointed positions."

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the message from the government must be that the military "can be no less than exemplary.”

“I believe that the people that go into the army, that decide that this is their choice for a career, are good people, and must not be judged as a whole. I believe that there are a few people in the institutions that are not up to the task of being exemplary.”

In a memo to members of the Forces on Wednesday, McDonald made no mention of allegations against him, but said the "time for patience is over" and the military must "accelerate our culture change."

"Our institution can no longer put the burden of change and transformation on those affected by harassment, discrimination, or any form of misconduct. That burden must rest on us. All of us," he wrote.

"I as the Chief, along with all the leaders in CAF, need to work every day to earn your trust. And we are all committed to doing so."

"If you are considering speaking to anyone with information on (the Vance) case, or any other case of alleged misconduct, you have my support to come forward, to speak up, and to tell the truth. And you can expect to be heard, supported, and protected as you do."

The investigation of McDonald has renewed calls for external oversight of the military, which self-polices allegations of sexual misconduct in the ranks.

Lawyer and retired colonel Michel Drapeau said the government needs to appoint a permanent and independent inspector general similar to those in other militaries.

That person would have the investigative powers to look into allegations of wrongdoing within the Canadian Armed Forces.

“If, during his investigation, he came across any evidence of a criminal nature, he would be duty bound to stop his investigations and turn the matter to the criminal police,” Drapeau said in an email.

Barring that, Drapeau said, Sajjan should immediately convene a board of inquiry — perhaps headed by a military judge — to investigate the allegations against McDonald, with police only involved if the allegations are of a criminal nature.

Should police become involved, Drapeau added, it should be the RCMP, not the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, the investigative arm of the military police.

“I do not have confidence in terms of training, experience and independence,” Drapeau said of the service, known as the NIS.

“Additionally, (the military police) and NIS report to the vice-chief of the defence staff, which makes any claim of ‘independence’ illusory.”

In addition to criminal offences, Canadian military personnel can also be charged with what are known as service offences, which usually relate to conduct such as drunkenness or having a relationship with a subordinate.

Former naval reservist Marie-Claude Gagnon, who founded a group for survivors of military sexual misconduct called It's Just 700, has been raising concerns for years about gaps in the system.

She said the time for external oversight of the Armed Forces is now.

"External oversight, it's essential," Gagnon said. "Self-policing itself has never worked. … It's not a recipe for success. I'm hoping that there's no doubt that there needs to be oversight."

In the House of Commons Thursday, Conservative MP Leona Alleslev said a thorough, independent investigation of the allegations against McDonald is critical, but senior officers who may themselves be complicit remain in key positions within the chain of command.

"How will the minister ensure that compromised senior officers are not interfering in these investigations to protect themselves?" she asked during question period.

Sajjan replied that all allegations would be investigated thoroughly, independent from the chain of command. "And regardless of position, and regardless of rank, we will take the appropriate action because we owe it to our members."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.

—With files from Christopher Reynolds and Jim Bronskill

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press