Senior officer 'berated' after relaying complaint in an unclear reporting system

·5 min read

OTTAWA — The senior officer who relayed a misconduct complaint against Canada's top commander testified Friday that the military's reporting process is "discouraging and disappointing," and on one occasion resulted in his being scolded for doing his duty.

Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter's testimony at the House of Commons defence committee detailing the fallout from reporting two cases of alleged misconduct gives renewed urgency to concerns about how the Canadian Armed Forces handles complaints.

Trotter was called to testify following a Global News report that he received two anonymous threats after bringing forward an allegation of misconduct by Admiral Art McDonald last month.

McDonald has temporarily stepped aside as defence chief, after six weeks on the job, while military police investigate the allegation, which hasn't been detailed publicly.

Trotter said Friday the threats were levelled March 4, but he declined to go into details as the matter is under investigation by the military, he said.

The opposition Conservatives have accused the Liberal government of being behind the alleged threats, a charge the defence minister's office has strongly rejected.

Trotter described pinballing back and forth on Feb. 4 between the military's sexual-misconduct response centre and what he understood to be the defence minister's office — though he may been speaking with Defence Department bureaucrats — finding there was no appropriate authority to relay his concerns to.

Each referred him to the other to lodge the complaint, he said, with apparent confusion over whether the response centre was a place to report misconduct or a broader victim-support resource.

“They had relayed to me that they were going to bring the allegation to the minister," Trotter said, regarding conversations with defence staff.

On Feb. 5, the day after he started placing calls, Trotter sat down for an interview with members of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, which he had initially sought to avoid since it falls within the chain of command and ultimately reports to the chief of the defence staff, opening the hatch to a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, McDonald stepped aside 20 days later.

"At this point I felt like I had been running in circles all day, and I said I was willing to talk about it," Trotter said in committee.

He added that he's had worse experiences related to another sexual-harassment complaint, involving a comment made during a video conference. "In fact I was berated in a very demeaning manner for following through on my reporting. I believe I was treated this way because the complaint was also about another senior officer," he said.

"In this environment, I can certainly understand why so many victims of sexual misconduct would be reluctant to come forward."

Earlier Friday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged that "trust has been broken" in the Canadian military following accusations of misconduct against top-ranking leaders.

The Canadian Armed Forces will create an independent complaint process for misconduct allegations, where "all options are on the table" as to its structure, he told a virtual gathering hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

The defence committee also heard from Sajjan on Friday afternoon over his handling of an allegation of sexual misconduct against then-defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance brought to his attention three years ago.

Sajjan told the committee the majority of his meeting with Walbourne on March 1, 2018 was about an investigation into a whistleblower's complaint about the ombudsman's office. Walbourne has insisted the complaint had no merit, and alleged to the committee last week that it was used as an excuse to put pressure on him and his team.

Sajjan told the committee that drawing an elected official into a probe would be "wrong and dangerous, politicizing any investigation that threatens a just outcome for those who come forward."

Sajjan also said senior officials followed up on the allegation. "Actionable information was asked for. Information was not shared," he said.

His testimony echoed Trudeau's insistence that the government was right to refer matter to the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic operation that supports the Prime Minister's Office. Trudeau said it was unable to do anything more because Walbourne refused to provide information about the allegation.

Trudeau also says the government did not know the specifics of the allegation until a Global report last month.

The report alleges Vance engaged in an ongoing relationship with a subordinate that started more than a decade ago and continued after he became chief of the defence staff in 2015. Global has also reported that Vance allegedly sent a lewd email to a much more junior soldier in 2012.

Vance has declined to respond to repeated requests by The Canadian Press for comment, and the allegations have not been independently verified. However, Global has reported that Vance has denied any wrongdoing.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said last week a Tory government would establish an independent body to handle complaints outside of the chain of command, among other measures. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said the military ombudsman should report directly to Parliament.

On Friday, Trotter described an incident he said took place during a video conference involving more than 100 Royal Canadian Navy members, where a senior officer made a comment about a female service member's bedroom, visible in the background.

"He referred to it as her 'red room,' which many on the call took to be a reference to the movie ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,'" Trotter told the defence committee, adding that others joined in with inappropriate sexual remarks. "There were many women on this call."

Trotter, who was not on the call, said he reported the complaint after his colleague relayed her experience. At least one other woman on the call reported a second complaint, he said.

He said the investigation was assigned to a subordinate of the senior officer who made the alleged "red room" comment.

Trotter said that when he raised concerns about the conflict of interest, a civil servant who is a former navy captain downplayed the incident.

"It seemed to me that this was prejudging and predetermining an outcome," Trotter said.

A civil servant who is a former navy captain later upbraided him, saying he had "ruined the respondent's career over nothing," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press