Quebec judge Richard Meredith has acquitted Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin — the senior military commander who once led Canada's vaccine rollout — of one count of sexual assault stemming from an allegation dating back more than 30 years.
On Monday, Meredith said he was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Fortin was the culprit in this case.
"I am so relieved by the judge's decision today," Fortin told reporters outside the courtroom. "I did not do what I was accused of. Did not."
The complainant said she was "100 per cent without a doubt" that it was Fortin who sexually assaulted her in 1988 while they both attended the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. Her identity is protected under a court-ordered publication ban.
The judge said he believes the complainant was sexually assaulted but wasn't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the assailant was Fortin.
Meredith said the court can't expect a complainant to remember everything but there were significant contradictions in her testimony.
WATCH | 'I did not do what I was accused of:' Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin:
For example, the complainant told military police investigators that Fortin spoke during the alleged incident and she recognized his voice. While testifying during the trial, however, the complainant said he didn't speak.
The complainant also said she recognized Fortin during the assault because they were together daily. The court concluded they were not together every day.
Judge says Fortin's testimony was consistent
The judge said the evidence showed that, at the time, about 90 per cent of students at the Royal Military College were men.
He said the complainant described an assailant who had the same build, hair colour and haircut as many people and offered no specific identifiable features.
The complainant also testified that light from the parking lot was shining into her room during the assault. Fortin had maps of the parking lot and campus that showed the lights were not as close as the complainant remembered, and suggested the lighting could have been fainter and not ideal for recognizing someone, the judge said.
Meredith said that while he believes the complainant was assaulted and her testimony was sincere, she had to show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Fortin.
The judge said Fortin claimed he had never set foot in the complainant's room. His testimony was clear and consistent, he added.
Fortin was seen hugging family members and others in the courtroom after the judge delivered his ruling. He held his wife's hand during the ruling. It took the judge about an hour to deliver his decision.
"This is a huge burden off our shoulders, my shoulders, and that of my family," he said outside the courtroom.
Crown lawyer Diane Legault called the ruling disappointing.
"I think the judge decided to permit the accused benefit from being put into doubt," she told reporters.
Legault said she wants to read the 20-page decision before deciding whether to appeal.
Fortin fighting for his old position back
Fortin is also challenging in Federal Court his removal by the federal government from the vaccine campaign. His appeal date has not been set yet.
After being dropped from the vaccine campaign, Fortin was temporarily assigned to a position as senior adviser to Commander Canadian Joint Operations Command at headquarters in Ottawa. But Fortin's lawyers argued in Federal Court that he is sitting at home and is not being assigned any work, which they say constitutes relief of performance of military duty.
On Monday, he told reporters he's consulting with his lawyers about next steps.
"This is one important step in an ongoing process to prove my innocence and recover my reputation," said Fortin.
"From the start, senior military leaders and political decision makers presumed and acted as if I were guilty. I was denied due process."
Fortin said he has no plans to retire from the military.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, didn't say if Fortin's role would change as a result of the judge's decision.
"We acknowledge the outcome of the criminal court proceeding and we will consider the implications of the judge's finding as it applies to our responsibilities and accountabilities going forward," Le Bouthillier said in an email.
The Canadian military has been rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against its senior leaders. Fortin was one of multiple current and former senior Canadian military leaders who have been investigated, criminally charged or forced into retirement since 2021 from some of the most prestigious posts in the defence establishment.
"I can see that the complainant genuinely believes she was assaulted," Fortin said Monday, reading from a statement.
"Victims of assault need and deserve our support. The fact, though, is that I was nowhere close to her room the night in question or at any other time."