The email from an acquaintance in England the other day was short and to the point: “What the Sam Hill is going on in the Canadian military? Just one senior officer or chief of staff after another under investigation and resigned. Is anyone in control there?”
These are fair questions. What indeed is going on?
The Canadian Armed Forces is losing generals faster that it can make them. By my count, the body count stands at five. Allegations of sexual misconduct are the common denominator in four of the five cases.
First, General Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, is being investigated for violating the military code by having had an intimate relationship with a junior officer, a major, who says he fathered two of her children (denied by Vance), and perhaps also for sending a sexy email to a corporal nine years ago. Two Commons committees are on his case. The defence committee has produced a lot of political finger-pointing; meanwhile, the committee on the status of women has heard some useful testimony.
We have learned that the Harper Conservative government, which made Vance the CDS, and the Trudeau Liberal government, which kept him on, were both aware he might not be a perfect boy scout. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a chat with the general about rumours of misconduct; Vance assured him everything was copesetic, and Harper gave him the top job in 2015.
Trudeau’s defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, received a report in 2018 from the military ombudsman about complaints of inappropriate sexual behaviour involving Vance. For reasons yet to be credibly explained, Sajjan refused to read the report, and the Liberals buried it for three years.
(To digress, someone might like to investigate Vance for practising hypocrisy without a licence. As CDS, he launched with fanfare a campaign called Operation Honour. Its purpose: to stamp out sexual misconduct in the military.)
Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, had barely settled into the top job before he was out, suspended during a sexual misconduct investigation, which – who knows? – may or may not be ongoing. The third to go: Vice-Admiral Hayden Edmundson, the head of military personnel, in another unexplained sexual misconduct investigation.
The latest is Major-General Dany Fortin, who was removed from his job running the Public Health Agency of Canada’s COVID vaccine distribution system, also without explanation. According to news reports Fortin’s departure may have had to do with an allegation (which he denies) that he exposed himself in an incident 32 years ago when he was a cadet at the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. The fact that the military police have now turned the investigation over to Quebec prosecutors suggests there may be more to it than that. But who knows?
The fifth case involves an officer who might have succeeded Vance as CDS – Vice-Admiral Mark Norman who was cashiered three years over an alleged leak of information to the media. His departure has never been satisfactorily explained. It appears as though someone in high (political?) office took unkindly to the release of seemingly routine military-procurement information, the kind of stuff that is leaked by other federal departments any given day.
To recap, excluding the retired Jonathan Vance, four generals have been publicly removed from their positions. They were left in limbo, under a cloud of suspicion, their reputations sullied, their careers damaged, if not destroyed. They could not defend themselves in the court of public opinion because they were bound by military secrecy until such time as the Liberal government, which claims to be committed to transparency, chooses to explain to the country what the Sam Hill is going on.
It didn’t have to be like this. It wouldn’t be like this, if the Liberals had implemented the recommendation made six years ago by a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice, Marie Deschamps, to take the investigation of misconduct complaints right out of the military chain of command. She called for the creation of a new civilian agency, independent of the Canadian Armed Forces. Such an agency would not report to the head of military personnel or the chief of the defence staff, but directly to the minister of defence or – better – to a special parliamentary committee struck for that purpose.
The second question from England was, Is anyone in control there? The short answer: Not so far as anyone can tell.
It’s a question the government is in no hurry to address. Trudeau has tried to punt the whole sex-in-the military controversy past the next election by appointing a second Supreme Court retiree, Louise Arbour, to advise the government how it can implement the Deschamps report that it has been ignoring since 2015.
When sexual misbehaviour became a major public issue back in 1998, the offences that were reported in the media mostly involved physical assaults, including rape, among the lower ranks. Now, the focus is on trouble at the top. A shrug and a cover-up won’t cut it any longer.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired recently from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].