Opinion-Policy Nexus

They are playing the good old blame game again on Parliament Hill. This time, the game involves two familiar elements: sexual misconduct in Canadian Armed Forces and a breakdown in the chain of accountability for a reported scandal – this one a high-profile affair involving Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff.

It is based on allegations denied by Vance, that, while CDS, he had an inappropriate personal relationship with a female subordinate, a major, and that some years earlier, in 2012, he had sent a naughty email to a female corporal suggesting she might enjoy vacationing with him at a clothing-optional resort.

In most of the civilian world, a CEO who had a consensual affair with, say, one of his sales managers, would fuel lunchroom gossip – and someone might suggest he be more discreet – but, as long as the relationship did not adversely affect his job or involve the firm’s money, he would not be fired or lose his reserved parking space.

It’s different in the armed forces. Generals and majors (or corporals) are not co-workers in a touchy-feely workplace. The military organization chart is a command structure. Orders are meant to be followed. One is no intimate relationships between officers and subordinates, not even if a relationship is consensual. It is a rule that would be laughed out of court on civvy street.

But this blame game is no laughing matter. The Conservatives are determined to make the Liberals admit they mishandled the Vance file and are trying to cover up their bungling. The object is to nail down the bungler. Who knew what when? Who passed along how much information to whom? And what did whom do with it?

Where did the buck stop? Did it stop anywhere? Or did it get lost along the way, the casualty of an opaque system of accountability that invites evasion and denial.

The blame game is a perennial favourite of opposition parties. The Liberals played it enthusiastically when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were in office. Now the Tories are playing it with the Trudeau Liberals.

To step back for a moment. Every administration since at least 1998 has struggled with sexual misbehavior in the military – problems that include inappropriate suggestions, unwanted touching, public humiliation, sexual exploitation of young recruits by their trainers, coercion (when a more senior serviceman demands sex from a junior over whom he has authority) and even consensual relationships between officers of unequal rank. Then there are the instances of physical abuse and sexual assault, including rape.

In 1998, after an investigative team at Maclean’s produced an eye-opening series of cover stories called “Rape in the Military,” Jean Chrétien’s defence minister, Art Eggleton, ordered the armed forces to appoint an ombudsman. The idea was to have an office independent of the command structure where victims (overwhelmingly female) could have their complaints about misconduct heard and investigated – with all of the proceedings protected by a cloak of secrecy. The Office of the Ombudsman was doomed to fail. The ombudsman was given no power. He could report but he could not make anyone do anything they did not want to do. He had no authority to discipline offenders.

In its waning days, the Harper government grew concerned about renewed complaints of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse in the forces. It appointed retired Supreme Court Canada Justice Marie Deschamps to investigate how the military was handling the complaints. When she

reported in 2015, Justice Deschamps was scathing in her criticism of the “underlying sexualized culture” that persists in the forces. She recommended the establishment of a genuinely independent body, entirely outside the military, to investigate complaints – and with the authority to act on the complaints.

The Harper Conservatives did nothing with the report before they lost office that year and the Trudeau Liberals have sat on it ever since, apparently unwilling to provoke a confrontation with the military leadership over a complaints process the leadership would not control.

The Office of the Ombudsman has never been independent of the command structure. Its reports are sent up the chain until they reach the font of authority – the office of the Chief of Defence Staff. The CDS can release the ombudsman’s report, or supress it. He can discipline an offender, or not. He can make his decisions public, or not.

There is one thing he cannot do: he cannot pass judgment on himself. If the ombudsman is dealing with a complaint involving the CDS, he is required to report directly to the minister of national defence, which is what the ombudsman at the time, Gary Walbourne was trying to do back on March 1, 2018 when he went to see Harjit Sajjan to report allegations of “inappropriate sexual behaviour” involving General Vance.   

Back to the blame game. Sajjin refused to look at Walbourne’s report or discuss it with him on the seemingly dodgy ground that to do so would constitute political interference. He advised Walbourne to refer the matter to the Privy Council Office, which is where it ended up, though not until it had passed though the very political office of Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. Telford told Commons defence committee of Friday that she had told the Prime Minister in 2018 about alleged misconduct but not, it would seem, about the sex stuff.

Meanwhile, the Deschamps report went nowhere. The Harper Conservatives lost interest and the Trudeau Liberals kept spinning their wheels until late last month when they announced that another retired Supreme Court judge, Louise Arbour, would conduct a second inquiry – this one to tell the government how to implement the recommendations of the first inquiry.

Amid this silliness, the legitimate issue of sexual misconduct in the military has become secondary to the blame game. Who should be blamed for bungling the Vance file? The Tories think they can force Sajjan to resign. If not, why not Katie Telford? They introduced a motion demanding that the PM fire her. The other opposition parties drew the line at that, and the Conservatives lost the vote. But the blame game is not over yet.

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].


Monday, May 10, 2021 - 11:21