Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says there should be a freeze on promotions and salary increases for senior leaders in the Canadian military until an independent investigation can probe the Canadian Forces’ handling of the longstanding problem of sexual misconduct within its ranks.
In a press conference with journalists on Friday, O’Toole said recent twin military police investigations into both the current and former chiefs of defence staff show an independent probe is needed to assess where the military is falling short and how it can change its culture.
“When there is a problem at the top of an organization, it is reasonable to suggest there is a problem throughout,” he said. “This is a pressing issue that cannot wait to be fixed.”
Adm. Art McDonald stepped aside from his role as chief of defence staff late Wednesday night after military police opened an investigation into him on unspecified concerns.
McDonald had only been on the job for a matter of weeks after taking over from Gen. Jonathan Vance, who retired from the top role in January. Global News reported on Feb. 2 that Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates.
He denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
O’Toole, a former cabinet member in the Conservative government that appointed Vance, did not answer questions on whether he had ever heard of any allegations or concerns about Vance prior to the report.
He said the need for an independent probe is about a problem that is “more than one person.”
While McDonald promised an independent investigation into the Vance allegations, the details have not yet been announced.
Sources have told Global News it is shaping up to be “unprecedented” in scope, with growing concerns that only a large human resources firm or an official like a former Supreme Court justice could do the job.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan told Global News on Thursday that he would support a public inquiry into the military’s handling of sexual misconduct in its ranks, which were identified by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps as “endemic” in her landmark 2015 report.
“If that’s the route that the government decides that we need to go, if that’s the route that we have to go to ensure that the military members are not at all feel(ing) somewhat constrained because the chain of command, then that’s what we have to take as a next step,” he said.
O’Toole would not say whether he wants to see something akin to a public inquiry.
He said the fact two of the military’s top leaders are under investigation drives home the need for a probe into whether there is a “cultural problem.”
“We have to act swiftly to save an important institution and its reputation,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced scrutiny over recent weeks over assertions that senior officials and he were unaware of the allegations against Vance until they were reported by Global News.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office knew in 2018 of concerns about Vance that were brought at the time by then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, sources have told Global News.
But while sources say the office flagged those concerns to the Privy Council Office, that office did not take any further action and Sajjan appears not to have used his authority to launch a board of inquiry.
Trudeau said on Friday that the fact McDonald stepped aside shows allegations against top leaders are taken seriously, but that there remains more work to do.
“We have made great strides as a country over the past years, over the past decade. But there is an awful lot more to do.”
Experts say the Canadian military is facing an institutional “crisis” that has been a long time coming.
The report by Deschamps in 2015 offered a scathing portrait of an institution “hostile” to women and LGBTQ members, and where sexual misconduct was “endemic” throughout all levels of the military.
“I believe that it is a crisis that’s being seen by the rest of us,” said Linna Tam-Seto, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.
“I believe based on the Deschamps report, which came out in 2015, it was well known that this type of misconduct was happening within the ranks, running from bottom to top. What we’re seeing now is that this type of behaviour is being shown through the top.”
Vance launched Operation Honour, the military’s effort to root out misconduct, in response to that report in 2015.
But advocates for survivors say the military still lacks meaningful support for those who come forward or try to report claims, particularly involving those in the chain of command.