The West Block — Episode 23, Season 10

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Watch the full episode of The West Block on Sunday, February 28, 2021 – Feb 28, 2021


Episode 23, Season 10

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces

Linna Tam-Seto, Queen’s University

Retired Lieutenant-General Guy Thibault

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: The Canadian Armed Forces in crisis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The following of all the steps in this to make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard and people understand how seriously we take all these concerns.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the military. Shock, anger and demands for change.

Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: “No one should be subjected to sexual harassment when they show up to serve their country.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The flood gates have opened, and Major Kellie Brennan is back.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: “I never thought there would be so many women needing a voice.”

Mercedes Stephenson: After more than two years in Chinese prison, will President Biden’s words result in action for the two Michaels.

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: “I hope that our government will seize this moment.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, February 28th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Over the last three weeks, the Canadian military has been shaken by allegations of sexual misconduct by those trusted to lead the troops at the highest levels. Powerful men responsible for the country’s national security and defence, tasked with setting the example of rooting out sexual misconduct in the forces.

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Now, the country is in the unprecedented scenario of the last two chiefs of the defence staff under police investigation, and there are questions about how widespread the problem is. So how did we get here?

On February 2nd, Global News broke the story that General Jonathan Vance was facing allegations of sexual misconduct with two subordinate women, just weeks after leaving the post of chief of the defence staff.

Within 24 hours, the military announced an investigation into Vance and the ground breaking interview: Major Kellie Brennan came forward to tell her story to Global News.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: “If he rang me on the phone, or if he texted me, I was obliged to get back to him.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The allegations of abusive command authority, complicity at the highest levels of the military, and hypocrisy, triggered more police investigations and questions about bad behaviour from the brass.

By late Wednesday night, the new chief of the defence staff Admiral Art McDonald in the job for just six weeks, stepped aside because of an investigation into himself for alleged sexual misconduct.

The country has had three chiefs of the defence staff in six weeks. Military sources call it a reckoning, as they prepare for an unprecedented investigation into who knew what, when. Who was doing it and how many have covered for them. Is this finally the moment for change?

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We sat down again with Major Kellie Brennan, who gave the interview last week that started a national conversation about sexual misconduct in the military.

It’s been a week since we sat down, since that landmark interview and a lot has changed. We have had a chief of the defence staff who’s had to step aside under police investigation. There are more police investigations open after the allegations that you raised in your interview. I can’t imagine what this week has been like for you. What has happened since we last talked?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I’ve received so many people talking to me, calling me, emails—people bringing their stories to me and reaching out for help.

Mercedes Stephenson: Were you surprised by the volume of what you got?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I was astounded. I never thought this would happen. I never thought there would be so many women needing a voice.

Mercedes Stephenson: How did it feel to read those emails and to get those calls?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: It was gut wrenching. So many of them told me that they had called out, that they had made reports and it fell on deaf ears. Nothing happened.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you get the sense that now, now after all of this that this is going to be critical mass? That this is going to be the moment when it’s not just words but it’s action.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: It needs to be. Women need to come together and stand together and create that change. We need to be the ones that actually do something to change within ourselves and within where we work.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know that you have a message you wanted to share with other women out there, other members of the forces who’ve been victims of misconduct. What is it that you want to say to them today, Kellie?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: It’s just that I—I couldn’t be more touched by all of the emails, all the stories, all of the people opened up to me and told me things they—they had a hard time voicing. And I think that we need to bring that positive change now. I think that collectively, I’ve heard that they’ve reported it, that they’ve given binders of information to the police, that they’ve written letters to the ombudsman, that they’ve cried out and other women, too, that their voices are still yelling in silence. So I believe that we need to come together. We need to, to look at a plan of how we can change this. And for that to happen, I’m—I’m calling on all women to hold my hand. I’m not any stronger than anybody else. And I think that holding our hands together and collectively if each woman can come up with one solution, one change that they want and send it to me; I’m going to make a list of them all. And that list will be our road map to the change that we need to make. We’re that force that’s going to roar and will be heard.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have gotten so many emails from mostly women in the Canadian Forces saying Major Kellie Brennan has made a steal. She has so much courage and so much strength, and I, too, am a victim and I’m wondering if I should find my voice, if I should speak out? How did you feel after you took that exceptional step of doing a national television interview?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Free. [Pause] It’s the only one word. Free.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Kellie, some people are wondering whether the military can solve this internally. Do you think that’s possible?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I don’t. I don’t think it—I don’t think that the military can solve this problem. It’s not a military problem, it’s a personnel problem. In that, I mean that it—this exists in society. This exists in other businesses, but it’s just more pronounced in the military.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know there is a police investigation into this. It’s the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, a specialized branch of the military police. I’ve spoken to some police officers who think they’re not the ones who should be investigating this, that an institution shouldn’t investigate itself. Do you think the NIS is capable of carrying out this investigation?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I don’t think that they have enough resources and personnel qualified at the level for this type of investigation.

Mercedes Stephenson: And you used to be a police officer.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: So you know something about this.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I do.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know they sent three male investigators to your home. You didn’t have a victim support officer at first until you called them.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Well they gave me a pamphlet and they opened it to the right page and told me to call.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is this part of the systemic problem in the forces when, when victims report?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: It’s because it’s you’re made to feel very lonely in this. But anybody who has already been in these worlds, when I see the way people are approaching it in this situation, I have all the hopes in the world that they do their job. But I can already see that they’re not poised for success.

Mercedes Stephenson: And you’re worried about the outcome of this investigation.

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I don’t think there’ll be an outcome of the investigation.

Mercedes Stephenson: What does that mean?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: It means that to reach the level of proof that you need, you have to have investigated all of the allegations. If you’re only two deep—meaning two people—that it’s impossible to have followed up on all the leads, or questioned all of the people involved.

Mercedes Stephenson: Kellie, is there anything else that you want to say to Canadians that I haven’t asked you?

Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Support our military. We’re going through a lot and I want all Canadians to believe in us.

Mercedes Stephenson: And thank you for sitting down with us again, Kellie. We appreciate it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a closer look at sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.

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Mercedes Stephenson: The government continues to dodge questions on who knew what about the allegations of misconduct against the last two chiefs of the defence staff.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office told Global News the minister only became aware of the allegations and investigation into Admiral Art McDonald a number of weeks after the change of command but gave no specifics.

On Friday, I asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau where the political accountability is from his government.

My inbox is full of emails from women who have experienced sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces under your government’s watch, and today you’re telling us that everyone has the safe—the right to a safe workplace, that you’re committed to that. But you extended the term of a chief of defence staff who is accused of sexual misconduct and under police investigation. You personally appointed another chief of defence staff who had to step down six weeks later due to this. And the only answers we’re getting in terms of accountability, is that an email was sent to the Privy Council Office and that you’re committed. What do you say to these women who are wondering whether you’re actually serious about this and what steps you’re going to take? Because they’re feeling like they’re losing trust in the chain of command, that this is systemic at the highest levels of the military and that your government is not taking action.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: I think what we’ve seen with the current chief of defence staff choosing to step aside because of these allegations, demonstrates that the military and the government takes extremely seriously any allegations of the sort. We have done that. I have personally done that as leader from the very beginning, and we will continue to ensure that everyone who works in government or in the military or anywhere across the country, is heard when they come forward with challenges or allegations or concerns.

We have a lot of work to do in our systems, in our workplaces across the country to continue to move forward on making sure that they are safe and free from intimidation, harassment and sexual assault. 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. And I think if we can highlight, as we have, that no one is out of reach of concerns and allegations like this that they will always be taken seriously. And I want to say to anyone who has survived incidents or issues of sexual assault that we will be there to listen, to hear them, to work with them and to move forward through processes that will get to the right answers.

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Mercedes Stephenson: The allegations have rocked the defence establishment. I spoke with former second in command to the Canadian Forces, retired Vice Chief of the Defence Staff Lieutenant-General Guy Thibault, who was Vance’s boss when some of the misconduct was allegedly carried out.

Retired Lieutenant-General Guy Thibault: It came as a huge shock to hear the news about General Vance when it came out and very disappointing.

Mercedes Stephenson: We asked General Thibault to explain why in the military in particular, relationships in the chain of command are against the rules.

Retired Lieutenant-General Guy Thibault: Two members of the Canadian Forces can be in a personal relationship if in fact it’s declared. But this issue of the chain of command is really quite important because in our system of military organization, our ranks that we have that allow us to organize and to be organized and to follow lawful orders is really essential for the conduct of our operations and to carry out the important missions that the Canadian Forces have. And in the way we’re structured, our commanding officers have the responsibility to [00:04:03 unintelligible] but they also are really involved in all aspects of their careers, their career development, the opportunities that they have for advancement and promotion for training. And in that sense, we never want to put an individual in the position where the relationship that they have will either be seen to be influencing that career or conversely, to be holding it against that person in a negative way.

Mercedes Stephenson: And what does it all mean for the troops, those who put on a uniform and agree to risk their lives for their country?

I spoke with research fellow Dr. Linna Tam-Seto at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University. She studies the health and wellbeing of Canada’s military members and veterans.

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What kind of health effects does it have on the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces when this kind of behaviour is being perpetrated within their organization and in some cases, by their commanding officers and from very powerful generals and admirals?

Linna Tam-Seto, Queen’s University: It’s—it has significant health impacts, and not just for the members themselves who are survivors of sexual misconduct, but it affects everyone around them and has long lasting effects on themselves and their families. The work that I’ve done with regards to health and wellbeing has recently been focused on a lot of the issues that veterans experience as they transition out. And for many of them that I’ve had the honour of speaking to, they have been subjected to sexual misconduct. And this is something that they carry with them. You know for members that are, you know, actively, you know, serving, this is, you know, this impacts the way they, you know, function, you know, operationally their ability to do their job. But also, it affects their relationships outside with their family, their friends, and how they sort of view the Armed Forces as an organization, you know, whether or not they can trust an organization. And trust is such a key piece of being a member of the Canadian Armed Forces because of what their—what people are expected to do. So, you know, it has significant impact on their health and wellbeing, you know, as serving members that has, you know, really long lasting impacts as well.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sources tell me the probe that will sweep through defence will be different this time: deeper and broader. And that more investigations may be opened in coming days, as more members of the military speak out.

Up next, President Biden calls out China for the detention of the two Michaels. But will his words make a difference? My interview with Vina Nadjibulla.

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Mercedes Stephenson: U.S. President Joe Biden gave one of the strongest statements yet from an American president calling for the release of the two Canadians arbitrarily detained in China.

It’s now been more than 800 days since Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were put behind bars in Chinese prisons, following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Joining me now is Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife, to share more of Michael’s story.

Vina, thank you so much for taking time for us today, we hope that you’re well. I know this is always a difficult topic to speak to, and we really appreciate you joining us and sharing your thoughts.

There was some significant development on the story last week in terms of President Biden actually coming out and talking about the two Michaels. And I want to read for our viewers just what he said. “Let me reiterate our support for the release of those detained in China of the two Canadians: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Human beings are not bargaining chips. We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.”

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What did you think of the president’s comments? Do you think this will make any kind of a difference?

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: Thank you, Mercedes. Hearing President Biden say those words was really emotional. Having him refer to Michael and to Michael Spavor by name, to call for their release was moving. I really felt that. His words that “human beings are not bargaining chips” are powerful and what I took away from that, is that President Biden has compassion for the unjust suffering that our Michael and Michael Spavor are going through, as well as that he understands that Canada has been paying a really high price since it accepted the extradition request from the U.S., two years ago. That was moving. And then finally, his public commitment that the U.S. will work with Canada to secure their release and to make sure that they’re safely home was really significant. And now I hope that our government will seize this moment and will work very closely and urgently with the Biden team to translate those important words into action, so that Michaels are in fact, free.

Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask you about how Michael is doing. What have you heard about the consular visits? And how is his health? How is his state of mind?

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: So the last consular visit was in the middle of January. We haven’t had one yet in February. And at that visit, Michael appeared healthy. He is staying mentally strong. He is continuing to be incredibly disciplined about his regime around meditation and exercise and reading. And what was really striking in one his recent letters, is he noted that there are moments where we don’t have control over much, but no matter how difficult our circumstances, we have control over where we focus our attention and kind of where our awareness goes. And what strikes me is, I mean, his situation is so incredibly unspeakably difficult and he continues to stay focused on what he can control: his thoughts, his attitude, reciting prayers, reading and really, really trying to stay as mentally healthy as possible.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s just remarkable the resilience that he has, and you too. I know that it must be incredibly difficult to read those letters and to share them with us. So thank you, for being willing to do that.

When you saw Meng Wanzhou’s family come to Canada, and we found out that they were able to come here and visit her. And to my knowledge, you have not been able to go and visit Michael. Michael Spavor’s family has not been able to go and visit him. What did you think of that?

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Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: You’re right. Our only contact with Michael for the last two years has been through consular visits and letters. Of course, I want more access to Michael, but my focus is on bringing him home, on making sure that he’s freed. It’s not about me going to China to visit him there. I want him to come back to Canada. I want him to come home and our focus is on securing his freedom and in the meantime, improving his conditions as much as possible.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know we’d heard reports from The Wall Street Journal that there was a possibility the U.S. Department of Justice was looking at a plea bargain that would allow Meng Wanzhou to go home, and some speculated that may or may not trigger the release of the Michaels. Have you heard any updates on that, Vina?

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: No, not on that. But I took heart from President Biden’s meeting with our government, as well as with the meetings that have happened later this week between Secretary Blinken and Minister Garneau. I believe that those conversations and the commitment of the U.S. to work with Canada to secure their release, is significant. I believe the U.S. has a number of tools at its disposal. It can explore a variety of options to bring an end to the extradition request through whatever means settlement deals. And also to work with China to make sure that there is a broad consensus and understanding that this situation is serving no one, that human beings are suffering unjustly, that their detention is not only unjust, but it is unnecessary, and that it can and must be brought to an end. So that is the focus now, it’s translating that public commitment and the statement of solidarity from President Biden and from Secretary Blinken into action. It is time and we finally, I believe, can end this and bring Michaels, home.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, thank you for joining us. Our hearts are with you and with Michael. We’re thinking of you. Thank you for your time.

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: Thank you so much for having me, and for continuing to highlight Michael’s and Michael Spavor’s plight. Thanks, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time we have for today. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and I’ll see you back here next Sunday.

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