A senior naval officer alerted the defence minister’s office to an allegation of sexual misconduct against Adm. Art McDonald in February but was redirected and told to report the concern elsewhere, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
And sources tell Global News the officer has received anonymous telephone threats warning that his career is now in jeopardy since he took action.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter says Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter, a 21-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy, was approached by a female subordinate on Feb. 3 after exclusive reporting by Global News the previous day.
That reporting detailed two allegations of inappropriate behaviour against former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and sparked a military police investigation as well as an as-yet unfulfilled promise by McDonald for an independent review.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
The House of Commons defence committee is now probing the allegations against Vance, as well as the broader crisis of allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
The source who spoke with Global News said the complainant shared details with Trotter of sexual misconduct alleged to have occurred while McDonald was a navy captain.
Global News reached out to McDonald asking whether he is aware of any threats against Trotter, whether he would condemn any attempts to threaten or intimidate those involved in his case, and for him to verify the timing of the alleged incident at the heart of the complaint.
“As there is an ongoing investigation, and on the advice of legal counsel, I am not making any statement at this time,” McDonald told Global News in an email.
McDonald took command of the Canadian military on Jan. 14.
The source said Trotter quickly became concerned about whether the allegation would be duly investigated within the military justice system, and called Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office after first reaching out to the military’s Sexual Misconduct Response Centre. He was told the centre’s mandate wasn’t to field reports of misconduct but rather to provide support to survivors.
However, the source says the phone call to Sajjan’s office yielded conflicting information. According to a separate source, Trotter spoke with a switchboard operator and was referred back to the Sexual Misconduct Reporting Centre and to military police.
At the time, there were questions being raised publicly about whether military police were equipped to investigate a former chief of the defence staff — let alone a sitting one.
On Feb. 4, the source says Trotter spoke with a senior civil servant tasked with supporting the defence minister’s office.
Trotter and the senior civil servant spoke multiple times that night, the source said, adding the civil servant told Trotter she would bring the allegation to the minister.
But the source said Trotter was ultimately redirected and told to bring the allegation to the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, which he did on Feb. 5.
A spokesperson for Sajjan says at no point did the source speak with political staff and would not comment on whether the minister was briefed on the allegation.
“Any allegations that are brought forward are always immediately forwarded to the proper authorities. When the switchboard received a complaint of misconduct, it was immediately relayed to an official in the Department of National Defence,” said Todd Lane in an email.
“At no time did any staff in the office of the Minister speak with the caller. The Department of National Defence followed all appropriate procedures and sent the complaint to the proper authorities for investigation.
“As there is an ongoing investigation, we will not be commenting any further.”
Lane also would not comment on whether political staff were aware of the call or on who made the decision to have a member of the bureaucracy follow up rather than ministerial staff.
Global News received a statement from the Department of National Defence on the matter as well.
“During the afternoon of 4 February, a third party complainant called a central Department of National Defence number to report allegations regarding a past incident involving Admiral McDonald,” the statement reads.
“Shortly thereafter, the department ensured contact between the complainant and the CFNIS, who then launched an investigation. The subject of the complaint – in this case Admiral McDonald – was not informed of the complaint or of the policing efforts. This is done to protect the integrity of investigations.”
The statement continued: “Admiral McDonald was subsequently informed of the investigation on 24 February, when case-specific information was disclosed. Given this investigation is ongoing, we will not be commenting further at this time.”
Sajjan announced McDonald was stepping aside from his role on Feb. 24, citing a military police investigation into unspecified allegations.
Following that announcement, a spokesperson for Sajjan said on Feb. 26 that the minister had not been aware of any allegations about McDonald prior to naming him as chief of the defence staff, and only became aware of an allegation “a number of weeks” after the change of command on Jan. 14.
Just over one week later, two sources say Trotter began receiving anonymous, threatening phone calls.
It started with a call on March 4, according to one of the sources with direct knowledge.
Someone with a blocked number called Trotter’s phone and when he answered, the source says the caller identified themselves only as a “senior Canadian Forces officer.”
The person, whose voice the source said Trotter did not recognize, told Trotter that he did not have to cooperate with the defence committee probing allegations of misconduct in the military and that if he did, his career in the military would be over.
The source told Global News Trotter is one of the witnesses Conservative MPs intend to try to call to the defence committee during an emergency meeting on Monday, where they plan to push to expand the scope of their study and hear from more witnesses.
The next call that day was from another blocked number but this time, the person identified themselves as a “senior member of the Canadian government,” the source said.
This person told Trotter the information he would be providing to the defence committee would be detrimental to his future in the Canadian Forces, according to the source.
The source says Trotter also received blowback when he reported a second, separate incident of alleged sexual misconduct that took place just days after the allegations against Vance aired.
The complaint involved senior naval officers who allegedly said during a Zoom meeting that a female member in attendance, whose background had a wall with red paint, wanted to show off her “red room.”
“Red room” is the reference given by a character in the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey to the red room where he engages in BDSM sexual activities with partners.
The comment is alleged to have quickly led other senior naval officers on the call to make comments about BDSM and sexual activities.
After Trotter reported the alleged behaviour through the Operation Honour Tracking and Analysis System, the source says senior officials and senior officers in his chain of command minimized the incident and used an “abrasive” tone with Trotter.
After filing the report, the source says Trotter was locked out of the file in the military’s tracking system, with the file number changed and the matter handed off to superiors.
Defence committee to hear push for more witnesses
The House of Commons defence committee agreed unanimously last month to launch a probe into the allegations against both Vance and McDonald.
In the three weeks since, it has heard from witnesses including both Sajjan and ex-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, who told the committee last week that he brought an allegation of misconduct against Vance to Sajjan during a March 2018 meeting.
The minister, Walbourne said, refused to look at the evidence offered by the then-ombudsman.
In the wake of that testimony, Conservative members of the committee requested an emergency meeting citing the “troubling” testimony by Walbourne.
Sajjan said in a statement last week he disagrees with Walbourne’s testimony.
“I disagree with parts of the testimony that occurred in Committee today. As I have stated, I was as shocked as everyone else at the allegations that were made public last month,” said Sajjan in an emailed statement last week.
“I can assure the Committee, and all Canadians, that any allegations that were brought forward were very quickly put forward to the proper authorities, while respecting the need to protect the privacy of any individuals involved. Any suggestion that I have done otherwise is wrong.”
He offered no evidence to disprove any of the allegations made in committee.
Conservatives want Sajjan back at committee to answer questions sparked by Walbourne’s testimony. They also want to discuss expanding both the scope of the study and the list of witnesses.
However, the Conservative members will need support from both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP in order to expand the probe if the Liberal MPs oppose doing so.
Liberal MPs on the committee repeatedly tried to shift the focus of questioning last week, arguing Sajjan handled things appropriately and that it was Walbourne who could have opened an investigation on his own into the 2018 complaint against Vance.
Documents obtained by Global News on Friday show even in 2018, senior officials in the Privy Council Office were advising that was not within Walbourne’s authority as ombudsman.
They also show that someone whose name was redacted in the documents obtained by Global News was emailing the Privy Council Office the day after Walbourne says he raised the complaint with Sajjan about the need to “put some things in writing,” which was followed several hours later by a letter insisting Sajjan knew no details of the complaint.
“Complaints of sexual misconduct are not typically matters that the Ombudsperson would investigate,” reads a briefing note prepared by the Privy Council Office ahead of a March 16, 2018, meeting with Walbourne.
In it, the officials advise that complaints could proceed instead through the Canadian Forces’ harassment policy, the military grievance process, or to military police.
“The directive suggests this would prevent the Ombudsperson from investigating,” the memo added. “Typically, the Ombudsperson would investigate a complaint to the effect that one of those processes failed a complainant.”
Sajjan has said repeatedly he was “surprised” to learn of allegations against Vance through the Global News report on Feb. 2, and that any complaints brought to his office have always been properly handled.
Sajjan, however, had the authority under Section 45 of the National Defence Act to launch a board of inquiry into any matter brought to his attention concerning the military.
There is no indication he ever tried to do so.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doubled down in defending Sajjan and the government’s handling of the matter last week, even as a new report emerged that Sajjan’s then-chief of staff shared the complaint with a senior advisor to Trudeau in 2018.
“It is the responsibility of elected officials upon learning of allegations to ensure they are followed up on by responsible, independent investigators. That’s exactly what we did in this situation,” Trudeau said when pressed on the matter on Friday.
“The minister directed the appropriate independent officials to follow up on those allegations. The ombudsperson did not provide sufficient information to the officials in place to be able to follow up.”
Walbourne has stressed repeatedly that he did not have the complainant’s permission to share the information that was being requested by officials in the Privy Council Office.