The naval officer who relayed a misconduct complaint against Canada’s top commander testified Friday that the military’s reporting process is confusing, “discouraging and disappointing.”
“I wish there had been more guidance for me. There are many policies, but I am unsure if Operation Honour has been widely accepted within the Canadian Armed Forces yet,” Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter told the House of Commons defence committee, referring to a formal mission to root out sexual misconduct in the ranks.
Trotter was called to testify following a Global News report that he received two anonymous threats after bringing forward an allegation of misconduct by Admiral Art McDonald last month.
McDonald has temporarily stepped aside as defence chief, after six weeks on the job, while military police investigate the allegation, which hasn’t been detailed publicly.
Trotter said Friday the threats were levelled March 4, but he declined to go into details as he said he understands the matter to be under investigation by the military.
The opposition Conservatives have accused the Liberal government of being behind the alleged threats, a charge the defence minister’s office has strongly rejected.
Trotter described pinballing back and forth between the military’s sexual-misconduct response centre and what he understood to be the defence minister’s office — though he may been speaking with Defence Department bureaucrats.
Each referred him to the other to lodge the complaint, with apparent confusion over whether the response centre was a place to report misconduct or a broader victim-support resource.
“They had relayed to me that they were going to bring the allegation to the minister,” Trotter said, regarding conversations with defence staff.
On Feb. 5, the day after he started placing calls, Trotter sat down for an interview with members of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, which he had initially sought to avoid since it falls within the chain of command and ultimately reports to the chief of the defence staff, opening the hatch to a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, McDonald stepped aside 20 days later.
“At this point I felt like I had been running in circles all day, and I said I was willing to talk about it,” Trotter said in committee.
He added that he’s had worse experiences related to another sexual-harassment complaint, involving a comment made during a video conference. “In fact I was berated in a very demeaning manner for following through on my reporting. I believe I was treated this way because the complaint was also about another senior officer,” he said.
“In this environment, I can certainly understand why so many victims of sexual misconduct would be reluctant to come forward.”
Earlier Friday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged that “trust has been broken” in the Canadian military following accusations of misconduct against top-ranking leaders.
The Canadian Armed Forces will create an independent complaint process for misconduct allegations, where “all options are on the table” as to its structure, he told a virtual gathering hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
“We will do everything possible to rebuild the confidence that we have lost for those who have experienced misconduct,” Sajjan said, pledging to eliminate sexual misconduct from the Armed Forces.
The defence committee is also hearing from Sajjan over his handling of an allegation of sexual misconduct against then-defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance in March 2018.
Sajjan previously refused to confirm that military ombudsman Gary Walbourne raised the allegation with him at that time, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since confirmed it.
Trudeau has insisted, however, that the government did everything by the book by referring the matter to the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic operation that supports the Prime Minister’s Office and the cabinet. Trudeau said it was unable to do anything more because Walbourne refused to provide information about the allegation.
The prime minister also says the government did not know the specifics of the allegation until a Global report last month.
The report alleges Vance engaged in an ongoing relationship with a subordinate that started more than a decade ago and continued after he became chief of the defence staff in 2015.
Global has also reported that Vance allegedly sent a lewd email to a much more junior soldier in 2012.
Vance has declined to respond to repeated requests by The Canadian Press for comment, and the allegations have not been independently verified. However, Global has reported that Vance has denied any wrongdoing.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said last week a Tory government would establish an independent body to handle complaints outside of the chain of command, among other measures. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said the military ombudsman should report directly to Parliament.
On Friday, Trotter described an incident he said took place during a video conference where a senior officer made a comment about a female service member’s bedroom, visible in the background.
“He referred to it as her ‘red room,’ which many on the call took to be a reference to the movie `Fifty Shades of Grey.’ Several other members in that Zoom call followed up to echo this comparison and make inappropriate sexual remarks. There were many women on this call,” Trotter told the defence committee.
Trotter, who was not present on the video call, said he reported the complaint after his colleague relayed her experience. At least one other woman on the call reported a second complaint, he said.
He entered the complaint into a database, and he said the investigation was assigned to a subordinate of the senior officer who made the alleged “red room” comment.
He said that when he raised concerns about the conflict of interest, a senior officer downplayed the incident and suggested the responding officer did not know what he was talking about when he made the comment.
“It seemed to me that this was prejudging and predetermining an outcome,” Trotter said.