Canada’s opposition leader, Erin O’Toole, says the military and the Liberal government have failed women who serve by not adequately responding to sexual misconduct allegations within its highest ranks.
Speaking to The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Sunday, O’Toole — a veteran and former minister of veterans’ affairs — said the Canadian Armed Forces is experiencing a “crisis of confidence” amid twin probes into allegations against former chiefs of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and Adm. Art McDonald.
But while he did not call for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s resignation over the growing crisis, he did say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to “hold some accountability.”
“I’m holding the prime minister to account for the minister’s actions,” he said.
“The prime minister has to tell Canadians, tell women, whether it’s acceptable to sit on a complaint from a woman who is serving her country. I think she was failed as well by the Liberal government.”
Sajjan is facing criticism after the former military ombudsman testified to the House of Commons defence committee that he brought Sajjan a complaint against Vance from a female subordinate in 2018. Vance was chief of defence staff at the time.
Sajjan refused to hear the evidence, telling the committee on Friday that he could not interfere with any investigation into the allegations — despite MPs pointing out that there was no formal investigation underway at that time.
Both Trudeau and Sajjan have said they were unaware of the allegations against Vance until a Global News report on Feb. 2 detailed them. Yet Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday that his office was aware of the complaint in 2018, but not the details.
O’Toole said Sunday that Trudeau still should have acted at the time.
“Did he need to know the specifics to take swift action?” he asked. “There should have been immediate action when that came in.
“Not only did they not do anything, a year later, (the government) extended the contract of (Vance) and gave him a salary increase. … Whether it’s a cover-up or just negligence of the highest order, I’ll let Mr. Trudeau decide that.”
Asked if members of Stephen Harper’s government — including himself — should have better vetted Vance before he was appointed to the top military post in 2015, O’Toole said he wasn’t involved in the final decision. But he’s calling for the vetting process to be made independent of the military.
“Clearly we can’t always trust the process internally with the Canadian Armed Forces that we have two chiefs of defence staff now with allegations against them,” he said.
“We have to take the process out of the hands of the military. As a veteran, I’m disappointed I have to say that. But we have to send a message to the women that want to serve this country that these issues will not be sat on for three years. … We should make sure we have their back.”
McDonald, who took over for Vance in January, voluntarily stepped aside last month amid a separate military police investigation into allegations against him.
The revelations have shed light on the way the military treats sexual assault allegations, and the complicated chain complainants and even military members have to navigate before a formal investigation can begin.
A whistleblower who tried to raise a complaint against McDonald last month, Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter, testified Friday that he felt he was “running in circles” trying to find an avenue to report the issue. Sources have told Global News that Trotter has also faced threats since he came forward.
O’Toole said the Canadian military needs to restore public confidence in the same way the American military did in the wake of the Tailhook scandal in 1991, when hundreds of servicemen were accused of sexually assaulting and harrassing dozens of women during a convention in Las Vegas. The scandal led to overhauls in how the U.S. protects and advances women in combat.
“We need swift action, not excuses like we’ve been seeing in the prime minister,” he said.
O’Toole joins NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who told The West Block last week that the growing military crisis has led to an “erosion of trust.”