THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 25, Season 10
Sunday, March 14, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block:
Alexandra Auclair: “Did I have any DNA evidence? Did anybody witness this?”
A Department of National Defence employee shares her experience and allegations of sexual misconduct from her time as a Canadian Forces officer and civilian working for the military.
Alexandra Auclair: “It was his word against mine and so basically shut your mouth and carry on.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the Leader of the Official Opposition Erin O’Toole on allegations of a government cover-up and party unity ahead of the upcoming Conservative convention.
It’s Sunday, March 14th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Sexual misconduct allegations continue to rock the Canadian military. The Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is under fire, for his handling of allegations against then chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance.
The Prime Minister’s Office repeatedly told Global News they were unaware of allegations in 2018. But this week, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, admitted his office was told three years ago.
Women have continued to come forward to Global News, raising serious allegations of misconduct and sexual assault in the forces.
This week, we sat down with Alex Auclair, a former combat arms officer and a senior civilian at National Defence. She has a harrowing story. Auclair believes she is risking her career to tell the ugly truth about the challenges facing women who speak out and her hope for change.
Alex, thank you so much for sitting down with us today. I want to start at the beginning with you. You were a combat arms officer in the military before you became a bureaucrat in the government. What was your experience like as a woman in the combat arms?
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: So I was in the combat arms in the—in 1997, I went to Gagetown for officer training. Back in the day, it was integ—it was combined with the Royal Military College officer cadets. So it was a 200-person course and we were two females and 198 males. And while I don’t want to go into details on the experience, I do want to say that I know what women are talking about when they talk about their experience, when it comes to this officer training. It’s true. I believe it’s happened to most women, certainly in those years and I’m not ready to go into details on that. But needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you were going through this, you were one of two women, 200 men. You’re young…
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: Naïve.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’re naïve. What was that like feeling wise for you?
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: So I didn’t come from a military family, so I didn’t know what I was getting into. But it’s—it’s really the feeling of having no protection. There’s no protection and there’s no support. And knowing that the course staff want you gone, our course officer, it was a captain by the name of Brian Brooks and he made it very, very clear that women were not welcome, to the point that we were forced to shower with the men. And I’m sure you can imagine, when you’re two women and so many men, there’s no good ending. I think the hardest part, is knowing there’s nowhere to turn to. There’s nobody who’s going to help you, nobody back then, who believed you, when you had something to say.
Following my summer of ’97, the other female and I—so I was based out of Montreal, we came to Ottawa to talk about our experience because it was wrong. It’s wrong. It continues to be wrong, but it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. We came to Ottawa to speak to a general, and this is going back 24 years, and he essentially told us shut our mouth. If we wanted to be part of the military, if we wanted to have any type of career, we were going to shut our mouth and just accept this is what the institutions like. And we did, but neither one of us—and I can’t speak for her, I can only speak for myself—had any chance of having a career in the military. Even though that is what I wanted to do when I was a young child.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think that’s shocking. Two hundred men and two young women, you’re forced to shower together. Your course officer not only, you’re saying, knew this was happening but was directing it.
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: He was directing it because we wanted to be—why should we have any special privileges? Why should we have two minutes to shower before the men? It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right for the men. So that’s—but I mean, I really—I don’t want to get into details. I’m not ready to go down that road. But the only thing I’d like to say on this is that some of my course mates are now some of the institutional leaders of the department—of the forces and of the department. And as a public servant, I got to see them and work with them for the—for a number of years and it’s—it’s a very difficult work environment to have to look at folks that you know haven’t always been—haven’t always behaved appropriately. And so my message really is to anybody who’s been impacted by this type of behaviour in the department, or in the military, needs to come forward and speak now is the time and that’s why I’m sitting here with you today. We have folks who were in uniform, took them off, who are leading us. Like it’s—it’s time to look at this as a—as a complete defence team, not just the military.
Mercedes Stephenson: Global News sought comment from Captain Brooks on the allegations made against him. He is now a major in the Canadian Forces.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said, “We can confirm that as a result of serious allegations of harassment at the Infantry School in 1997, an investigation supported allegations of misconduct.” The spokesperson also said that Brooks had, “No additional information to add.”
Up next, beyond the uniform: a culture of silence. My interview with Alexandra Auclair continues.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. My interview with Alex Auclair continues.
So you’re now a civilian, you work for the Department of National Defence as a public servant. You’re sitting at the table talking about sexual misconduct, talking about sexual assault, talking about Operation Honour, and across from you you’re seeing the same men who were in those showers where things happened.
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: Yes. And not a single one of them has ever admitted it, spoken to me about it, felt the need to apologize for it, despite having all these conversations around Op Honour and the overly sexualized culture around the forces, and I would argue, around the defence team. But at no time has anybody apologized, or even admitted to having done bad things when they were younger. And I’m not saying they’re still the same person, but I know that they did bad things when they were younger. And now they’re sitting there pontificating about how wrong it is without being to admit that they themselves were wrong.
Mercedes Stephenson: What was your experience like with some of the senior civilians who work in the Department of National Defence?
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: So just to put into context a little bit, 30—about a third of the executives in the department are former military officers. Generally speaking, they’re hired at a colonel, so a four ring level, generally speaking, not all of course. And they are, you know, late 40s, early 50s when they shift from the forces into the public service. So their cultural norms don’t go away when they take off the uniform. What was permittable or permissible behaviour, doesn’t change just because your uniform’s off and in fact, I would almost argue that you can hide yourself more because you’re no longer as visible, you don’t have the uniform on. And if you continue with the, you know, this toxic masculinity that permeates the environment, but you can continue to behave badly and this time your victims are not protected like they are when you’re in uniform. There is no support system if you have any type of abuse or any type of misconduct that happens you have no support system. Unfortunately, I also had a rather unfortunate experience with a very senior public servant. We would, we would work long hours and occasion we would go—he would invite me to go for a drink and—after work and I would say yes because what else was I going to say? And if—if I don’t do well then essentially my career’s over. And so on occasion, we went for these drinks and I went willingly. I didn’t—he didn’t force me. He, he—but I went.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you—you reported it?
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: I tried to report it, and the answer I got was that because there was no—did I have any DNA evidence? Did anybody witness this? If—if the answer was no and if you still needed a job, it was his word against mine and so basically, shut your mouth and carry on. Also, you lose all your trust in leadership. I already didn’t have very much to begin with, but you lose all trust in leadership.
And on the Monday morning, I walked into his office and I said it’s never ever going to happen again, ever, ever. If you cannot control yourself around me, I’m done. I’m—I’m—like I need a new job. And, and he was—he was fine with that. In all fairness to him, he never tried again. But I continue to go for drinks with him after. When he asked, I kept going. And in hindsight now, I think about the, the power dynamics. Why in—why would I ever want to go sit and have a drink with somebody whose assaulted me, like without my consent and then I’m sitting there having a drink like nothing’s ever happened? Like it’s—it’s ludicrous. The, the hierarchy and the power, is ludicrous, like when I think about my younger self, like I just can’t even imagine that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think those people can fix the culture on their own then?
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: Absolutely not. Absolutely not because they’ve been successful in the environment, they can absolutely not fix the culture on their own. They have to be, in my opinion, in order to fix the culture, you have to be willing to admit that there’s a problem. And while they will stand on their soapbox and speak to how wrong it is to have this overly sexualized culture, not—nobody in my—that, that I am aware of has come up and said I was wrong. I too, have participated in this behaviour. I too, you know, should suffer the consequences or should have—there should be an impact to my career. Maybe I don’t deserve to be promoted to the next rank or whatever it is, just admit that the times these people, these men have done things wrong.
Mercedes Stephenson: Alex, is there anything that I missed that you want me to ask you?
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: I guess the only thing I would, I would like to add is there’s an impact to people’s actions. And the impact on the individual is long and it’s long-lasting. And I would really like it if folks would think about that piece because, you know, I was fortunate. I mean it certainly has slowed my career. I certainly am not where I had anticipated I would be because of the, the mental health impact on, on me. It crept up later when I was working with the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre. Sitting across the table from me were these individuals that I knew back in Gagetown in ’97, but there is an impact and folks really should start taking accountability for their actions, because, you know, I’m sitting here with you, this is not comfortable. It’s not pleasant. I’m not going to make any friends. My career isn’t going to take off, but there’s been an impact and I feel like now’s the time for people to rise up and start talking about it, so that the next generation doesn’t have to have the same experiences as I did.
Mercedes Stephenson: Alex, you’re incredibly strong to sit down with us today. I know it’s not an easy thing to talk about and we appreciate you.
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: Thank you so much.
Mercedes Stephenson: We appreciate your time and sharing your story with us.
Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Appreciate it.
Global News repeatedly sought comment from the former senior DND executive who Auclair says assaulted her. He replied on Thursday indicating that he was in the process of considering a response. But repeated subsequent attempts by Global News to receive further comment went unanswered.
Up next, misconduct in the armed forces: parliamentary probes in Opposition priorities. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole weighs in.
Mercedes Stephenson: Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole joins me now. Erin, you’re a veteran. You were a Sea King navigator. You served in the Canadian Armed Forces. What goes through your mind when you hear stories like the one that we just heard from Alex Auclair?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well our Canadian Armed Forces have failed women like Alex and it’s—it’s heartbreaking. It’s unacceptable and I want to commend her for bravely coming forward to try and make sure that we don’t fail more people in the future. There needs to be accountability here, Mercedes, and as someone that has served in the military and very proud of the men and women in it, we owe it to people that put their country first, to have their back. And I’ve made some proposals, as you know, to send a swift message of accountability and we need to fix this so that people that want to serve their country can do so free of harassment and with the respect of their country.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of your MPs, who is also, a military veteran, called this Canada’s Tailhook moment, of course, the scandal in the United States. You have said that you believe and your party believes that the government was involved in a cover-up of this. That’s a pretty strong allegation. Do you believe that the political level of government, Justin Trudeau’s government, Harjit Sajjan, was actually involved in trying to cover-up sexual misconduct in the military?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well whether you call it a cover-up, Mercedes, or they just sat on it and ignored a complaint from a woman, who came forward to the ombudsman, and the ombudsman brought the complaint to the minister of national defence and he didn’t want to hear it. The Prime Minister Office wasn’t aware, the Privy Council was aware. The prime minister finally admitted in the House this week that he was aware of a sexual misconduct allegation. Not only did they not do anything, Mercedes, a year later, they extended the contract of the CDS and gave him a salary increase. You know, that’s—they failed that woman. And, you know, whether it’s a cover-up or just negligence of the highest order, I’ll let Mr. Trudeau decide that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you believe that Minister Sajjan should continue to serve as the minister? You’ve been very critical of him, but you haven’t called for his resignation.
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: I’m asking Prime Minister Trudeau to hold some accountability. He was aware of the situation for three years, Mercedes. He saw firsthand that his minister who had the power to order a board of inquiry, in fact, it was the minister’s job; he’s not only a veteran himself, a former police officer. I’m holding the prime minister to account for the minister’s actions. And 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 it’s she was failed as well by the Liberal government.
Mercedes Stephenson: So just to be clear, you’re saying you think the prime minister knew about this or just Minister Sajjan?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well, Prime Minister Trudeau’s story has changed. In fact, it changed this week when he said he was aware of the sexual misconduct allegation but not the specifics. Did he really have to know specifics to take swift action? There should have been immediate action when that came in. And as I said, a year later when they had the opportunity to extend the contract of the chief of defence staff General Vance, Mr. Trudeau extended his time with an outgoing complaint and gave him a salary increase. What signal does that send, Mercedes? So there’s a crisis of confidence right now. I care deeply about our Canadian Armed Forces and the families and men and women involved in serving our country. We owe it to them to send a clear signal that we will fix this situation.
Mercedes Stephenson: In fairness, it was your government under Stephen Harper, who appointed General Vance and the prime minister and others around him were aware of a military police investigation into General Vance with allegations over inappropriate relationship with a woman subordinate. That woman is now his wife. Should you have vetted him better before appointing him chief of the defence staff?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: When—when the Deschamps report came out, I said as a veteran in the cabinet at the time, we have to make sure that there is a full vetting so that there are no allegations, no improprieties against someone that’s going to be heading the forces at a time that these issues needed to be swiftly addressed. And 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 made against them in order. That’s why I’ve called for an independent process, Mercedes that reports to Parliament. And in the meantime, I think there should be a freeze on promotions and salary increases for all the general and flag ranks, because right now there’s a crisis of confidence. We have to restore the confidence, much like the Americans did with Tailhook. We need swift action, not excuses like we’ve been seeing from the prime minister.
Mercedes Stephenson: So was your advice not listened to then? Did you not recommend General Vance if you knew about that investigation?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: The—these things were looked into from what I understand, Mercedes. I wasn’t involved in the final decision in—in selection. And this is why I think 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 their country that these issues will not be sat on for three years. They will be addressed. And people need—when they’re putting their country first, Mercedes, we should make sure we have their back. They’re putting it all on the line for our country and we need to make sure they can do that completely free of harassment and an environment the likes of which we’ve been hearing about in recent weeks from your good work.
Mercedes Stephenson: You have a convention coming up. Some of the grassroots are not too happy with you, Mr. O’Toole. They’re not happy that you kicked Derek Sloan out of caucus. They’re not happy with your pro-choice position on abortion. How are you going to bring the party together and are you worried that these strains are going see it split into red Tories and blue Tories again?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: We’re going to have the largest political conference in Canadian history, Mercedes. We’ve always had a big tent political party. The party is united in getting our country back on track. We’re all frustrated by seeing Canada trail the rest of the world on vaccine deployment, particularly the progress being made south of the border in the United States. Canadians deserve better. That will be our focus and we are united in making sure that the country leads the global economic recovery. And we’ve got support in all corners of this country and we’re ready to form an ethical focused government for Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: So how does that address the cracks in our caucus?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: There are no cracks in our caucus. Look, the—there’s a lot of stories in Opposition…
Mercedes Stephenson: There—there’s no MPs who are frustrated with you?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: We’re—we’re all frustrated with the situation of the pandemic, Mercedes. We’re tired of the lockdowns. It’s been,–it’s been a year now. I’m the leader that can’t travel the country. I’m doing meetings by Zoom. It is frustrating in Opposition, particularly to see Mr. Trudeau late—at the border late on rapid tests, late on the vaccine rollout and the situation with Minister Sajjan and Mr. Trudeau. There just seems to be no serious approach to government. So that is frustrating, but it doesn’t mean we’re not focused at providing a strong principled alternative. And I’m growing the party and I’m going to make no apologies for growing the party, reaching out and making sure we’re addressing the needs of Canada in 2021.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sounds more like a message to voters than your caucus, but that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. O’Toole.
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and we’ll see you right back here next week on The West Block.