An internal probe into sexual misconduct allegations against senior naval officers has been closed before all witnesses or complainants were spoken to, Global News has learned, with investigators concluding no wrongdoing occurred.
Yet the investigation into alleged inappropriate comments — where the senior officers allegedly joked that a female member wanted to show off her “red room” while on a Zoom call — did not look into the alleged comments that followed, which sources say involved BDSM and “kinky sex.”
Internal emails obtained by Global News show at least one woman naval officer took issue with the limited nature of the Unit Disciplinary Investigation, saying its conclusion “only serves to reduce faith in the system even further, and at a time when faith is already at an all-time low.”
“I think this is an issue that’s counteracting our ability to maintain cohesion in our forces,” the officer wrote.
The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) later insisted the investigation “looked at any inappropriate remarks that may have occurred during the call,” in an emailed statement to Global News.
The investigation also didn’t address whether senior officers on the call should have intervened. Instead, it concluded with military leadership suggesting subordinate women officers should confront their superiors directly over such issues, according to the emails. In a later statement, RCN said it expects “the senior member present to intervene if something inappropriate occurs.”
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However, the initial suggestion did not sit well among women in the military, according to a military source. The source, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, also told Global News they were “outraged” that the investigator did not contact or interview everyone involved.
The Navy confirmed 132 people were invited to the Microsoft Teams call, although “not all were present due to leave or technical issues.”
Just 54 responded to requests for interviews with the navy’s investigator, the statement read.
The RCN added that before those allegedly involved were identified, the investigation had been assigned to someone “within the chain of command of one of the alleged respondents.”
However, “as soon as this was determined, the investigation was re-assigned to a senior Chief Petty Officer from a separate unit – Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters.”
The military is facing a crisis over its handling of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour since Global News first reported on Feb. 2 that former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates. He denies all allegations.
The complaint involved senior naval officers who allegedly said during a Zoom meeting in January 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.
Yet an email sent Tuesday to naval members by Capt. Chris Peschke, the chief of staff to the Commander of the West Coast Navy, announcing the closing of the investigation made no mention of those alleged further comments.
Instead, it says the investigation focused entirely on the initial alleged “red room” comment and whether it alone could be considered sexual or inappropriate.
It also suggests the term “red room” itself has multiple meanings, including murder or “simply … the colour of a room.”
The email says that Fifty Shades of Grey was not explicitly mentioned along with the comment, and therefore the phrase “can lead different people to make different inferences.” It also suggests different generations may not pick up on the same pop culture references.
“As a result, this investigation did not reveal that a service offence was committed based on the evidence obtained by the investigator and is now closed,” the email reads.
“If there is an incident that may be interpreted as offensive or inappropriate in a meeting or in the workplace,” the email continues, “I would encourage you to engage directly with the speaker, no matter how senior, so that the speaker may clarify, or apologise, or address the matter and to encourage self-policing as part of the culture changes that we wish and need to make.”
In a reply to that email obtained by Global News, a woman naval officer says the conclusion of the investigation “minimizes the issue at hand” by focusing entirely on the phrase “red room,” and not acknowledging what allegedly followed.
The officer also says the explanation provided in the initial email reinforces a feeling that troops must follow the rules established by Operation Honour — the military-wide initiative meant to combat sexual misconduct — while senior officers are not held to the same standard.
“What I get from the below explanation is that it’s okay for the older cadre to make inappropriate comments because they don’t know any better,” the response reads.
Military sources tell Global News that the investigator did not speak to everyone who witnessed the initial Zoom meeting comments or everyone who complained about them, despite the email sent to members saying “most or not all” of the recipients had been contacted.
In a statement to Global News, the RCN said its investigation “determined those who made the remarks were unaware of any innuendo and did not intend it to be inappropriate or harmful.
“The investigator was satisfied that the person making the remarks was not aware of the cultural reference,” the statement read.
“It was felt appropriate to provide feedback to those in the meeting that an investigation was conducted and had concluded.”
Global News’ reporting of the allegations against Vance has sparked a larger crisis over how the military handles allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour, particularly among its upper ranks.
Vance’s successor as chief of defence staff, Adm. Art McDonald, stepped back from his role as chief of the defence staff on Feb. 24 after military police opened an investigation on unspecified allegations, which one witness told the House of Commons defence committee last week was related to alleged sexual misconduct.
Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre is now acting in his place.
Military members have also voiced frustration with the process complainants have to go through to bring allegations forward, which they described as “running in circles” to find the proper investigative office.
A top officer who quit the military in protest over the growing crisis, Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, told Global News that the tight-knit team environment of the military makes it difficult for individuals to come forward with experiences of sexual misconduct because they risk being alienated.
“I’ve told my story many times, but I have never shared the fact that I too have struggled with this behaviour,” she said. “Because in so doing, I feel that I risk the reputation of the team and risk alienating myself from the team.”
Anger over the crisis has also been directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who have both been accused of not acting immediately when first learning of allegations against Vance in 2018.
The pair have defended their actions and insisted that they followed the processes in place for forwarding allegations to the proper authorities.
Dominic LeBlanc, the minister of intergovernmental affairs and president of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, told Global News’ The West Block on Sunday that the government is set to announce details of its response to the military misconduct allegations in the “coming days.”
“We have been obviously very concerned about these allegations, and the prime minister and the defence minister have said that we recognize the need to have a robust review of these allegations,” said LeBlanc, noting that review must be “expeditious.”
LeBlanc would not say if that announcement would include the creation of an independent oversight body for handling military sexual misconduct complaints, which experts have long urged the government to do.
— With files from Global’s Marc-André Cossette, Amanda Connolly and Emerald Bensadoun