Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he is concerned after the navy shut down an internal probe into alleged sexual misconduct by senior officers, with investigators concluding no wrongdoing occurred.
As Global News reported on Tuesday night, the internal probe was closed before all witnesses or complainants were spoken to, according to sources.
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 — also did not look into the alleged comments that followed, which sources say involved BDSM and “kinky sex.”
Sajjan addressed the investigation during a press conference on Wednesday.
“I learned of the conclusion of this investigation late yesterday and I have concerns,” Sajjan said, adding he has spoken with acting chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre about it.
Sajjan said he has asked Eyre to conduct a review on “how this matter was handled.”
Eyre said he issued direction on how that review should unfold shortly before attending the press conference, but would not provide specifics about how that will take place.
He said out of 132 people who were on the Zoom video call where the alleged misconduct occurred, only 52 responded when contacted by investigators.
“I will add that I expect leaders at every level when they see something that doesn’t look right, something that doesn’t sound right, to take action immediately,” Eyre said.
Sajjan added the review will look at what went wrong, and said that he wasn’t ruling out the possibility the investigation could be reopened if new information was found.
“If more information is found, obviously it needs to be looked into more deeply.”
It comes as Sajjan faces criticism and continued questions over his refusal to hear an allegation against former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in 2018, which he said would have amounted to “political interference” in an investigation.
No formal investigation had been opened at that time.
Sajjan was asked several times by journalists to explain why he felt he could order a review into this matter but has argued he could have no involvement in hearing or following up on the Vance allegation.
He did not give a clear answer.
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 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.
That suggestion is not sitting 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 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.
More to come.