The woman at the heart of a sexual misconduct investigation involving Adm. Art McDonald says she is speaking out after someone in “a trusted position” leaked details of her case without her consent last month.
In an exclusive interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, navy Lt. Heather Macdonald said she was frustrated to see details about her allegation leaked to the CBC in what she described as an attempt to “steal the due process” she and McDonald both deserve.
“I would say that what bothered me the most about how this kind of came out was the detailed leak that happened that led to Adm. McDonald stepping aside,” said Macdonald.
“There was a certain level of details — mixed with a little bit of lies — that it was obvious someone in a trusted position had that information and they decided to leak that to the press,” she continued. “I’m not sure what they were trying to get out of that, but they tried to steal the due process that I deserved and that Admiral McDonald deserves as well.”
“If we don’t have due process, then all we have are witch hunts,” she added. “That doesn’t change the culture. It just makes it unfriendly for everyone.”
Macdonald is a 16-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy.
As a combat systems engineer, her job is to make sure Canada’s warships are ready for battle.
But she now finds herself at the centre of the storm surrounding the military over its failure to stamp out sexual misconduct, and amid twin military police probes into allegations against both the current and former chiefs of the defence staff.
Adm. McDonald stepped aside temporarily following news of that probe last month, facing what multiple sources have told Global News is an allegation of sexual assault.
Macdonald said there are real challenges to being a woman in the navy, and that the time has come for senior leaders to recognize the culture in the military must be fixed — not just among lower ranks, but among themselves as well.
Macdonald said that during her first week onboard a major warship, she was approached for a conversation with three superior officers on the ship. She says one of them told her: ‘I feel like your father telling you to keep your legs shut.”
“I was… What the heck?” Macdonald said, adding that one of them had apparently “overheard some of the junior members of the ship rating me and assumed that the only reason why they would be discussing me at all would be if I had slept with all of them.”
The Canadian military is reckoning with allegations of high-level sexual misconduct that have shaken the institution to its core and unearthed what one senior female officer previously described to Global News as a “seething undercurrent of rage.”
Global News first reported on Feb. 2 that Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Roughly three weeks later, military police announced an investigation into his successor, Adm. McDonald, who had only been in the job for a matter of weeks.
There have been few public details of the investigation into Adm. McDonald so far — military police said only that the probe involved unspecified allegations, while testimony before the House of Commons defence committee revealed the probe is in relation to sexual misconduct allegations.
Macdonald said she was not ready to talk about the details of what is alleged to have happened, citing the need for due process as the investigation unfolds. But she said she has complicated feelings about what took place after she reported.
“It’s been three decades since we’ve had an admiral chief of defence staff. I am an engineer in the navy, and we really need someone at the top who understands where the navy is right now,” said Macdonald.
“We need very strong leadership to get the navy through the next little while, and I feel a little bit robbed that we might lose our admiral over this.”
Macdonald said her career in the navy has offered her incredible opportunities.
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“I’ve gotten to see more of the world from a very unique perspective than I would have been able to do in any other civilian job,” she said.
“Some of my best memories to date have been at sea in the middle of the ocean at night, looking up at the stars or, you know, being among millions of dolphins jumping out of the water. I wouldn’t have those memories if I hadn’t joined the navy.”
But she said the military must confront what is increasingly being described by experts and members as a double standard in how misconduct allegations are handled between junior members versus those involving senior leaders in the institution.
“Has your experience been that there’s basically two systems here?” Stephenson asked.
“I would say yes,” said Macdonald, adding that senior leadership should be held to a higher standard of behaviour than those in the lower ranks.
“It bothers me that we’re not getting justice … one of the things I’ve heard the most in this whole process — and I don’t quite understand why — is everybody has told me, ‘You have all the power,” she continued.
“That’s a lie.”
Global News reached out to Adm. McDonald for comment, but did not receive a response.
Earlier this month, McDonald declined to comment on the allegations, citing legal advice and the ongoing investigation.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan continues to face criticism over his handling of the military misconduct revelations, and the lack of a promised external probe into the matter.
It has now been nearly two months since officials vowed there would be an independent examination, with no details of how a government that has built its brand around feminism plans to address the need for urgent cultural change within the Canadian Forces.
On Thursday, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps reiterated that need, six years after her landmark 2015 report identified sexual misconduct as “endemic” within the military.
She emphasized the findings of her 2015 report, particularly that cultural change in an institution like the Canadian Forces can only succeed if there is an example being set by those at the very top.
“It is a very well known management rule that without the personal engagement of the senior leadership, there will be no change in culture,” she told a parliamentary committee.
“The years that passed only made it more difficult to restore trust in leadership, and I can only hope the new leaders understand the challenge and will rise to the occasion.”
Deschamps also identified the challenges facing members who come forward — something Macdonald said weighs on her own mind now.
“It’s been very isolating — very, very isolating for me,” she said.
Stephenson asked: “Are you worried about your career?”
“Yes, of course I am,” Macdonald said.
“This summer I’ll have been in 17 years and I’m very proud of my service up until now. I would like to continue to serve my country. I see tremendous value that we, the navy, bring to Canada and to the world, and I’d like to still be part of that,” she continued.
“I’d like to still work with the exceptional men and women I have gotten to work with, but it’s hard being the one that was part of this very public breakdown.”