Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she understands and sympathizes with concerns being raised about “the possibility of real fairness” in the wake of the news that senior military leaders went golfing with Gen. Jonathan Vance while he remains under military police investigation.
Military police opened a probe into Vance in February after Global News reported he is facing two allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which he denies. That investigation remains underway but on Saturday night, military officials confirmed to Global News that two senior military leaders, including the vice-chief of the defence staff, had been out golfing with him the previous week.
Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, the vice-chief of the defence staff, also holds oversight authority for the military police investigation into Vance, while Vice-Adm. C.A. Baines, head of the navy, is at the top of the chain of command for two naval officers involved in an allegation against the current chief of the defence staff, Adm. Art McDonald.
“I learned about this over the weekend as did the rest of our government. I was very disappointed, very surprised,” said Freeland when asked about her reaction to the reports published on Saturday night.
“I think this showed very poor judgement and I absolutely understand and sympathize with the sentiment that men and women but maybe especially women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces have having seen this, and the concerns that it causes them to have about the possibility of real fairness for them.”
“They need to know that if harassment or abuse happens, there is a clear, objective, impartial way that their complaints will be addressed,” Freeland continued.
She added the decision “sends entirely the wrong message to the entire country.”
News of the golf trip quickly prompted outrage among members of the military on social media, while sources who spoke to Global News expressed deep concerns that the decision contradicts messages by senior leaders encouraging members experiencing sexual misconduct to come forward.
Rouleau has issued no public statement in the days since.
Baines, however, issued a statement on Sunday night in which he apologized for not understanding how the actions would be viewed, but also described his actions as a “public display of support.”
“I fully accept responsibility and accountability for not understanding how such a public display of support sends the wrong signal as to my commitment to lead in resolving our systemic cultural and misconduct issues. For this, I sincerely apologize,” read Baines’ statement.
The vice-admiral said he would be taking a few days of personal leave, and that Rear-Adm. Chris Sutherland would be acting in his place in the meantime.
When pressed on whether his statement of a “public display of support” was intended as him taking a public stance on the ongoing military investigation into Vance, Baines later clarified.
“To be clear, it was not a show of support for Jonathan Vance as it pertains to the ongoing investigation. My focus should have been on the victims of sexual misconduct and on the impacts on their lives. For this, I am sorry,” he said on Monday afternoon.
Baines’ statements come after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier on Sunday that senior military leaders who golfed with Vance need to “answer for themselves.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who is also a military veteran, addressed the conduct of Rouleau and Baines in a press conference on Monday morning.
“It was completely inappropriate and it shows that there is a broken culture at the senior ranks in the Department of National Defence, that they did not have the personal judgment to make a better decision,” said O’Toole, who said a lack of action from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is connected.
“There is zero leadership from Justin Trudeau and Minister Sajjan.,” he said.
“That is setting a tone of no accountability.”
The Canadian military is in the grips of an institutional crisis over its handling of sexual misconduct and in particular, the conduct of its senior leaders — multiple of whom now face allegations of misconduct.
The allegations led to the launch of two studies by parliamentary committees into the matter and during a meeting of one of those committees in April, one of the women at the heart of the allegations against Vance testified that he believed he was “untouchable” and that he “owned” the military police.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that’s exactly the message the government has sent by not acting to implemented the key recommendation from the 2015 Deschamps report, which urged the creation of an independent reporting system for military sexual misconduct.
“The fact that they are ignoring the key recommendation from that report shows they’re not taking it seriously. The key recommendation was: put in place an independent process. They failed to do that,” said Singh. “By failing to do that, by not taking this seriously, they have set a tone where it is not being considered a serious problem.”
Sajjan announced an independent review into military sexual misconduct and aimed at determining the best way to create an independent reporting system at the end of April, nearly three months after Global News first reported on the allegations against Vance.
That review, led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, has 12 months to deliver a final report but that can be extended. While Arbour is also tasked with preparing monthly progress reports to Sajjan, it is not clear at this time whether those have been submitted or what might be in them.