The Canadian Forces ombudsman released a scathing indictment on Tuesday, raising the spectre of interference in the work of his office at a time when the military is under intense public scrutiny over allegations of high-level sexual misconduct.
Gregory Lick says “vested political interests” complicate the office’s work — often just prior to elections or in times of crisis — and suggests the ombudsman’s office be removed from under the authority of the minister of national defence.
He said because his office’s existence is not enshrined in law, every ombudsman operates under the fear that their authority to probe wrongdoing and grievances could be revoked at any time, and that there have been “subtle and insidious” instances that suggest “a pattern of personal and institutional reprisal” by department officials against the members of the office for their work.
“While it is generally easy to keep the reporting relationship with the Ministers of National Defence arms-length and apolitical, vested political interests may become apparent just prior to an election period or in times of crisis,” Lick wrote in a new position paper.
In a speech addressing his concerns, Lick was particularly blunt.
“When leaders turn a blind eye to our recommendations and concerns in order to advance political interests and their own self-preservation or career advancement, it is the members of the defence community that suffer the consequences,” he said on Tuesday morning.
“It is clear that inaction is rewarded far more than action.”
The lack of action taken in the more than four months since Global News first reported on allegations of high-level sexual misconduct have “bitterly proved this point,” he continued.
“The erratic behaviour of leadership defies common sense or reason. The concept of Ministerial accountability has been absent,” Lick said in his speech, noting the failures by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan as well as senior government and military leaders to act amounts to a risk to national security.
“Our Allies are watching these events unfold in real time. Worse, those who are out to do us harm are also watching,” he said.
“The negative impacts of this crisis on recruitment and retention and on those directly implicated in these misconduct situations within the CAF risk threatening national security.
“Action must be taken now.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the paper during a press conference at Rideau Cottage on Tuesday: specifically, when he would implement the call by Lick for more independence for his office.
Trudeau didn’t give a clear answer but said both he and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who is leading a review into the need for independent reporting of military sexual misconduct, will consider the paper.
“We will be making significant changes to the way the military functions in the coming months as Madame Arbour begins to make those recommendations concrete,” he said of her report.
“We will be paying close attention to Mr. Lick’s recommendations to follow up.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan issued a statement Tuesday evening that also highlighted he has pledged to implement an independent reporting system for military misconduct allegations.
He said he has always had a “professional working relationship” with Lick.
“I am committed to creating an independent and external reporting mechanism that meets the needs of survivors,” he said. “I am sure Madame Arbour will take the Ombudsman’s report into consideration when making her recommendations on this.”
The role of the military ombudsman came into the spotlight earlier this year after Global News reported Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which he denies.
One of those allegations centred around an informal complaint shared with Lick’s predecessor, Gary Walbourne, in 2018 by a woman who said she had received a message from Vance’s military email account in 2012 suggesting the two take a trip to a clothing-optional vacation destination.
Vance denies any inappropriate behaviour and has told Global News that if he did make that suggestion, he would have meant it as a joke and would be willing to apologize.
Operation Honour includes under its definition of sexual misconduct “jokes of a sexual nature.”
Sajjan admitted during parliamentary committee testimony that he did not look at evidence of that complaint that Walbourne testified he tried to share with the minister in March 2018.
Sajjan argued doing so would’ve amounted to “political interference” — an assertion rejected by both Walbourne, Lick, and the head of the military police’s investigative branch.
Sajjan also spent weeks criticizing Walbourne and arguing that he could have opened his own investigation into the allegation if he wanted to do so, which Lick confirmed his predecessor did not have the power to do.
Lick said on Tuesday while he hasn’t experienced “political interference” himself — the inference he said he has seen has come from the department and military leaders — he said he had serious concerns about whether what Walbourne faced amounted to that.
In an interview with Global News, Lick said he made the decision to speak out after facing a six-month delay in getting a response from Sajjan to a recent report and after hearing about the challenges his predecessor faced in trying to bring an allegation of military misconduct to light.
“I felt that I really had to go out, as I have the authority to do, to tell Canadians what we are experiencing and what is needed to solve this problem or at least solve part of the problem with any case,” Lick said.
“I’ve never had a bad relationship with the minister, not at all, but just delays in getting responses. That to me is inaction and that’s not showing proper ministerial accountability.”
“We’ve looked at this for close to 23 years. We know how it can be done,” he continued. “What we want to be free from is the administrative interference of the department. We want certain powers to be able to escalate things and to demand responses and not have to deal with all the delays.”
Lick said the need for greater authority to probe complaints come as his office is seeing an increase in military members coming forward over the last five months with serious concerns.
“We are generally seeing an increase in issues coming forward of a more serious nature like sexual misconduct or abuses of authority or reprisal,” he said.
“People are a bit more courageous in that regard.”
While Sajjan has said the government accepts the recommendations of repeated experts dating back years that there needs to be an independent reporting structure put in place for sexual misconduct in the military, he has so far done little to implement that change other than order a review of the matter.
That review, led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, must be completed within 12 months, though that can be extended, and there’s no clarity on when Sajjan plans to actually act.
His inaction has led to repeated calls from both members of the defence community and the political opposition for Sajjan to either resign or be fired — something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole responded to Lick’s comments by arguing the government has shown it is not willing to take the action needed to create better institutions for military members.
“For months, Justin Trudeau orchestrated a cover-up to hide the fact that his top aid Katie Telford, and Minister Sajjan had direct knowledge of the sexual misconduct allegation against General Vance,” he said in a statement.
“When the Defence Ombudsman said that the erratic behaviour of leadership defies common sense or logic, it’s clear that he was speaking about the actions of Justin Trudeau, his senior staff, and Minister of Defence.”
He added: “The change necessary to eliminate sexual misconduct in the military won’t come as long as Justin Trudeau and his corrupt Liberal government remain in power. How can it when no one in the Trudeau government will take accountability?
Lick said the military has “never before been under such extensive public scrutiny” as it is now in the wake of multiple allegations against current and former senior leaders, and a national reckoning over the institution’s longstanding failures to address sexual misconduct.
He added no measures the military might put in place will solve the problem until there is “independent civilian oversight” of the force.
But he warned there has long been “no real political imperative to act” to give his office teeth.
“Other nations have opted to give their military oversight bodies proper legislated authorities with enough teeth to ensure that their recommendations are actioned,” Lick wrote.
“It is a disgrace that Canada is the only country in the Five Eyes not to have done so.”
The only way to achieve that independence would be for the office to report into Parliament, he added, noting he also needs to power to mandate a timeline for officials to respond to his reports.
In one recent case, he pointed to Sajjan’s office taking six months to respond to a report Lick had presented to them. As it stands now, he said the lack of power in his office lets ministers “sit on issues.”
Lick said he is pledging to do what he can to keep the spotlight on the need for independent civilian oversight and independence for his office as the military continues to face a reckoning over its handling of sexual misconduct within its ranks.
He said that’s his role as ombudsman, and that the people coming to his office are tired of hearing about more reviews of the problem — they want action.
“I’m frustrated. People that come to our office are frustrated,” he said.
“This is a good thing. Do it. Take action.”