Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he expects Adm. Art McDonald to remain on leave while the government decides what to do next following a military police sexual misconduct investigation.
The Canadian Press reported on Wednesday that McDonald plans to seek a return to his position as chief of the defence staff after military investigators opted not to charge him following an investigation into his conduct, citing comment from his lawyers.
Sajjan suggested that’s not going to happen immediately.
“I just recently learned about the instatement en-route to this event. My initial reaction to this is that my expectation is that Adm. McDonald will remain on leave while we review this situation,” Sajjan said.
“The position of chief of the defence staff must always uphold the highest standard within the Canadian Armed Force,” he continued, noting the weight of the responsibilities of the role.
“I also want to say that Canadians and the Canadian Armed Forces are very well served by the current acting chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre.”
According to The Canadian Press, McDonald’s lawyers said the lack of any charges “exonerated” him.
“Given that it was his decision to step aside, it is now his decision — indeed obligation — to return to his duties,” reads the statement issued by lawyers Michael Edelson and Rory Fowler.
“Admiral McDonald, who has long been recognized as a proven leader of culture change in the Canadian Armed Forces, will now return to his duties as chief of defence staff.”
Military and political sources say a lack of criminal charges against McDonald have not removed concerns about whether he has the moral authority to lead the military.
Military police with the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) probing the allegation against McDonald announced Friday evening that they had decided not to lay charges against McDonald either under military code of service rules or the Criminal Code.
“The CFNIS conducts its investigations in a thorough and professional manner independent of the Chain of Command,” said a statement from the military. “In this particular case, CFNIS was able to both identify and interview a large number of potential witnesses. The evidence gathered from these witnesses was considered in the ultimate determination that the evidence did not support the laying of any charges.”
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The woman behind the allegation told Global News the decision leaves her feeling like she’s been “punched in the stomach.”
“I am not surprised as this was exactly why I was reluctant to come forward and why most survivors don’t come forward. It’s not worth it. I feel a little like I’ve gone through hell for nothing,” said Navy Lt. Heather Macdonald, a navy combat systems engineer who has served for 16 years.
“Feel a bit like I’ve been punched in the stomach.”
Macdonald has previously said details of her allegation had been leaked to media without her consent, and she told Global News in March she did not want to share those details publicly out of respect for the due process owed to both her and McDonald as the probe played out.
She has now granted Global News permission to share the details of her allegation publicly, which she says pertained to unwanted touching on board HMCS Montreal in July 2010, when the ship was docked in Nuuk, Greenland.
During a party with allied military on board the ship, Macdonald alleges McDonald shoved the face of the ship captain into her breasts after a button on her shirt popped open.
McDonald was task force commander at the time of a group made up of warships from the U.S., Denmark and Canada. The captain was Macdonald’s commanding officer.
The position of chief of the defence staff is one that serves at the pleasure of the prime minister, meaning it is up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether to allow McDonald to return. Global News has reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office asking whether Trudeau will let McDonald return.
Witnesses who have testified during twin parliamentary committee probes of sexual misconduct in the military this spring warned repeatedly that women and men who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces frequently face retaliation from superiors and peers.
Global News previously reported that the senior naval officer who reported MacDonald’s allegation received anonymous threatening phone calls after doing so from individuals who identified themselves as a “senior member of the Canadian government” and a “senior Canadian Forces officer.”
IN HER WORDS: The woman behind McDonald allegation tells her story
Sajjan announced McDonald was stepping aside from his role on Feb. 24, citing a military police investigation into what were at the time unspecified allegations.
Following that announcement, a spokesperson for Sajjan said on Feb. 26 that the minister had not been aware of any allegations about McDonald prior to naming him as chief of the defence staff, and only became aware of an allegation “a number of weeks” after the change of command on Jan. 14.
Throughout the military police investigation, McDonald declined to comment when asked about the allegation, citing the ongoing probe and legal advice.
—With files from The Canadian Press.