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Should he stay or should he go? Speculation heats up on Sajjan’s future in defence post

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At some point in the coming weeks or months, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will name his new cabinet after winning a minority government in the Canadian election.

But already, speculation is heating up among those working around the defence file over rumours of a female defence minister to replace Harjit Sajjan.

Global News spoke on background with five individuals with deep knowledge of the current workings of the military and defence industry. All five have been active in public or private work related to how best to respond to the military sexual misconduct crisis, and agreed to speak on background to share their views based on conversations with industry colleagues and with members of the military.

All raised questions about the message it would send if Sajjan remains in the role, specifically about how seriously the government takes implementing the called-for changes to overhaul military culture.

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Three names came up repeatedly as potential contenders for the job.

Anita Anand.

Carla Qualtrough.

Anita Vandenbeld — though her name also sparked concerns from some about whether she would be able to hold the trust of military sexual misconduct survivors and victims given her public defence of Sajjan during heated parliamentary committee study of the misconduct crisis earlier this year.

Read more: Here’s what you need to know about the military sexual misconduct crisis

As it stands now, the issue is what one defence expert billed a “sucking chest wound” for Trudeau.

Sajjan, that person said, has become a “liability.”

Another defence industry source was blunt: “Many just want Sajjan out.”

That person said they are hearing the focus is on trying to get a woman into the post as the military faces down what experts have repeatedly described as an institutional “crisis” over sexual misconduct.

TIMELINE: The Canadian Forces sexual misconduct crisis

Vandenbeld served as parliamentary secretary to Sajjan and frequently defended the government’s handling of the matter and was part of a bloc of Liberal members on that committee who filibustered opposition attempts to call more witnesses for the study into the matter.

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The defence industry source said Vandenbeld was simply doing her job of defending the minister, while a second defence expert noted there is a perception that Vandenbeld was effectively doing Sajjan’s bidding and would not have the credibility needed to implement real change.

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The second defence expert said in their view, selecting Anand for the role would send a signal that the government intends to get serious about creating systemic, institutional change in the military.

Anand was elected as a rookie MP in 2019 but quickly became a central player in the government’s pandemic response as the minister in charge of contracting and procuring COVID-19 vaccines, personal protective equipment and supplies.

She has deep background as a corporate lawyer and has worked extensively on corporate governance, which refers specifically to the laws and rules in place to manage the operations of businesses.

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Her name was raised more than once in conversations with Global News as a potential best fit for the role.

Read more: Here’s what we know about how the military sexual misconduct review will work

Qualtrough also previously held the role of procurement minister, but has most recently been working as the minister of employment and inclusion, overseeing major programs including the rollout of the government COVID-19 benefits.

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The Canadian military is facing intense public and political pressure to change its culture and create better systems for both preventing and handling sexual misconduct allegations, including an independent reporting system to ensure allegations are handled outside of the chain of command.

Following exclusive reporting by Global News in February into high-level allegations of inappropriate behaviour, Sajjan announced in April an external review into the military’s handling of sexual misconduct, but the government has so far not offered a timeline for the key change urged since 2015.

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That was when former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued her landmark report documenting what she described as the “toxic” culture of the military towards women and LGBTQ2 members, and urged the creation of an independent reporting system outside the chain of command.

Read more: Sexual misconduct in Canada’s military remains as ‘rampant’ in 2021 as in 2015, report says

The Liberals came into power just months after that review was issued, yet never heeded its core recommendation. Trudeau and Sajjan have said they support an independent system, but have said they are waiting for the recommendations of the ongoing review before commenting further.

That review, led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, isn’t set to wrap up until next spring.

In the meantime, the number of complainants seeking to join the military’s class-action settlement for victims of sexual misconduct continues to rise, and the pressure on the government to act continues to build.

Steve Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs and is director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, has been a vocal critic of Sajjan’s handling of the crisis and said if the government opts to keep him in the role now, the message to survivors and victims will be clear.

“If this government were to keep Sajjan on, it would send a strong message that they don’t care about women in the military,” he said.

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“He has been an utter disaster.”

There’s still no date for when Parliament will resume, or when Trudeau plans to name a new cabinet.

When he does, though, he will face the challenge of what a third defence expert described as both “impatience” and intense scrutiny over the current pace of change.

“Anyone coming in new will feel that,” the person said.

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