Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin’s legal team ended its arguments for why the senior military officer should be reinstated as head of Canada’s vaccine distribution campaign by accusing the Liberal government of having removed him in May for purely political reasons.
The explosive charge came on the second day of a scheduled two-day hearing in Federal Court on Wednesday, as a lawyer for the senior military officer alleged his sudden removal from his high-profile position at the Public Health Agency of Canada violated Fortin’s rights to due process, presumption of innocence and privacy.
“It appears to be that the political concern or the political calculus was this: if (Fortin) remained in his position, and the fact of the investigation became public, it would damage the public’s perception of the institution and could expose the decision-makers to political risks,” Natalia Rodriguez told the court.
“This was a politically motivated decision.”
The investigation in question was a military police probe of an allegation of sexual misconduct. Days after he was removed from his high-profile position leading the vaccine rollout effort, the criminal case was sent to the Quebec prosecutor’s office. He was charged with one count of sexual assault dating back to 1988 last month.
Fortin has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting the criminal charge in Quebec court as well as his removal from the vaccine campaign in Federal Court.
Rodriguez told the Federal Court Justice Ann Marie McDonald on Wednesday that Fortin has never received any written reasons for why he was removed from his position at the health agency, and she argued no one has come clean about who actually made the decision.
Fortin’s legal team have repeatedly argued only acting chief of defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre had the legal authority to remove their client, and Rodriguez alleged on Wednesday that members of the Liberal government actually made the decision and “used the acting chief of the defence staff as their mouthpiece.”
Rodriguez pointed to handwritten notes that Eyre took during multiple meetings leading up to Fortin’s removal on May 14, which include several references to political risks and calculations, as evidence of the political nature of her client’s removal.
Fortin’s lawyers have previously alleged that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Janice Charette, the clerk of the Privy Council, were the real decision-makers.
Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Richards during her submissions acknowledged Eyre “had various discussions with other government officials, including the Public Health Agency of Canada and Privy Council Office, about this investigation and the potential impact.
“And we say that’s exactly what you would expect in a whole-of-government response. It would be strange indeed if the (Canadian Armed Forces), working side by side in response to a request for assistance, did not discuss the impact on the agency that had requested this assistance.”
Richards nonetheless said Eyre has taken responsibility for the decision to remove Fortin from his position, arguing the decision was made to protect public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine campaign.
“To be clear, somebody has stepped up and taken responsibility for the decision: It’s the acting chief of defence staff,” she told the court. “This issue about who is the decision-maker is a complete red herring.”
Fortin was not relieved of his military duties but was returned to his previous position within the military as chief of staff to the commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, Richards added, and if he was unhappy with the decision, he should have grieved it with the military rather than filed a court challenge.
Richards also argued Fortin’s request to return to the vaccine campaign is a moot point as the position no longer exists.
The Canadian Forces is in the midst of a reckoning over sexual misconduct within its ranks following exclusive reporting by Global News on Feb. 2 into allegations against retired Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff. He denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour and last month was charged with one count of obstruction of justice in relation to the probe of the matter.
— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly