A letter sent by chief of the defence staff Adm. Art McDonald to top Canadian military officers claims he has been exonerated of allegations of sexual assault, and argues for his “immediate” return to the top military command post.
In the letter obtained by Global News on Thursday, McDonald says he is “quite disappointed that my exoneration has not seen my return to duty” after military police declined to charge the admiral over alleged sexual misconduct in August.
He also argues his reinstatement is important to avoid “undermining the principles that must be foundational to legitimate cultural change” within the military, citing the need for fairness for both accusers and those accused of wrongdoing.
Two sources confirmed the letter, addressed to generals and flag officers of the Canadian Forces, was sent by McDonald, whose signature appears on the letter.
Global News has reached out to the Department of National Defence for comment.
McDonald goes on to detail how his actions in response to the allegation, including stepping aside as chief of the defence staff in February, was meant to “enable a rigorous and thorough examination,” and was “out of respect for the courage it takes to make a complaint.”
“My dismay with the current situation is, of course, aggravated by the fact that, from the moment I was informed that an allegation had been made against me, I have acted with the integrity and compassion that you would expect of your Admiral,” he wrote.
“Therefore, I assert that my leadership is now proven stronger than ever.”
READ: The three-page letter Adm Art McDonald sent to all General and Flag officers
Multiple women officers who have been victims of sexual misconduct told Global News they are deeply concerned by the tone of the letter and the message it sends to those who may want to come forward.
Former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish warned in June that it is “legally impossible” to charge senior military officials at McDonald’s rank under the military justice system.
Global News confirmed last month this finding had played a direct role in the decision by military police not to lay charges under the military system during a probe into McDonald’s predecessor.
Despite insisting he did “all (he) could to ensure allegations were fairly considered,” McDonald does not mention in the letter what he told the Globe and Mail in an interview earlier this week: that he did not sit for an interview with military police investigators.
He told the Globe that he was willing to do an interview, but declined to do so based on the advice of his lawyers after investigators did not disclose details of the allegations or identify his accuser.
McDonald writes in the letter that he is “concerned” that he has yet to hear anything further from the Department of Defence or the Prime Minister’s Office since the military declined to bring charges.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in August that he expects McDonald to remain on leave while the government “review(s) this situation.”
That was in response to a statement from McDonald’s lawyers that claimed he would be returning to his post as chief of the defence staff, while also claiming their client had been exonerated.
Military and political sources have said the lack of criminal charges against McDonald has not removed concerns about whether he has the moral authority to lead the military.
Global News learned in August that the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service interviewed dozens of people as part of the probe into the allegation, but were unable to determine an agreed upon set of facts, as many of those interviewed claimed to have been drunk at the time of the alleged sexual assault.
The Department of National Defence said at the time that its investigation “did not reveal evidence to support the laying of charges under either the Code of Service Discipline or the Criminal Code of Canada.”
The woman behind the allegation told Global News then that the decision left her feeling like she’d 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.
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 granted Global News permission to share the details of her allegation publicly, which she said 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.
In his letter, McDonald denies the allegation against him, and adds that media reports were “often replete with hurtful sensationalism, innuendo, and inaccurate characterizations.”
Multiple senior leaders including McDonald’s predecessor, now-retired Gen. Jonathan Vance, stand accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour in what experts have described as an institutional “crisis” for the military.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour first reported by Global News on Feb. 2.
In the months since, the military sexual misconduct crisis has sparked twin parliamentary committee probes that heard blistering testimony about both the government’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations as well as the systemic problems in the military that have allowed it to continue.
Witnesses who have testified during those parliamentary committee probes 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.
—With files from Amanda Connolly and Marc-André Cossette