A letter sent by Adm. Art McDonald to senior military officials claiming he has been exonerated on an allegation of sexual assault and should be immediately reinstated is “shocking,” says Canada’s acting top soldier.
Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, responded to the letter sent by McDonald in his own letter to senior staff, which was shared with Global News. McDonald was placed on indefinite leave by the government and is waging amid an increasingly public battle to return to the top post.
“We must remember that in a democracy the military is subordinate to our duly elected civilian leadership. This fundamental is paramount to our profession. I was asked to act as Chief of the Defence Staff on February 25, and I will continue in that role until told otherwise by our civilian leadership,” wrote Eyre in the letter on Friday.
“To that end, this shocking letter changes nothing with respect to our vital work of defending our nation, changing our culture, and preparing for the threats ahead.”
One defence official told Global News that McDonald neither consulted nor informed Eyre of his plans to send out the contentious letter.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement to Global News on Friday that the message sent by McDonald “is inappropriate and unacceptable.”
“In Canada, civilians provide necessary oversight of the military and decide who is best suited to lead the armed forces” Sajjan said. “McDonald’s email does not reflect this, nor does it reflect the need to put survivors and victims of sexual misconduct first.”
In the letter obtained by Global News on Thursday, McDonald said he was “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.
Global News has previously reported the allegation is specifically one of sexual assault.
McDonald also argued 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.
READ: The three-page letter Adm Art McDonald sent to all General and Flag officers
McDonald denied the allegation against him, and added that media reports were “often replete with hurtful sensationalism, innuendo and inaccurate characterizations.”
Two sources confirmed the letter, addressed to generals and flag officers of the Canadian Forces, was sent by McDonald and bore his signature.
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.”
“Adm. Art McDonald was not exonerated by the military police,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute specializing in military culture.
“They could not meet the burden of proof to charge Art McDonald. That doesn’t mean that the allegations were false.
“It doesn’t mean that the victim was lying … so he cannot say that he was exonerated.”
Duval-Lantoine said she was “appalled” to hear of McDonald’s letter and noted it raises fresh questions around whether he holds the moral authority to govern the Canadian military.
“He’s determining for himself that he has the moral authority to gain back to the job of chief of the defense staff,” Duval-Lantoine explained.
“What he doesn’t realize is that it is not his decision to make. He’s not the one who needs to determine whether he has a moral authority. It is up to the government, and I would also argue that it is the determination of service members that would be under his command.”
IN HER WORDS: The woman behind McDonald allegation tells her story
Retired Lt.-Gen. Mike Day, former commander of Canada’s special forces, expressed similar concerns at the letter in a blog post on Friday as well, noting he and others are feeling “horror” at what is unfolding.
“Contrary to the Admiral’s claim and the start point of his argument, a failure to press charges, for whatever reason is not an exoneration, neither in form nor function. A decision not to proceed based on insufficient evidence neither exonerates nor condemns,” Day wrote.
“Exoneration can only come from those who govern the Admiral (ie MND / PM).”
Day noted that the position of chief of the defence staff is one that serves at the pleasure of the government, and said McDonald’s decision to pursue his campaign for reinstatement so publicly indicates one of several “concerning” possibilities: either he doesn’t understand how the process actually works, or he is “not targeting his return but rather any negotiations that might inform his release.”
Macdonald told Global News previously that the decision by military police not to pursue any charges against McDonald 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 Macdonald, a navy combat systems engineer who has served for 16 years.
Since McDonald’s letter became public, multiple women officers who have been victims of sexual misconduct told Global News they were 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 of 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.
Retired Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates, which were first reported on by Global News on Feb. 2.
He denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Military police opened an investigation into the allegations shortly afterward and in July, charged him with one count of obstruction of justice for alleged conduct during the course of their investigation.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service handed the case over to the civilian criminal court system, but opted not to pursue any charges against Vance on the allegations of sexual misconduct through the military court system, citing the Fish report.
Since the allegations against Vance emerged, multiple senior military leaders have been removed from their positions or investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct, sparking what experts have called an institutional “crisis” and a reckoning for the Canadian Forces.
Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour was appointed by the government in April to lead an external, independent review tasked with providing recommendations on how best to create an independent reporting system for military sexual misconduct.
Global News has confirmed Arbour does not plan at this stage to issue any interim recommendations.
During the last session of Parliament, Liberal Anita Vandenbeld — who was parliamentary secretary to the defence minister — had said Arbour would be issuing interim recommendations so the government could implement them quickly.
“Throughout the process, she will provide interim recommendations that we can implement right away,” Vandenbeld said on May 10.
While Arbour’s appointment was announced in April, her contract to begin the review did not kick in until May 21, and she has 12 months from that date to complete her review, according to its terms of reference.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the military “still doesn’t get that survivors need to be at the centre and the unique priority of everything in regards to sexual misconduct and harassment in the military.”
“This is, again, a reminder of just how much work there is to do.”
When asked by Global News whether work on creating an independent reporting system for military sexual misconduct will begin this fall or winter, given Arbour’s recommendations aren’t due until next year, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office offered a brief response.
“I’ll refer you to DND on this matter.”
–With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson