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Sexual misconduct allegations against top commanders rock Canada's military

By AMANDA COLETTA | The Washington Post | Published: March 19, 2021

TORONTO — Separate allegations of sexual misconduct by Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's recently retired former chief of the defense staff, and Adm. Art McDonald, his successor, are rocking the country's armed forces.

The allegations against Canada's most senior military officers — the equivalent of the U.S. chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — are being investigated by a parliamentary committee and the military police. They're also renewing criticism about the military's efforts to eliminate a long-standing problem, and raising questions about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's commitment to rooting out sexual harassment in federal institutions.

The crisis deepened this week with the resignation of Lt. Col. Eleanor Taylor, the first woman to lead a Canadian infantry company in combat, who wrote in a letter to senior military officials that she was "disgusted" it has taken so long to investigate top leaders, according to Canadian media reports.

What happened?

Vance is being investigated for what Global News reported last month are allegations of a sexual relationship with a woman who was his subordinate that continued after he became chief of the defense staff in 2015 and an inappropriate email sent to a junior employee.

Maj. Kellie Brennan told Global News that she believed Vance had abused his authority by having a relationship with her and held her back in her career when he was her boss.

"I remember the conversation in his house where he told me that I was an awesome captain," she said. ". . . He used words like, 'You have performed your duties admirably at that rank,' but to be promoted further — then that would be complicated."

Vance, the longest-serving chief of the defense staff, told Global News there was no intimate relationship while he was Brennan's superior and denied preventing her from advancing in her career. He said that he had no recollection of the email, but was willing to apologize for it if he had sent it.

McDonald was appointed as Vance's replacement in January. In his first speech in that role, he apologized to service members who had experienced "racism, discriminatory behavior and/or hateful conduct."

He voluntarily stepped aside in February amid an investigation into unspecified allegations. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the allegations involved an incident with a junior female officer aboard a frigate in 2010.He has not commented publicly.

Neither McDonald nor Vance responded to requests for comment.

• What did the government know?

Harjit Sajjan, Canada's defense minister, said in testimony last month before a parliamentary committee that he was "shocked" to learn of the allegations against Vance in the news. He said he takes all allegations seriously "no matter the rank, no matter the position."

But Gary Walbourne, a former military ombudsman, told lawmakers he had informed Sajjan about an informal complaint against Vance in 2018 and sought advice on how to proceed.

"I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding, and he pushed back from the table and said, 'No,' " Walbourne told the national defense committee.

He said the meeting ended "bitterly." He said he asked Sajjan to keep the information confidential, but later learned that the Privy Council Office, the public servants who support the prime minister and the cabinet, knew about it.

In a second appearance before the committee, Sajjan, a former army lieutenant colonel, defended his response, saying that accepting any information from the ombudsman would have constituted political interference.He said he told his chief of staff to contact the Privy Council Office. She also spoke to an official in Trudeau's office.

Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and lawyer, told the committee that Sajjan had a duty to investigate and authority under the law to convene a board of inquiry.

Trudeau, whose government has said it is taking a "feminist approach" to the military, has said that his office knew there was an allegation against Vance in 2018 but did not know the "substance" of it. He has expressed confidence in Sajjan.

• How has the military been addressing sexual misconduct?

Allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces date back decades. Amid a new wave of reports in 2014, commanders commissioned former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps to conduct an external review.

In a blistering report, released in 2015, Deschamps found an "underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGBTQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault."

Members become "desensitized" to the culture as they move up the ranks, she wrote, fomenting a perception within the lower ranks that "those in the chain of command either condone inappropriate sexual misconduct, or are willing to turn a blind eye" to it.

She noted what she said were instances of sexual violence being used to "enforce power relationships," and concluded that complaints are underreported because victims fear coming forward might harm their careers or leaders won't take them seriously.

Months after the report was released, Vance was sworn in as chief of the defense staff. In his inaugural speech, he condemned inappropriate sexual behavior as a threat to the military.

He also launched Operation Honor, a military-wide effort to stamp out sexual misconduct.

The federal government in 2019 set aside $725 million in compensation to settle class-action lawsuits lodged on behalf of survivors of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination in the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of Defense.

• What has been the outcome?

Results have been mixed.

A Statistics Canada survey in 2018 of Regular Force members found that 1.6 percent of respondents said they had been the victim of a sexual assault in the military workplace or involving a member of the military outside the workplace in the previous 12 months — a tiny improvement from 1.7 percent in 2016.

The same survey found that 70 percent of members had seen, heard or been targeted by sexualized behavior in the workplace during that period, down from 80 percent in 2016.

"Sexual misconduct continues to be a destructive problem within the Canadian Armed Forces," Lt. Gen. Paul Wynnyk said in 2018, when he was vice chief of the defense staff, "and we have made rather limited progress in eliminating it over the past two-and-a-half years."

The Defense Department reported in 2019 that it had fully implemented two of Deschamps's 10 recommendations — acknowledging the problem and simplifying some processes for complaints — and said that more needed to be done to achieve "enduring cultural change."

Lt. Cmdr. Raymond Trotter told the parliamentary committee that he was bounced around when he tried to report an allegation of "serious sexual misconduct" against McDonald on behalf of a colleague in February. He said he sat down with military police, but was hesitant to do so because they're subordinate to the chief of the defense staff.

"With the chief of the defense staff and the former chief of defense staff facing allegations, the inadequacy of the military justice system is really amplified here," said Megan MacKenzie, a feminist scholar at Simon Fraser University who studies military misconduct. "It's basically been shown to be not just inadequate, but a complete failure."

Trudeau said this month that his government was looking at implementing "independent mechanisms" to handle sexual misconduct allegations in the military, but provided few details.

Deschamps, who testified last month before the parliamentary committee, was blunt in her assessment of progress.

"As I listen to the comments," she said, "I have the impression that today, little has changed."