OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says the “unsafe culture” in the Canadian Armed Forces must change, and if he were prime minister, he would order a sweeping military-wide independent investigation and introduce a pay freeze during its duration.
Former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance faces allegations of sexual misconduct from two female subordinates. The allegations were first reported by Global News. The Canadian Forces National Investigative Service (NIS) has since launched an investigation.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Wednesday evening that Vance’s successor as Canada’s top soldier, Admiral Art McDonald, would voluntarily step aside while military police investigate allegations of misconduct against him, too.
“A Conservative government will order a service-wide independent investigation into sexual misconduct in the military,” O’Toole told reporters in Ottawa Friday. “While this investigation is taking place, all general and flag officer promotions and salary increases will be suspended.”
“We cannot allow our daughters, our sisters, and our mothers to work in an unsafe environment,” he said. “No one should be subjected to sexual harassment when they show up to serve their country.”
Ensuring a safe environment and including women at the command table is a key starting point, he said. “I will not politicize this today.”
Watch: O’Toole presses Liberals on allegations against defence chief. Story continues below video.
The NIS is the investigative body of the Canadian Forces Military Police. O’Toole, who before his political career served as a Royal Canadian Air Force officer, said he would like to see external oversight for the investigation and suggested it isn’t acceptable for the military to be investigating itself on this matter. Leadership begins at the top, he said.
“Now that we’ve had two chiefs of defence staff come under investigation in subsequent order, we have to be sure that any complaint can be brought outside of the chain of command, to make sure that it will be investigated thoroughly.” He said this would send a welcoming message that there are opportunities in the Canadian Armed Forces for all Canadians.
O’Toole did not directly answer a question if he was made aware of any complaints against either Vance or McDonald when he was veterans affairs minister under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
The controversy has increased scrutiny over the thoroughness of the candidate-vetting processes for high-level appointments by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau announced McDonald’s appointment as Vance’s successor two days before Christmas.
In January, former governor general Julie Payette resigned following the completion of an independent investigation into workplace harassment allegations at Rideau Hall. The fallout stemmed from CBC News reports about a toxic work environment fostered under Payette’s tenure.
The government was made aware of the allegations related to Vance in March 2018. Sajjan was briefed on the allegations during a private meeting with the military ombudsman.
Sajjan appeared before the House of Commons’ defence committee last week and said he was “shocked” to learn about the allegations against Vance. When pressed for more information about that March 2018 meeting, Sajjan did not provide any details, citing confidentiality.
When the allegations were raised during question period this week, Trudeau suggested that he was never briefed by Sajjan or anyone else about the allegations relating to Vance prior to February.
The prime minister told the House that learned about the allegations against Vance from Global News stories published earlier this month.
When pressed on the topic during a media availability Friday, Trudeau said the act of McDonald voluntarily stepping aside shows that both the military and government takes any allegations “extremely seriously.”
There’s a lot of work to do in our systems, all workplaces, to ensure they’re safe and free from intimidation and harassment and sexual assault, Trudeau said.
“No one is out of reach of concerns and allegations like this, that they will always be taken seriously.”
The prime minister added a message to any survivors of harassment listening: “We will be there to listen, to hear them, to work with them, and to move forward through processes that will get to the right answers.”
Trudeau said “every case is different” and that processes are in place, which is why there’s currently a review underway.
“We know that these problems have been going on for many, many years in many systems and institutions and we need to change them,” he said.
Trudeau said the government has taken significant steps, but recent events have shown that there’s “always more to do” including extending additional supports to survivors and people who come forward.