Conservatives propose independent agency to investigate sexual misconduct claims in military

The federal Conservatives promised today that, if elected, they would set up an independent body to handle claims of sexual assault and misconduct in the military.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole (left) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal Conservatives promised today that, if elected, they would set up an independent body to handle complaints of sexual assault and misconduct in the military.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, a former air force officer, insisted the pledge is not meant to politicize the growing crisis within the military but is an honest reflection of what his party believes needs to be done.

"This is a pressing issue that cannot wait to be fixed," he said. "We must ensure that any woman can serve her country with honour and without compromise."

The military's two most senior ranking officers, Admiral Art McDonald and Gen. Jonathan Vance, are the focus of separate investigations related to allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

O'Toole said there should be a wide-ranging independent investigation of the military's culture and promised a government led by him would launch one.

As a member of former prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet, O'Toole was at the table when the Conservative government launched the last study into sexual misconduct in the military.

That study, led by retired supreme court justice Marie Deschamps, came to some scathing conclusions about the military's hyper-masculine culture and overly sexualized environment.

Dechamps recommended in 2015 that an organization be established — completely independent of the military chain of command — to handle misconduct complaints.

Neither the Conservative government nor the subsequent Liberal government followed through on the recommendation.

Speaking to a House of Commons committee earlier this week, Deschamps said she was disappointed with how the military's campaign against sexual misconduct, known as Operation Honour, has unfolded — and specifically cited the absence of an independent organization.

The military did establish a sexual misconduct response centre, but advocates and military justice experts have said its mandate does not go far enough.

Admiral Art McDonald addresses a Royal Canadian Navy ceremony in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau turned aside questions today about the case involving McDonald, who was only appointed chief of the defence staff two months ago.

McDonald abruptly stepped aside Wednesday night after learning he was under investigation by military police for alleged misconduct.

Trudeau declined to discuss specifics, including whether the vetting process should have picked up concerns before the admiral was appointed.

He said the federal government's focus has been, and will always be, on maintaining a safe, harassment-free workplace in the military and other institutions.

The acting commander of the Canadian military, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, issued an internal statement today attempting to reassure shaken military members.

"Much has occurred over the past weeks, and I know you have questions, but we must allow due process of law to occur; that is the right of every Canadian," wrote Eyre, who acknowledged in the message that he doesn't know how long he will be in the job.

"I promise that I will be as transparent as I can with you and keep you informed of developments. In the face of uncertainty we, as an institution, must remain resilient."

He urged members to focus on the military's raison d'être — to defend the country — but also to strive to make sure the institution is one in which Canadians can see themselves.

"How we do things is as important as what we do," Eyre wrote. "I will lead you from the front and I expect all leaders to do the same ...

"I view service in the Canadian Armed Forces as a privilege. Let us all keep ourselves worthy of that honour."


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.