Politics

Military ombudsman doubles down in dispute with DND, demands return of spending power

Canada’s military ombudsman — who recently accused the Liberal government of interfering in an ongoing investigation — has increased the stakes in his behind-the-scenes battle with the Department of National Defence.

Gregory Lick has accused the department of trying to 'exert control' over his work

Then-chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan take part in a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, March 30, 2020. The military ombudsman has accused Sajjan's department of interfering in an ongoing investigation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's military ombudsman — who recently accused the Liberal government of interfering in an ongoing investigation — has increased the stakes in his behind-the-scenes battle with the Department of National Defence.

In letters exchanged over the past week with the department's deputy minister and the acting chief of the defence staff, Gregory Lick said he's willing to discuss the issues raised in a scathing position paper in which he claimed the department was trying to "exert control" over what his office is doing.

He suggested, however, that he wasn't satisfied with the explanation the department has given for its alleged interference in an employment equity investigation currently being conducted by the ombudsman's office.

"At best, the officials from each of your staff have demonstrated a lack of understanding of the role of Ombudsman – at worst, it is interference," Lick wrote in a letter, dated June 24, posted to the Canadian Forces ombudsman's website. "This must be addressed."

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Lick has also insisted in his message to deputy minister Jody Thomas and chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre that specific financial authorities taken away from his predecessor, Gary Walbourne, must be restored.

Six years ago, as the result of a highly-critical auditor general's report, the ombudsman's office lost control over certain financial and human resource functions. Spending authority — some of which affected the size and scope of investigations — was taken away from the ombudsman and subjected to the approval of the deputy minister.

Walbourne complained bitterly about the loss of authority in a 2019 interview with CBC News. He cited it and an argument with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over an allegation of misconduct involving former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance as the reasons for his early retirement.

Canada's former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"For about the last eight or 10 months I was in office, I sat there without financial or human resource authorities signed off by the deputy minister," Walbourne said.

"So when you take away the tools that allow you to do the job, you can't get an audience with the minister to talk about subjects that are of importance ... there comes a point in time when you have to consider whether I could do any further good."

His successor has now picked the same fight, casting the restraints as a further example of interference.

"There are a number of steps that could be taken by the deputy [minister] to lessen interference in our business while ensuring appropriate accountability," Lick wrote.

The unusual and politically significant criticism coming out of the ombudsman's office was prompted by the series of ongoing investigations into sexual misconduct in the military.

"The erratic behaviour of leadership defies common sense or reason," Lick told journalists on June 22. "The concept of ministerial accountability has been absent."

In addition to demanding the restoration of his office's independence, Lick went to bat for staff who, under Walbourne, faced discipline following an internal investigation.

In 2018, DND conducted a closed-door, wide-ranging review of complaints of mismanagement, nepotism and misuse of public funds. The findings criticized Walbourne and three other staff members — one of whom took the matter to Federal Court a year later.

Melanie Chapman, the former director of investigations for the watchdog, won her case and a federal judge agreed that she had been unfairly treated by the defence department investigation.

Two other staff members, still in the ombudsman's office, have outstanding, unresolved grievances.

"Apart from the unfairness of the initial process, the failure to close this file with a clear statement of no wrongdoing is a travesty," Lick wrote.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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