Canada's top military commander steps aside following sexual misconduct claim

Admiral Art McDonald abruptly stepped aside late Wednesday night as Canada's top military commander after questions were posed to the Department of National Defence about a sexual misconduct investigation into allegations against him.

Admiral Art McDonald under investigation by Canadian military's National Investigative Service

Admiral Art McDonald addresses the audience at a Royal Canadian Navy Change of Command ceremony in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Admiral Art McDonald abruptly stepped aside late Wednesday night as Canada's top military commander after questions were posed to the Department of National Defence about a sexual misconduct investigation into allegations against him.

Those allegations, CBC News has learned, involve a female crew member and an incident a decade ago aboard a warship that was participating in a northern exercise.

Several media outlets were tipped off that an investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service was underway and had been for some time.

CBC News asked for comment late Wednesday and received no response until 11 p.m., when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan released a statement announcing that McDonald — who took over the chief of the defence staff post just a month ago — had stepped aside voluntarily while the investigation is ongoing.

The minister did not reveal the nature of the allegations against McDonald and said he will not comment further because the investigation is ongoing.

Sajjan has appointed Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre as acting chief of the defence staff. Eyre currently is the commander of the army.

Allegation dates back to 2010

However, sources with knowledge of the investigation spoke to CBC News and say the allegation of misconduct dates back to 2010 during a party that involved alcohol aboard HMCS Montreal, which at the time was involved in the military's annual Arctic exercise known as Operation Nanook.

The allegation against McDonald, who was a naval captain at the time, involves a female junior officer, the sources said. 

The investigation comes on the heels of another, separate case involving the man McDonald replaced.

Military police are investigating allegations that the former chief of the defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, had a long-standing inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate and separately sent a racy email to another woman, also of lower rank.

The allegations against Vance led to a parliamentary inquiry into when the Liberal government became aware of the claims and what sort of action it took to verify them.

Investigation began a month ago

In his speech during his swearing-in ceremony, McDonald apologized to victims of racism and misconduct in the military.

He later told reporters that he felt it was necessary to make the apology because he was certain that he had unintentionally been part of some of the problems that the military is now trying to address.

He did not cite a specific incident in his past in those remarks on Jan. 14, but suggested that "when challenged by some of the circumstances, I thought maybe I didn't hear a voice."

Sources tell CBC News the investigation into the 2010 incident involving McDonald began a month ago, around the time the new chief was sworn in.

Several witnesses and the alleged victim have been interviewed, the source said.

The Department of National Defence refused to comment on the specifics of the investigation.

"While we understand the interest in the matter, we must always ensure the integrity of any investigation protects the complainants and safeguards due process," said an unattributed statement from the department.

McDonald is currently on paid leave, the department added.

Minister won't say when his office was told

In an interview with CBC's Vassy Kapelos Live, Sajjan said McDonald only learned of the investigation Wednesday night and voluntarily stepped aside — a sign of the military justice system's independence from the chain of command.

The minister refused to say when his office was informed, however.

"The only thing I can say is that I did learn about it recently," Sajjan said. "I can tell you that he learned of it yesterday. I can't go into the details of this."

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan has not said when his office was informed of the allegations against Admiral Art McDonald. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Sajjan said the investigations into both McDonald and Vance demonstrate that allegations of inappropriate behaviour within the military will investigated thoroughly, regardless of the rank or position of those involved.

McDonald's hiatus from the top command is another major blow to the military's efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct and violence in the ranks.

Conservative MP Leona Alleslev told the House of Commons that when the person in charge of eradicating unacceptable behaviour is accused of perpetrating it, "this leaves military members wondering if justice can actually be achieved."

During a Commons defence committee hearing into the allegations against Vance last week, former supreme court justice Marie Deschamps said she is disappointed with how Operation Honour — the Canadian Forces' campaign against sexual misconduct — has been implemented.

"The CAF should double their effort in order to build up or rebuild its credibility," said Deschamps, who wrote a groundbreaking report six years ago that took the military to task for its macho, highly sexualized culture.

Despite her disappointment, Deschamps suggested the campaign is still worth pursuing.

"I don't think they should drop the ball now. It would be the worst thing that would happen," she said.

Deschamps and others say victims need an organization completely independent of the military to which they can freely report misconduct without fear of reprisals.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.