Politics

Military ombudsman criticizes 'erratic' handling of military misconduct, alleges interference in other cases

The country's military ombudsman has fired a broadside at the Liberal government, accusing the defence minister's office and the Department of National Defence of trying to "exert control" over investigations and ignoring recommendations for change.

Lick's remarks prompted by ongoing investigations into sexual misconduct in the military

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is seen during a news conference on May 7, 2020 in Ottawa. The military's ombudsman said Tuesday the minister's office had placed reports 'on hold' and has been 'delaying their publication and availability to the public.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The country's military ombudsman has fired a broadside at the Liberal government, accusing the defence minister's office and the Department of National Defence of trying to "exert control" over investigations and ignoring recommendations for change.

Gregory Lick's blistering criticism is contained in a position paper released today — prompted by the ongoing investigations into sexual misconduct in the military.

"The collective actions or, in some cases, the inaction of senior political, military and civilian leadership within the government have eroded trust within the defence community," he said.

Lick is calling for the ombudsman's office to be made entirely independent by allowing it to report directly to Parliament — not the minister's office.

"When leaders turn a blind eye to our recommendations and concerns in order to advance political interests and their own self-preservation or career advancement, it is the members of the defence community that suffer the consequences," Lick said in a virtual media event on Tuesday.

"It is clear that inaction is rewarded far more than action. In the four months since the most recent outbreak of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, the actions of the minister of National Defence, senior government and military officials have bitterly proved this point.

"The erratic behaviour of leadership defies common sense or reason. The concept of ministerial accountability has been absent."

WATCH: Defence ombudsman accuses minister's office of inaction on misconduct

Military ombudsman accuses defence minister's office of inaction on misconduct file

3 months ago
3:01
Gregory Lick is calling for independent civilian oversight to deal with military issues. 3:01

His remarks and written presentation mirror, in some respects, the testimony of his predecessor Gary Walbourne — who told a parliamentary committee last winter that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan refused to look at evidence of alleged inappropriate behaviour by the former chief of the defence staff, retired general Jonathan Vance, which had been received by the ombudsman's office.

Walbourne had made similar complaints and recommendations regarding independence.

'Inane, absent'

On Tuesday, Walbourne said he had sympathy for Lick.

"While I was in the seat, I produced 14 systemic reviews on issues inside the Canadian armed forces," Walbourne said. "The responses I got back from the minister were inane, absent, missing off the mark."

In Lick's presentation, he describes the minister's office putting his reports "on hold" and "delaying their publication and availability to the public."

He writes that the ombudsman has been given "direction on the conduct of systemic investigations" only to have those orders revoked without justification.

The report cites an example from just last week, saying that "the Department of National Defence attempted to exert control over the review and approval of questions" that were prepared for members of the military involved in an ongoing investigation of employment equity.

"The office pushed back as the approval process put forth by the department would have undermined the independence of the investigation," the report said. Lick also said he's seen cases of the defence department sitting on "sensitive information that could be unflattering" to the military.

"This cannot persist," Lick wrote in his report.

Sajjan took exception to the claim that his office delayed the release of reports. He insisted in a written statement that the report cited by Lick was published well within the timeframe suggested by the ombudsman's office.

Sajjan, who declined to be interviewed, went on in the statement to further deny interference — and even claimed that the ombudsman himself had never made such a charge.

"I have always had a professional working relationship with Mr. Lick," Sajjan said in the statement. "As Mr. Lick said today, there has been no political interference with his office. Further, I expect he would have alerted me if he felt there was a problem with the relations between our offices. That has never happened."

Lick also accused the department and the military of scuttling attempts at negotiating independence for the ombudsman's office.

"Reporting directly to Parliament would eliminate political influence and ensure that all pertinent information and recommendations regarding the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department reach all Members of Parliament in a timely manner," his report said.

WATCH: Defence ombudsman calls for independence from minister's office

Military ombudsman demands full independence amid sexual misconduct crisis

3 months ago
8:42
Canada's military ombudsman is calling for big changes in the military after years of complaints about misconduct. Gregory Lick issued a position paper today, calling for full independence for his office. 8:42

Lick said the inability of the government and the military to deal with sexual misconduct can be related directly to a lack of accountability.

"The cycle of scandals followed by studies, recommendations for independent oversight, half-solutions and resistance by the Department or the Canadian Armed Forces will only be broken when action is taken," the report said.

Walbourne said he supports the call for more independence for the ombudsman's office.

"Without this independence, we're going nowhere," said Walbourne, who noted the current reporting arrangement is a major source of frustration.

"And this is why ombudsmen get upset. They're doing the same thing day after day, trying to get the elephant to roll over. And it's just not happening."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the ombudsman's observations will be of interest to former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who is conducting an independent review of misconduct in the Canadian military.

"I know she will be looking as well very carefully at Mr. Lick's report to see how we can make sure that the ombudsman's office is a key part of the solution," Trudeau said.

WATCH: Trudeau reacts to ombudsman's report

Trudeau reacts to military ombudsman's criticism of defence minister's office

3 months ago
1:56
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to questions about military ombudsman Gregory Lick's criticisms of the government's handling of military misconduct. 1:56

"As we move forward, we will be making significant changes to the way the military functions in the coming months as Madam Arbour begins to make recommendations concrete." 

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the ombudsman's remarks only confirmed his suspicions.

"And so, despite the claim that Minister Sajjan says it's not appropriate for politicians to be interfering in investigations, you have proof again that there has been interference," he said.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Lick's criticisms reflect on the government as a whole, not just the defence minister.

"When the defence ombudsman said that the erratic behaviour of leadership defies common sense or logic, it's clear that he was speaking about the actions of Justin Trudeau, his senior staff and minister of defence," O'Toole said.

A defence expert said the accusations made by the ombudsman today will have far-reaching effects and will force members of the military to question the watchdog's effectiveness.

"I think it is very serious because the ombudsman is known for being an independent body and then suddenly we realize that it is not the case," said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"And so it creates questions around whether or not the investigations are being pursued by the ombudsman office are actually fair."

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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