Admiral Art McDonald had been Chief of the Defence Staff for just five weeks before taking leave in February after an announcement about allegations of misconduct by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Admiral Art McDonald, the Chief of the Defence Staff who was sidelined by allegations of misconduct, says he is ready to return to his job now that an investigation has found no evidence against him. However, the federal government is not committing to his return.
Lawyers for Adm. McDonald, who took leave from his post last February when the issue of allegations was raised, said on Wednesday the veteran commander has decided to return immediately.
“Now that he has been exonerated, it is appropriate for Admiral McDonald to return to his duties,” said a statement issued by lawyers Michael Edelson and Rory Fowler. “Given that it was his decision to step aside, it is now his decision – indeed obligation – to return to his duties.”
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But Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan rejected the idea.
“My expectation is that Admiral McDonald will remain on leave while we review this situation,” Mr. Sajjan said Wednesday.
“The position of chief of defence staff must always uphold the highest standard within the Canadian Armed Forces because of the responsibility of that position and the weight that it holds.”
Canada’s Armed Forces have been in turmoil for months over allegations of misconduct involving senior officers, and the government has faced questions about its handling of the file. Earlier this year, Ottawa appointed former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to head an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct.
Last week, the Forces Provost Marshal said the investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) into Adm. McDonald did not reveal evidence to support the laying of charges under either the Code of Service Discipline or the Criminal Code of Canada.
Mr. Sajjan said that Canadians and the Forces are being well served by Adm. McDonald’s replacement, Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, now acting chief of the defence staff, given the military role in wildfires as well as on international issues that the minister did not detail.
Both Mr. Edelson and Mr. Fowler, informed of Mr. Sajjan’s remarks, said they would not offer any further comment beyond the statement issued on Wednesday.
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The chief of the defence staff is a government-in-council appointment and can be terminated with or without cause.
The Privy Council Office, which provides support to the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet, also rejected the idea of the admiral’s immediate return to work.
“We are aware of the statement issued by Admiral McDonald’s counsel earlier today. Our expectation is that Admiral McDonald will remain on leave, while the matter is fully reviewed,” spokesperson Pierre-Alain Bujold said in a statement.
Ottawa has faced calls not to reinstate Adm. McDonald, with victim advocates questioning the decision to have military police, rather than civilian authorities, lead the investigation.
Adm. McDonald had been chief of the defence staff for just five weeks before taking leave in February after an announcement about the allegations by Mr. Sajjan. No details of the allegations were publicly released. Adm. McDonald had replaced Jonathan Vance as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces. Mr. Vance was charged with obstruction of justice last month under the Criminal Code.
The lawyers’ statement said that the admiral has been supportive of the process of assessing the case, starting with stepping aside once the allegations were made known to him.
“He made no statements and offered no criticism or discouragement of anyone involved. He did everything in his power to support and enable a fair process that would ensure that the allegations were heard and fully investigated, and to ensure continued respect for the rule of law,” the statement said.
Brigadier-General Simon Trudeau, CFNIS Provost Marshall, said last week: “In this particular case, CFNIS was able to both identify and interview a large number of potential witnesses. The evidence gathered from these witnesses was considered in the ultimate determination that the evidence did not support the laying of any charges.”
He said the service would not have any further comment, citing privacy issues.
Referring to the CFNIS announcement, Adm. McDonald’s lawyers said: “The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from the decision not to charge is that the evidence gathered did not rise to even the low threshold required. The complaint was unfounded.”
The absence of any charges, said the lawyers, “is indicative of the absence of blameworthy conduct. As the investigation revealed, the complaint was groundless.”
The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year that background checks on the admiral did not turn up allegations of sexual misconduct.
In their statement Wednesday, the admiral’s lawyers said he was selected for and appointed to his position “following the most rigorous process ever conducted – a process that included psychometric screening and polygraph testing for inappropriate behaviour.”
– With a file from The Canadian Press
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