Canada’s top military commander wants his job back, saying he retains the moral authority to once again lead the Canadian forces after an investigation into a sexual-misconduct allegation cleared him of any charges.
The federal government, however, has placed him on administrative leave pending its own review after a probe by military police was concluded.
“I’ve been exonerated,” Admiral Art McDonald said in his first interview since he stepped aside from his position early this year when the investigation began.
“It is now time for the institution to step up, accept the results of the investigation, return me to my duties – or at least start a dialogue around an alternative approach,” he said.
The 53-year-old Adm. McDonald spent 35 years in the Royal Canadian Navy, a branch of the military that he commanded for 18 months. He was promoted to chief of the defence staff at a change-of-command ceremony in mid-January, and was only in the job for about a month when the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) started a probe into a 2010 incident during a social function aboard a warship.
The Canadian Armed Forces has been embroiled in a wider sexual-misconduct controversy, particularly in recent months. Several senior commanders have been placed under investigation or put on leave. And criminal charges have been laid against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance and Major-General Dany Fortin, who led the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Adm. McDonald said what should matter most in his situation is that he submitted himself to a process that resulted in him being cleared of charges. He argued if the outcome of that process is to mean anything, he should be reinstated.
“I felt, actually, as a result of all this process – that my moral authority to command was actually proven stronger,” he said.
In August, the Canadian Armed Forces’ Provost Marshal said the CFNIS investigation did not reveal evidence to support laying criminal or military code-of-conduct charges against Adm. McDonald. No details of the probe were released.
But the federal government then put the admiral on leave. In its Aug. 12 order, Ottawa said all governor-in-council appointees “have an obligation to act in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”
The government has appointed former top judges to conduct reviews that aim to change the military’s culture.
In April, former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour was named to study the creation of an independent watchdog to investigate complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. Two months later, Morris Fish, also a former top court justice, released a report saying all CFNIS sexual-assault investigations should be referred to civilian authorities until the military justice processes are made more robust.
In his case, Adm. McDonald said he is “anxious to get back to work” and that he has not spoken at any point until now because “my duty was to respect the courage of an accusation by doing everything in my power to ensure an unfettered, rigorous, thorough investigation.”
He said he did not speak to military police. “I did not do an interview. I was willing to do an interview. But in making arrangements for me to possibly interview, the CFNIS was unwilling to share details of the allegations or even identify the accuser. And therefore based on the advice of my lawyers, I didn’t do an interview.”
The Globe asked Adm. McDonald then whether a misconduct allegation – even if unproved by an investigation – ought to be enough to remove someone in his position from that role. “I am regrettably the first chief of defence staff in history to have these allegations made as a serving [CDS]. I step back, which is unheard of in our Canadian military history – that reflects a change in the tide,” he said.
The chief of the defence staff, however, commands the military at the pleasure of the prime minister and Justin Trudeau reserves the right to shift his support as circumstances change.
During the summer, Mr. Trudeau expressed confidence in General Wayne Eyre, appointed acting chief of the defence staff in the wake of the controversy surrounding Adm. McDonald.
Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University who served in the Canadian Armed Forces from 2002 to 2012, said: “We are a hierarchy and there are now two men at the pinnacle – although one is performing the duties and the other is not.
Speaking of Adm. McDonald, she said, “The fact that the process cleared him of criminal wrongdoing does not make him necessarily the best person to lead the Canadian Armed Forces,” Prof. West said. “The question is now, at this period in time, given everything that has happened – who is the best person to lead?”
Megan MacKenzie, a Simon Fraser University professor who specializes in military culture, says she doesn’t give much weight to the CFNIS process. “The military justice system has not been set up to hold senior leaders accountable,” she said.
“Everyone deserves a fair justice system – but that is not possible, internal to the military right now.”
Adm. McDonald said he faced a lengthy screening process last fall as the federal government spent months working to fill the top position that was then opening up with the retirement of Mr. Vance.
The vetting for candidates included “polygraph testing to screen for inappropriate behaviour,” Adm. McDonald said, that was administered to him and others at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service headquarters.
Weeks after taking over as chief of the defence staff, he got a phone call on the evening of Feb. 24 from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s chief of staff, George Young, asking him to come to his Ottawa office for a meeting. Mr. Young told him the CFNIS was investigating his conduct during a social function held aboard the HMCS Montreal frigate when it was docked in Greenland in 2010.
“He told me that the allegation was that I had pushed a commanding officer into the chest area of a female crew member while in the wardroom in the presence of a number of people,” Adm. McDonald said.
He added in the interview that “my recollection of that evening does not include any version of the allegations.”
On Aug. 6, military police released its statement announcing there would be no charges. The presiding Provost Marshal, Brigadier-General Simon Trudeau, said the CFNIS had spoken to “a large number of potential witnesses” who were aboard the warship. But the “investigation did not reveal evidence to support the laying of charges under either the Code of Service Discipline or the Criminal Code of Canada.”
By that point, naval Lieutenant Heather Macdonald had come forward publicly to identify herself as the complainant. The combat systems engineer said she raised the incident after the admiral’s appointment. She told Global News that the news of no charges being laid left her disappointed – although not surprised. “This was exactly why I was reluctant to come forward.”
Adm. McDonald says no one in the federal government called him to tell him what was next.
“I heard nothing for about 96 hours. Two weekend days and two work days. And then by that night, I’m itching to get back to work. Remember – I removed myself.”
On Aug. 11, he and his lawyers placed several calls to the Prime Minister’s Office. He recalls a “junior staffer” in the Privy Council Office responding by telling him to stand by.
He then issued a public statement through his lawyers saying he would be retaking the reins of the forces. “Given that it was his decision to step aside, it is now his decision – indeed obligation – to return to his duties,” it said.
The Liberal government pre-empted that by issuing the August order-in-council placing the admiral on leave with pay until further notice. The text of the order says this was a step taken on the advice of Mr. Trudeau.
Stéphane Shank, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, says the “suspension remains in force” and that the “government is assessing all circumstances in determining next steps.” No timelines were given.
Mr. Shank said the PCO’s senior personnel secretariat is leading this review. Adm. McDonald continues to earn his annual salary, which has been set in a range between $232,700 and $273,700.
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