Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the police investigation into Vice-Admiral Mark Norman will "inevitably" lead to "court processes," even as calls mount for the suspended military officer to be either charged or reinstated.
The prime minister made the comment Thursday at a townhall event in Edmonton, where one audience member complained about lengthy RCMP investigation of Norman.
"When is your government going to cease the witch hunt that has been done on Vice-Admiral Mark Norman? Here is a man who has served his country faithfully and well for more than 30 years," the questioner said.
Court documents show the Mounties suspect Norman leaked cabinet secrets to a Quebec shipyard in November 2015 over fears the Liberals would cancel a key shipbuilding project.
Norman was suspended from his position as the vice chief of defence staff in January 2017, but he has not been charged with a crime and Norman's lawyer has denied her client did anything wrong.
In response to the question, Trudeau revealed that he approved Norman's suspension and said the "the leaking of cabinet secrets doesn't happen every day and it's something that we have to take very, very seriously."
The prime minister added, without elaborating, that the case against Norman was "very much underway in terms of investigation and inevitably court processes."
Trudeau previously predicted last April that Norman's case would end up in court, which the Conservatives have cited as evidence of political interference amid widespread questions about the length of the investigation.
But an official in the Prime Minister's Office said Friday that in talking about "court processes," Trudeau meant it would ultimately be up to the police and prosecutors to determine whether Norman should be charged.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan nonetheless said the prime minister's most recent comments were inappropriate given Trudeau's position and because no one knows how the investigation will end.
"It's a commentary that's not welcomed and is not helpful to the investigators," Bezan said. "And it's definitely not fair in the context of jurisprudence for Mark Norman."
RCMP spokeswoman Stephanie Dumoulin said Friday that the investigation is continuing, but would not comment further.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada and Norman's lawyer, Marie Henein, also declined to comment.
Bezan, meanwhile, added his voice to a growing number of observers who have questioned the length of the investigation and why Norman remains suspended despite a lack of charges.
"Either get on with it and charge Vice-Admiral Mark Norman or cancel the suspension, re-instate and apologize to Mark Norman," Bezan said. "He and his family deserve that at the very least."
Norman was head of the navy when the former Conservative government gave Davie Shipbuilding a contract to convert a civilian vessel into an interim naval supply ship in summer 2015.
However, in January 2017, Norman, who had been promoted in August 2016 to vice chief of defence staff, the military's second-highest position, was suddenly relieved of duty without explanation.
Court documents later showed the RCMP was investigating him on suspicion of having leaked cabinet secrets to Davie in November 2015.
The Mounties alleged Norman was upset that the new Trudeau government was reconsidering the interim supply ship contract and that he worked with Davie to pressure the Liberals into staying the course. The government ultimately decided to proceed with the project.