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Vice Admiral Art McDonald, then-commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, speaks to the media in Halifax, on July 11, 2019.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The Canadian Armed Forces have been shaken by two military police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at the Forces’ most senior commanders amid renewed calls for an independent civil oversight body.

Admiral Art McDonald suddenly stepped aside late Wednesday evening after being informed he is under investigation over unspecified allegations. He recently replaced retired general Jonathan Vance as chief of the defence staff.

Mr. Vance is also under investigation over allegations of sexual misconduct during his time as a top commander.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Adm. McDonald voluntarily stepped down as defence chief and the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is conducting the investigation.

“I take all allegations of misconduct seriously and continue to take strong action on any allegation of misconduct that is brought forward. No matter the rank, no matter the position,” Mr. Sajjan said.

The minister named Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre as acting chief of the defence staff.

CBC News reported that the alleged misconduct incident occurred in 2010 and involved a junior female crew member aboard HMCS Montreal when Adm. McDonald was a navy captain.

A government source said background checks on Adm. Macdonald did not turn up any allegations of sexual misconduct. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak about the matter.

Military experts say the probes of such high-ranking officers are unprecedented and should send a strong message that the toxic masculinity of the Forces is no longer acceptable.

“It indicates a turning point because we have just never seen this kind of thing before,” said Elinor Sloan, a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada who teaches international affairs at Carleton University.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, a lawyer, said the allegations will have a very “corrosive impact” on the reputation of the military and morale of serving members. He urged the government to do what has been recommended many times in the past.

“We should not leave it to the military to fix itself,” he said. “There is a requirement to have civilian oversight, and we don’t have civilian oversight of the military and we allow them to control themselves.”

He said the government needs to set up a U.S.-style Office of the Inspector-General that reports to Parliament and has broad authority to inspect, investigate and report on all aspects of national defence and the Forces.

“Most victims don’t come forward, don’t report the crimes, because they don’t have confidence in the system,” Mr. Drapeau said. “Until complainers have assurances they can complain in a confidential matter and be looked at independently, we will be in the same pickle we are at the moment.”

In the House of Commons, Conservative MP Leona Alleslev asked how rank and file members can feel safe coming forward when Adm. Macdonald is accused of behaviour that he is supposed to be in charge of eradicating.

“A safe and thorough independent investigation is critical, but senior officers, who may themselves be complicit, remain in key positions within the chain of command,” she told MPs.

The Defence Minister insisted that sexual-misconduct investigations involving senior officials, including Adm. Macdonald and Gen. Vance, will be treated seriously.

“Every single allegation will be investigated thoroughly and independent from the chain of command, regardless of position and regardless of rank,” Mr. Sajjan said. “We want survivors to come forward. We want them to know that they will be heard and that things will be investigated, because we absolutely have a no-tolerance policy and we will take action.”

Military investigators recently opened a probe into allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Vance. He is facing accusations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, including while he was defence chief, that were first reported by Global News.

Mr. Vance has denied the allegations raised by Global News, and The Globe and Mail has not verified them independently.

Major Kellie Brennan, one of the women behind the allegations, told The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson last Sunday that she had a long-standing sexual relationship with Mr. Vance while he was her superior.

Two related Canadian military think tanks took the unprecedented step of issuing a joint statement Wednesday urging the Forces to stand in solidarity with the victims of sexual assault and misconduct.

“These allegations must be investigated thoroughly and independently, and those found to have breached the law or the Code of Service Discipline must be held to account promptly,” the Conference of Defence Associations and the CDA Institute said. ”It is more important than ever that victims have the confidence to come forward and have their complaints addressed with respect, fairness and the greatest of transparency.”

A retired senior general told The Globe that former and current military brass are shocked by the allegations but have confidence in the military police to carry out a thorough investigation.

The Globe is not identifying the former general because they did not want to publicly comment on the allegations until the military police have completed the investigations.

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