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Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin stands with his wife Madeleine Collin, left, and lawyer Philippe Morneau as he speaks to journalists after being processed at the Gatineau police station in Gatineau, Que., on Aug. 18.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Major-General Dany Fortin, the former head of Canada’s vaccine task force, has been charged with one count of sexual assault at a police station in Gatineau, a development that brings the issue of sexual misconduct in the military to the fore of the election campaign.

Wearing his uniform and medals, Maj.-Gen. Fortin was accompanied by his wife, Madeleine Collin, and a member of his legal team Wednesday morning as he arrived at the police station to hear the charge against him.

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Speaking to reporters outside afterward, he said his lawyers had tried to get information about the situation from prosecutors but were unsuccessful, adding that the arrest warrant, issued Monday, was a “total surprise.”

“For the past three months, my family and I have been living this nightmare of not knowing,” he said. “Not knowing the nature of the allegation, not knowing the status of the investigation, not knowing whether or not I’d be charged.”

He said he would “vigorously” defend himself against the charge and also ask the federal court to consider “the lack of due process” he has been accorded “throughout this ordeal.”

Maj.-Gen. Fortin was selected in November, 2020, to lead the vaccine task force. He handled logistics and operations for the Public Health Agency of Canada in the procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

He was bumped from the role in May, when he suddenly faced an investigation by military police. Maj.-Gen. Fortin said he was told that he was under investigation for some form of sexual misconduct alleged to have occurred more than 30 years ago and that he learned about the general nature of the allegation from a reporter.

On Wednesday, he told reporters that the acting chief of the defence staff told him the decision to remove him from his role was the result of a political calculus.

“I just want to get back to work,” he said.

“I’ve had the honour and privilege of serving Canadians for over 36 years in some very challenging circumstances and places, including combat settings,” he added. “This fight against an invisible foe has been the hardest of my career.”

The charge stems from an offence alleged to have occurred on Jan. 1, 1988.

Philippe Morneau, a member of Maj.-Gen. Fortin’s legal team, also spoke briefly Wednesday and confirmed the charge of sexual assault.

Mr. Morneau said the arraignment will take place at 9 a.m. on Sept. 20 at the Gatineau Court House. Sept. 20 is also the date of the federal election.

Speaking in Vancouver, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was asked about the case and his government’s handling of sexual misconduct incidents.

“The Canadian Armed Forces has not been to the level it needs to be to protect all women and men who choose to serve,” he said. “The culture has not been what people deserve.”

Mr. Trudeau added that his government has brought forward a “number of different measures” aimed at improving the culture of the military and ensuring there are recourses and better resources in place when people do come forward.

“We know there is more to do,” he said, citing his government’s appointment of Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan as the military’s new chief of professional conduct and culture and the appointment of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to study the creation of an independent reporting system for sexual assault in the Forces.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was also asked about the issue while campaigning in Quebec City. “We have to make sure that women can serve their country with respect and free of harassment,” he said. Mr. O’Toole added the Liberals should have acted on previous allegations of sexual misconduct in the military sooner.

From Burnaby, B.C., NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that the government needs to prioritize implementing an independent process for dealing with sexual assault in the military. “What I’m deeply concerned about is the message that’s being sent to women, not just in the Canadian Forces, but across Canada,” he said.

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