Military Ombudsman Gregory Lick said Thursday that he would have taken the same actions as his predecessor, Gary Walbourne, if faced with an anonymous sexual misconduct complaint.
Mr. Walbourne sparked a political firestorm this month when he told a parliamentary committee that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan declined to look at allegations related to then chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance in March, 2018.
Mr. Sajjan, who has since faced criticism from opposition parties, has defended his actions. The minister said he spoke to his then chief of staff who alerted the Prime Minister’s Office about the matter. The office then asked for the Privy Council Office (PCO), the department that supports the Prime Minister and the cabinet, to follow up with Mr. Walbourne but it could not obtain additional information.
Mr. Sajjan has also said that Mr. Walbourne could have done more, but the former watchdog rejects that, saying he was not in a position to share additional information with PCO because he did not have the permission of the complainant.
In testimony to MPs on the House of Commons committee on the status of women, Mr. Lick said he would have reported the facts within his direct reporting structure, noting that the Ombudsman reports directly to the defence minister and not any other body, including PCO.
“This is a critical point that needs to be made in order to correct the record,” Mr. Lick said. “Had I been faced with the same facts, I would have done exactly as my predecessor did.”
Mr. Lick said the ombudsman’s office was established more than two decades ago outside the military’s chain of command, but has administrative ties to the Department of National Defence and reports to the minister.
The office has been advocating for full independence, he added, noting there has been “no political will to act.
“This issue of sexual misconduct is an unfortunate illustration of how constituents fall between the cracks of a closed system with no fully independent recourse mechanisms,” Mr. Lick said.
The Ombudsman also said that his office has not yet been consulted on the federal government’s plans to develop an independent mechanism for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). In making the announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government would put in place mechanisms to put an end to troubling allegations and behaviour once and for all.
Mr. Lick said that whatever approach is taken, the body must have full administrative independence. He also said it needs to be external to the chain of command, requires a legislated mandate and should have a direct reporting relationship with Parliament.
Anything short of this will not provide victims with the assurances they need to come forward and have such matters dealt with, Mr. Lick said.
In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Walbourne also urged the Prime Minister to ensure that the outside entity reports to Parliament, noting if that does not happen, “we will be having the same conversation in six months.”
The CAF has faced high-level scrutiny amid military police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct involving Mr. Vance, who is now retired, and Admiral Art McDonald, who initially replaced the former chief of the defence staff.
The acting chief of defence staff, Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, told the parliamentary committee this week that the CAF must learn why approaches to address sexual misconduct in the military have not worked. He also said the military is at an “inflection point” that must be acted upon.
“It’s going to be a constant drumbeat of reminding our members what right looks like,” Lt.-Gen. Eyre said. “As I rapidly get my feet under me in this job, some of the gaps are becoming apparent, such as power dynamics and understanding the use and abuse of power in a hierarchy like our own.”
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