OTTAWA — The battle between the federal Liberal government and Admiral Art McDonald heated up on Thursday as cabinet ministers ordered the naval officer to remain on leave rather than return as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The surprise move only days before an expected election call represented the latest twist in a drama that had already taken several turns since McDonald’s lawyers released a defiant statement Wednesday saying their client planned to return as chief of the defence staff.
The assertion followed the end of a military police investigation into an allegation of misconduct that resulted in a decision last week not to lay any charges, which McDonald’s team said exonerated the admiral and paved the way for his return.
But Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responded to McDonald’s lawyers a few hours later saying he expected the admiral to remain on leave until the government could decide what to do with him.
McDonald voluntarily stepped down as defence chief on Feb. 24 because of the military police investigation, with Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre taking over as acting chief of the defence staff.
On Thursday, Sajjan announced that McDonald was being put on administrative leave until further notice. A senior government official speaking on background said the announcement followed an order-in-council from cabinet.
“Appointments like that of chief of defence staff must meet the highest possible standards and our goal must be to create a better workplace for the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces,” Sajjan added in a statement.
“A workplace that ensures that complainants and survivors are treated with the utmost respect and that allegations are taken seriously in every instance.”
Sajjan indicated Eyre will continue to serve as acting defence chief.
McDonald’s lawyer Rory Fowler declined to comment on Thursday.
The nature of the allegation against McDonald has not been publicly confirmed, but CBC has reported that it related to an allegation of sexual misconduct dating back to his time commanding a Canadian warship in 2010.
Global News has reported that navy Lt. Heather Macdonald, a navy combat systems engineer, came forward with the allegation against McDonald. Macdonald was quoted by Global on Friday as saying she was upset by the military police decision.
The Liberal government has faced calls not to reinstate McDonald, with some experts and victims’ advocates questioning the decision to have military police, rather than civilian authorities, lead the investigation.
These experts and advocates have suggested this casts doubt on the veracity of the investigation, and that McDonald does not now have the moral authority to lead the military in changing its culture.
They also note chiefs of the defence staff are appointed by — and serve at — the pleasure of the government in power.
McDonald’s legal team said the former Royal Canadian Navy commander, who took over as defence chief only five weeks before stepping down and has not previously commented publicly on the case, maintains his complete innocence.
They added that McDonald passed a polygraph test that asked about past incidents of misconduct before taking over as defence chief in January and co-operated fully during the investigation.
The lawyers also cited the need to respect due process in Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press