Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, the new head of the Navy, addresses the audience at the Royal Canadian Navy Change of Command ceremony in Halifax, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. McDonald says he has decided to return to his position as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces after military investigators opted not to charge him following an investigation into his conduct. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Defence minister pushes back on Admiral McDonald’s plans to return as defence chief

Defence minister pushes back on Admiral McDonald’s plans to return as defence chief

OTTAWA — Admiral Art McDonald is planning to return to his position as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces after military police opted not to charge him following an investigation into his conduct, though the Liberal government does not appear ready to welcome him back so soon.

McDonald stepped down in February as chief of the defence staff as a result of a Canadian Forces National Investigation Service investigation into an allegation of misconduct.

But in a statement released Wednesday, McDonald’s legal team said the naval officer would be returning to the position after the nearly six-month investigation “exonerated” him.

“Given that it was his decision to step aside, it is now his decision — indeed obligation — to return to his duties,” reads the statement issued by lawyers Michael Edelson and Rory Fowler.

“Admiral McDonald, who has long been recognized as a proven leader of culture change in the Canadian Armed Forces, will now return to his duties as chief of defence staff.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office did not immediately respond to news of McDonald’s plan to take back command of the military from acting defence chief Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre.

But Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he expects McDonald to wait, which could set up a battle between the Liberal government and its hand-picked military commander ahead of a possible federal election.

“My expectation is that Admiral McDonald will remain on leave while we while we review this situation,” he said at a news conference in Vancouver Wednesday, adding he only learned about McDonald’s plan a short time earlier.

“The position of chief of defence staff must always uphold the highest standard within the Canadian Armed Forces because of the responsibility of that position and the weight that it holds.”

He went on to add that Canadians and the Canadian Armed Forces are being “very well served” by Eyre at a time when the military is helping battle wildfires in British Columbia, rescue interpreters from Afghanistan and other security challenges.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service announced the end of the probe into McDonald’s conduct late Friday, saying they had decided there was not enough evidence to charge McDonald under either the Criminal Code or the military’s disciplinary code.

McDonald’s lawyers said in their statement that the fact military police couldn’t find enough evidence to charge him even under the disciplinary code was evidence the allegation against their client was unfounded.

“The investigators, and the prosecutors who advise them, would have been conscious of the criticism that would arise if no charges were laid,” Edelson and Fowler said.

“They had a compelling motivation to pursue charges, even on weak evidence, in order to avoid the very criticism that has now been levelled against them. The absence of any charges — even under the Code of Service Discipline — is indicative of the absence of blameworthy conduct. As the investigation revealed, the complaint was groundless.”

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, suggesting the Liberals can easily replace McDonald.

Provost Marshal Brig.-Gen. Simon Trudeau defended the independence and professionalism of his military police officers in a statement announcing the end of the investigation into McDonald’s conduct.

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 he co-operated fully during the investigation, and cited the need to respect due process in Canada.

“As has been cited during this investigation, ‘If we don’t have due process, then all we have are witch hunts … That doesn’t change the culture. It just makes it unfriendly for everyone,” the statement reads.

“If there is a failure to respect ‘due process,’ it imperils the very basis of the rule of law in either military or civilian domain.”

McDonald took over as chief of the defence staff from now-retired general Jonathan Vance in January, weeks before Global reported allegations of sexual misconduct by Vance, who has since been charged with obstruction of justice.

On Feb. 24, McDonald voluntarily stepped aside until military police could investigate the allegation about his conduct.

The two investigations as well as the emergence of allegations of inappropriate misconduct prompted a fresh reckoning for the military when it comes to sexual misconduct in the ranks.

The Liberal government eventually tapped retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to come up with recommendations for addressing the issue, though some criticized the choice to launch another review after several similar studies in the past.

The government also came under sustained fire for its handling of the allegations against Vance, one of which was originally raised by the military ombudsman to Sajjan in March 2018.

Meanwhile, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin is currently fighting the government in court for reinstatement as head of Canada’s vaccine distribution campaign after he was abruptly replaced in May due to an allegation of sexual misconduct.

Fortin, who has maintained his innocence, has alleged the decision to replace him was politically motivated and denied him due process.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Military