General Dany Fortin looks on as Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Fortin, who was removed from his post as the head of vaccine logistics last month, is alleging his dismissal involved political interference by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two of his cabinet ministers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin files court challenge of his firing from vaccine rollout

OTTAWA — Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin is asking for a judicial review of the decision to remove him as head of Canada’s vaccine logistics, alleging political interference by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two of his cabinet ministers.

Lawyers for Fortin filed an application Monday with the Federal Court, seeking an expedited judicial review of last month’s decision to fire him from his posting with the Public Health Agency of Canada and to not reassign him.

It asks that the decision be quashed and that he be reinstated to his secondment at PHAC or assigned to another position “commensurate with his rank.”

Fortin was removed from the vaccine rollout on May 14, just five days before the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service referred a sexual misconduct investigation to the Quebec prosecution service to determine whether criminal charges should be laid.

Through his lawyers, Fortin has denied any wrongdoing.

The court application says the decision to remove Fortin and not reassign him was unreasonable, lacked procedural fairness and involved “improper political interference in the military chain of command” by Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

None of the allegations has been tested in court.

The application also says the announcement of his termination breached his right to keep his personal information private and fuelled public speculation without the appropriate context, causing irreparable harm to his reputation.

The Prime Minister’s Office referred a request for comment Monday to the Department of National Defence.

A spokesperson for Sajjan said only: “As this is an ongoing legal matter, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.”

Fortin’s accusation of political interference comes as the Trudeau government continues to be lambasted by opposition parties for failing to fire former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance when Sajjan first learned in March 2018 of an allegation of sexual misconduct against him.

In that case, Sajjan has said he referred the matter to the Privy Council Office for investigation and that it would have been inappropriate political interference for him to have done anything else. PCO officials have said they were unable to investigate the matter at the time as the complainant did not want to come forward.

Vance, who stepped down as defence chief in January, has since come under military police investigation for two separate allegations of misconduct. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The Liberal government was under fire over Vance and its handling generally of misconduct in the military when it learned of the allegation against Fortin.

According to Monday’s application for judicial review, Fortin first heard about an unspecified allegation of sexual misconduct against him on March 17, when acting chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre informed him that military police had launched an investigation.

Later the same day, after informing the Privy Council Office about the investigation, Eyre told Fortin he would “advocate for due process, the presumption of innocence” and for allowing Fortin to continue working on the vaccine rollout.

PHAC president Iain Stewart said much the same, according to the application. But while Fortin’s posting was “OK for now,” Stewart also warned him that Hajdu and Trudeau “may change their minds later” and that he should prepare himself “for the moment when they determine that you need to be let go.”

“Keep your bags packed,” the application cites Stewart as telling Fortin.

On April 19, Fortin received a call from a military police investigator who told him he was being investigated for one instance of sexual misconduct, alleged to have occurred more than 30 years ago.

On May 13, Eyre told Fortin that Hajdu and Sajjan “wanted to remove him” from the vaccine rollout. He did not say what had prompted the decision other than to tell Fortin that “the ‘political calculus’ had changed and that the PCO had said he would have to be removed.”

The following day, Eyre presented Fortin with a written statement regarding his departure “pending the results of a military investigation.” The statement was “not negotiable” other than giving Fortin the option of saying he had chosen to leave his assignment with PHAC.

The statement was released later that day but Sajjan also released a separate statement which he prefaced by reiterating the government’s commitment to building a “culture of inclusion” in the Canadian Armed Forces that “sheds toxic and outdated values, practices and policies.”

That, Fortin’s lawyers argue, made it clear to the public that Fortin “was under investigation for improper conduct and it could easily be surmised that … (it) was sexual in nature.”

They contend that the decision to fire Fortin appears to have been made by Hajdu, Sajjan, Trudeau and the clerk of the Privy Council. As such, they “circumvented and interfered” with Eyre’s powers and effectively prevented him from reassigning Fortin to another position.

“As a result Maj.-Gen. Fortin has, de facto, been relieved from performance of his military duty.”

Five days after Fortin departed, the military police issued a statement saying an allegation of sexual misconduct was being referred to Quebec’s director of criminal prosecutions. Fortin only learned about that development through the media, his lawyers say.

Fortin “was not afforded fair and impartial decision-making,” his lawyers argue.

“The decision was politically motivated and the outcome was pre-determined … The decision was arbitrary, not in the public interest and made solely for the personal and political gain of the ministers of health and national defence and the prime minister.”