OTTAWA — The commander of Canada’s military police found himself defending the independence and professionalism of his investigators on Tuesday as members of a parliamentary committee grilled him over how they deal with cases of sexual misconduct.
Provost Marshal Brig.-Gen. Simon Trudeau repeatedly asserted during an hour of testimony to the House of Commons’ committee on the status of women that his military police officersc were not beholden to the top brass.
And he suggested the process of charging a chief of the defence staff or any other senior leader would be no different than for the lowest-ranking member of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“If there was an allegation against the vice-chief of defence or the (chief of the defence staff), then being independent from the chain of command, the investigation takes place as it would (for) anybody else, regardless of rank or status,” Trudeau said.
The Canadian military has long been criticized by survivors of sexual misconduct and others of not properly handling such cases, but those complaints and concerns have escalated following allegations of inappropriate behaviour by several top officers.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, which falls under Trudeau’s purview, is now investigating several of those senior military officers. Those include former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance and his successor, Admiral Art McDonald.
Both have denied any wrongdoing.
While the allegations against senior officers prompted two separate committee investigations in recent months, Liberal and Bloc Quebecois MPs voted on Monday to shut down the study being conducted by the Commons’ defence committee.
That study was specifically looking at the government’s handling of the allegations involving Vance, whereas the status of women committee is looking at the larger question of how the military handles sexual misconduct in the ranks.
Many of the questions put forward by committee members on Tuesday nonetheless danced around the military police investigations into Vance and McDonald, and the independence of Trudeau’s investigators.
The provost marshal acknowledged he reports to the vice-chief of the defence staff, but suggested the relationship was more administrative and did not include police investigations.
“Our investigations are carried out independently to ensure investigate integrity and due process for both the victims and the subjects,” he said.
Trudeau also defended the way his officers conduct investigations and determine whether to lay charges, saying all cases include a rigorous vetting and quality control process and investigators do not need to seek permission to lay charges against top officers.
“CFNIS is an independent charging authority, and they do not need to ask permission to do so,” he said.
Trudeau also said that an allegation or complaint of criminal or inappropriate behaviour can be made to military police without the complainant having to identify themselves, and he encouraged people who have been wronged to come forward.
This has emerged as a key issue as the allegations against Vance only came to light following a Global News report in February. Other reports have since been made through the media, which many has interpreted as a lack of trust in the system.
Conservative member Leona Alleslev at one point during the committee meeting demanded to know who is responsible for auditing or double-checking the work of military investigators to ensure all proper steps and decisions have been taken.
Trudeau indicated he and other military police commanders are ultimately responsible.
Tuesday’s testimony coincided with fresh calls from military ombudsman Greg Lick for the government to establish an independent body enshrined in law to provide oversight of Canada’s military.
Lick suggested it was a “disgrace” that Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, which includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, not to have such an outside organization.
“It is untenable that another sexual misconduct scandal had to serve as a catalyst for institutional change,” Lick said in a letter to member of the Commons’ defence and status of women committees.
“Yet here we are. Other nations, faced with similar issues, opted to give their military oversight-bodies proper legislated authorities, ensuring that their recommendations have sufficient teeth to be actioned.”
Lick is only the latest military ombudsman to complain about his office’s lack of independence and ability to properly monitor the Armed Forces and hold it accountable.
The Liberal government has indicated it is looking at some sort of independent oversight body following the explosion of allegations against senior military leaders, but has provided no details except to say all options are on the table.
Tuesday also saw fresh bickering between political parties over Monday’s decision by the Liberals and Bloc to end the defence committee’s investigation into the government’s handling of allegations involving Vance.
The committee will have one more day of hearings on Friday before members begin writing a report.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet defended his party’s decision to support the Liberals’ motion to end the study, saying he was worried the committee could not have time to finish a report if the issue dragged on.
“What is important in that regard is some real and transparent actions within the army, and that requires, first, a report,” he said. “My fear is that the Conservatives, making it longer and longer and longer, are actually protecting the military establishment.”
NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice in turn accused the Liberals and Bloc of failing Canada’s men and women in uniform by ending the study before it was able to finish digging into how the allegations involving Vance were handled.
“The Liberals promised to reform this institution, but they have failed miserably and are letting down thousands of women and men who have been sexually harassed or assaulted and are still suffering the devastating consequences today,” he said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Apr. 13, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press