Defence chief's notes reveal debate over due process, optics on Fortin allegation
Published Sunday, August 1, 2021 7:48AM EDT
VANCOUVER -- An extraordinary set of handwritten notes by Canada's acting defence chief appear to reveal a behind-the-scenes struggle between due process, political optics and support for the complainant after a sexual misconduct allegation emerged against Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.
More than 100 pages of heavily redacted documents, including notes mostly written in bullet-point form by Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre and internal email exchanges between top military officials, have been filed to the Federal Court. The communications are between mid-March and mid-May.
The notes begin with a March 16 entry under the heading CFPM, apparently referring to the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal, the adviser to the defence chief on policing matters. It reads, "let me know about allegation (no details) (historic) against (senior member)."
Fortin was removed from his position as head of Canada's COVID-19 vaccine rollout on May 14, five days before the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service referred a sexual misconduct investigation to the Quebec prosecution service to determine whether charges should be laid.
Through his lawyers, Fortin has denied any wrongdoing.
Fortin's lawyers filed an application last month with the Federal Court seeking an expedited judicial review of the decision to fire him from his posting at PHAC, and asking for the decision to be quashed and for his reinstatement at the agency or another position.
His lawyers have argued the decision to remove their client was unreasonable, lacked procedural fairness and involved improper political interference in the military chain of command by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Sajjan.
None of the allegations has been tested in court.
On March 19, Eyre's notes suggest that the DM -- deputy minister -- said the "government could fall" and face "political pressure."
"What say to public?" the notes say. "What do our values lend us to do? Rule of law, respect for due process."
They suggest "anxiety" among the top brass of the government as officials consider "workplace safety," "victim support" and "ensure public confidence in vaccine rollout."
"If we can't follow values, at what point do I resign?" Eyre's notes say under a section scribbled "thoughts."
Fortin's lawyer, Natalia Rodriguez, said in an email it is "clear" from the documents that the decision-makers were more concerned about the "political optics" of Fortin's situation than about ensuring a fair process.
"They were aware of the reputational damage that the decision to publicly remove Maj.-Gen. Fortin would have," she said.
"Despite showing an academic awareness of the impact the decision would have on Maj.-Gen. Fortin's life, the decision-makers nevertheless proceeded to publicly remove him without affording him any procedural safeguards."
Eyre's notes from March 18 indicate that Fortin was "devastated" by the allegations and his wife was "supportive."
"Still cannot fathom what this is about," reads a note from an apparent teleconference with Fortin.
At other points, the notes suggest that Fortin is "shocked" "crushed" and "ashamed," adding that he is "adamant" about wanting to continue with work.
A later March 18 note reads, "suicide mortality/SPAP," apparently referring to the Suicide Prevention Action Plan. The section below it is redacted.
Rodriguez said Fortin wanted to continue carrying out his duties, which he did until his removal.
"He does not know the context for the notes about SPAP as there was nothing of the sort discussed in his meeting with the (acting chief of defence staff)."
A partially redacted March 25 section suggests the complainant "wants due process through justice" and "does not want a public spectacle." The notes go on to suggest that the allegation is "not rape" and a "very historic case."
"Wants to use her experience to make CAF better," they say.
Under an "MND" heading, apparently referring to Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, on March 17, Eyre wrote "what does victim want?"
Due process needs to be followed, the notes state.
"Now need to protect the institution," they say. "We take everything seriously."
It also suggests forming a "roundtable with experts soonest" and "create a process for those who came forward."
A request for comment from Eyre, sent to the Department of National Defence, was not returned in time for publication.
A spokesman for Sajjan declined to comment.
"As this is an ongoing legal matter, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time," said Daniel Minden.
On May 12, Eyre's notes suggest that "Min H" -- apparent shorthand for Health Minister Patty Hajdu -- wanted to "protect herself," "doesn't want to create a narrative" and "find balance."
"She will not talk about an investigation," the notes say. "Understands victim's perspective."
In a statement, Hajdu's office said "at no time" did she speak with the acting chief of the defence staff about this matter.
"At all times, the minister has emphasized the need to be transparent with Canadians to keep their confidence in the process, and to provide media with the reasons for this change to the vaccine distribution operation in Canada," it said.
The notes provide insight into Eyre's thought process on the next steps and dealing with the fallout.
Under a March 19 section marked and underlined "options," Eyre's notes suggest three choices: "leave in position," "remove" and "step aside."
Leaving Fortin in position came with "political" and "institutional risks," the notes say.
Removing him, they suggest, would question "reputation" and cause "institutional damage."
The military has been riven with sexual misconduct issues for months. Former defence chief Jonathan Vance has been charged with obstruction of justice in connection with an investigation into a sexual misconduct allegation against him, while Sajjan has faced repeated opposition calls to resign over his handling of these issues.
Rodriguez said the government is refusing to provide additional documents about the decision from the ministers' offices.
The hearing of the application has been set by the Federal Court for Sept. 28 and 29, Rodriguez said.
"Maj.-Gen. Fortin looks forward to proving his case as soon as possible."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2021.