Military watchdog independence efforts 'scuttled by military and departmental leadership': report
OTTAWA -- The Canadian Armed Forces ombudsman says the duties of his office are often impeded by operational interference from top military and defence department officials.
In a position paper on the misconduct crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces released Tuesday titled Independent civilian oversight: The defence community deserves no less, ombudsman Gregory Lick is now proposing legislative steps to guarantee structural and administrative independence for his office.
“Despite apparent agreement in principle, all attempts at negotiating independence for this office have been scuttled by military and departmental leadership who have no interest in having an external organization authorized to review their behaviour,” he wrote.
"The draft legislation seeks to achieve permanence for our office, full administrative independence from the institutions we oversee, a reporting structure allowing us to flag sensitive matters to Parliament, and additional measures to reinforce our effectiveness and efficiency."
He said the government must take action immediately to end the cycle of scandals and misconduct, including allegations against the former defence chief and his successor.
Lick, in his report, highlights the many previous studies issued about the need for an independent oversight body, including the recommendations laid out in a 2015 study undertaken by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps.
“Seven years after the report’s publication, and faced with a new wave of public outrage, military and departmental leaders are offering their mea culpas and promises to do better this time,” he said.
In a press conference Tuesday, he told reporters “enough is enough.”
“Why do we need another review to review a review? I can see the frustration not only in myself but in all Canadians, all military members, all veterans,” he said.
In late April, the Liberal government announced yet another independent review, to be led by former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, to recommend what an external reporting system would look like, and to examine the existing policies, procedures, and practices to make the system more responsive for victims.
At the time, when he was asked why another report was needed if the solution was already known, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Deschamps findings were a “good start.”
The move came in response to criticism of the government's handling of an allegation levied against Gen. Jonathan Vance brought to the attention of Sajjan in 2018 by the former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
In scathing testimony to the House of Commons defence committee studying the issue, Walbourne said he tried to present evidence of the allegation but was abruptly dismissed. He too advocated for an independent reporting structure so that victims of misconduct could safely share their experiences and feel confident they would be taken seriously.
Military police launched an investigation into the allegation against Vance in February, which CTV News has not independently verified.
Lick on Tuesday said over the past several months the defence minister and senior government officials have shown “erratic behaviour” and that the concept of ministerial accountability has been “absent.”
"When leaders turn a blind eye to our recommendations and concerns in order to advance political interests and their own self-preservation or career advancement, it is the members of the defence community that suffer the consequences," he said speaking to reporters.
Asked about the report later in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted his government’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct in the Forces while acknowledging more must be done.
“We have taken concrete actions over this past year to make sure that anyone who comes forward with stories of misconduct or allegations of sexual assault are heard, are supported, and that there are consequences through a rigorous process. We also need to make sure we are changing the culture,” he said.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said change within the ranks won’t occur so long as Trudeau remains in power.
“The decision to fire Justin Trudeau and Minister Sajjan will ultimately be made by voters, but it is clear from today’s comments by the defence ombudsman that the corruption in Ottawa needs to end,” he said in a press release.
The legislation Lick is proposing would ensure permanence of the office, regardless of ministerial directive. It would also give the office the ability to carry out its functions unimpeded, as the body currently faces the risk of “having its authorities modified or removed in retaliation for performing oversight functions,” the report reads.
It also suggests the office report directly to Parliament, as opposed to the defence minister.
“Regardless of the party that forms government, the minister responsible for the defence portfolio will want to control the narrative around the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. While it is generally easy to keep the reporting relationship with the ministers of national defence arms-length and apolitical, vested political interests may become apparent just prior to an election period or in times of crisis,” he writes.
Beyond this, he said the proposed change to the reporting structure would also help accelerate the publication of reports.
“We have also seen inaction on sensitive information that could be unflattering to the Canadian Armed Forces and [the] department. This cannot persist.”
In a subsequent statement to CTV News, Sajjan said he is “committed” to creating an independent and external reporting mechanism that meets the needs of survivors and that there has been no political interference with Lick’s office.
“Further, I expect he would have alerted me if he felt there was a problem with the relations between our offices. That has never happened,” said Sajjan.