The Canadian Forces ombudsman released a scathing indictment on Tuesday, raising the spectre of political interference in the work of his office at a time when the military is under intense public scrutiny over allegations of high-level sexual misconduct.
Gregory Lick says “vested political interests” complicate the office’s work — often just prior to elections or in times of crisis — and suggests the ombudsman’s office be removed from under the authority of the minister of national defence.
He said because his office’s existence is not enshrined in law, every ombudsman operates under the fear that their authority to probe wrongdoing and grievances could be revoked at any time, and that there have been “subtle and insidious” instances that suggest “a pattern of personal and institutional reprisal” by department officials against the members of the office for their work.
“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,” Lick wrote in the paper.
In a speech addressing his concerns, Lick was particularly blunt.
“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 on Tuesday morning.
“It is clear that inaction is rewarded far more than action.”
The lack of action taken in the more than four months since Global News first reported on allegations of high-level sexual misconduct have “bitterly proved this point,” he continued.
“The erratic behaviour of leadership defies common sense or reason. The concept of Ministerial accountability has been absent,” Lick said in his speech, noting the failures by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan as well as senior government and military leaders to act amounts to a risk to national security.
“Our Allies are watching these events unfold in real time. Worse, those who are out to do us harm are also watching,” he said.
“The negative impacts of this crisis on recruitment and retention and on those directly implicated in these misconduct situations within the CAF risk threatening national security.
“Action must be taken now.”
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The role of the military ombudsman came into the spotlight earlier this year after Global News reported Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which he denies.
One of those allegations centred around an informal complaint shared with Lick’s predecessor, Gary Walbourne, in 2018 by a woman who said she had received a message from Vance’s military email account in 2012 suggesting the two take a trip to a clothing-optional vacation destination.
Vance denies any inappropriate behaviour and has told Global News that if he did make that suggestion, he would have meant it as a joke and would be willing to apologize.
Operation Honour includes under its definition of sexual misconduct “jokes of a sexual nature.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan admitted during parliamentary committee testimony that he did not look at evidence of that complaint that Walbourne testified he tried to share with the minister in March 2018.
Sajjan argued doing so would’ve amounted to “political interference” — an assertion rejected by both Walbourne, Lick, and the head of the military police’s investigative branch.
Military ombudsman rebukes Sajjan’s claim his predecessor failed to probe Vance complaint
Yet while Sajjan has said the government accepts the recommendations of repeated experts dating back years that there needs to be an independent reporting structure put in place for sexual misconduct in the military, he has so far done little to implement that change other than order a review of the matter.
That review, led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, must be completed within 12 months, though that can be extended, and there’s no clarity on when Sajjan plans to actually act.
His inaction has led to repeated calls from both members of the defence community and the political opposition for Sajjan to either resign or be fired — something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused.
READ MORE: Military ombudsman’s limited role in misconduct complaints flagged repeatedly since 2014
Lick said the military has “never before been under such extensive public scrutiny” as it is now in the wake of multiple allegations against current and former senior leaders, and a national reckoning over the institution’s longstanding failures to address sexual misconduct.
He added no measures the military might put in place will solve the problem until there is “independent civilian oversight” of the force.
But he warned there has long been “no real political imperative to act” to give his office teeth.
“Other nations have opted to give their military oversight bodies proper legislated authorities with enough teeth to ensure that their recommendations are actioned,” Lick wrote.
“It is a disgrace that Canada is the only country in the Five Eyes not to have done so.”
The only way to achieve that independence would be for the office to report into Parliament, he added.
— More to come.