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Military 'playbook' lacks plan for dealing with cases against defence chiefs

OTTAWA — A new “playbook” being developed to help Canada’s top military commander deal with allegations of misconduct involving senior officers appears to provide little in the way of new direction for how to handle such high-profile cases.

OTTAWA — A new “playbook” being developed to help Canada’s top military commander deal with allegations of misconduct involving senior officers appears to provide little in the way of new direction for how to handle such high-profile cases.

The playbook, a draft copy of which has been obtained by The Canadian Press, instead appears to be a distillation of existing guidelines, processes and “considerations” for addressing such incidents when they are reported.

That is despite the military’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations having come under fire, including concerns about how an incident involving naval officers was investigated, prompting Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to order a review on Wednesday.

The playbook’s existence was revealed by acting defence chief Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre earlier this week, as he laid out a series of new initiatives the military is taking to address sexual misconduct in the ranks.

The document includes flow charts and annexes outlining the responsibilities that different parts of the military have when it comes to such incidents, as well as the specific steps that are normally taken to resolve cases.

While it notes the defence chief is largely responsible for directing investigations and disciplining top-ranked officers, the playbook makes no mention of what the military should do if its top commander is implicated.

That is despite the two most recent permanent chiefs of the defence staff — Gen. Jonathan Vance and Admiral Art McDonald — having faced separate allegations of misconduct in recent weeks.

Vance is accused of having had an ongoing relationship with a subordinate that started more than a decade ago and continued after he became defence chief in July 2015. He is also accused of having sent a lewd email to a different service member in 2012.

The allegations have not been independently verified and Vance has declined repeated requests from The Canadian Press for comment. Global News, which first reported the allegations after Vance stepped down as defence chief in January, says he denies any wrongdoing.

McDonald temporarily stepped aside last month only a few weeks after taking over from Vance as Canada’s top military commander following an unspecified allegation of misconduct. McDonald has not commented on the allegation.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) has since launched investigations against each.

In a memo to Forces members Wednesday, Eyre said the military "is at an inflection point with regards to our culture" and has to go much farther to be the military Canadians expect.

The Canadian Forces will welcome an external review "with the full realization that we do not have all the answers," Eyre wrote.

That includes accepting an independent way of reporting misconduct, which military leaders have long resisted.

Internally, the military will apply findings in previous examinations of the Forces and implement the terms of a settlement in a class-action case over inappropriate sexual behaviour in the ranks, Eyre's memo says.

The draft playbook, or aide-mémoire, lays out different processes for how cases involving sexual misconduct should be handled and for those dealing with hateful conduct, both of which have emerged as significant issues for the military.

Much of the document provides information on how to deal with non-criminal incidents, but notes at one point that the defence chief “has very little role” in disciplinary investigations that are more serious or even criminal in nature and could lead to charges.

And while suggesting it is “appropriate for (the chief of the defence staff) to direct the investigation and render the personal decision” when the accused are in the military’s top echelon, it notes that “as a general rule, suspected sexual misconduct incidents are referred to the CFNIS.”

“Respect and do not try to influence the processes underway in any way,” it adds. “Allow the process to run its course.”

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law, said the playbook underscores the need for external accountability for the Canadian Armed Forces in addressing misconduct in the ranks and senior leadership.

“We are at the stage now that we can no longer allow the CAF to fix the sexual misconduct of senior officers by themselves and for themselves,” he said in an email. “We are beyond that, much beyond. ... The time has come for civil society (Parliament) to hold the pen.”

Details about the playbook emerged Wednesday as Canada’s defence minister ordered the military to review a Navy investigation into an allegation several officers made sexual comments during a call on Microsoft Teams.

The incident allegedly involved comments about a female officer’s “red room,” which some interpreted as a reference to the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey." The incident was described by Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter in testimony to a parliamentary committee earlier this month.

Global reported Wednesday the investigation was completed before all those on the call, including some of the complainants, had been interviewed. It also said some junior members were angry after being told to confront senior officers who say something inappropriate.

“We need to make sure that those who come forward feel safe and confident when sexual misconduct and harassment are reported and investigated,” Sajjan said during a COVID-19 briefing that was also attended by Eyre.

“I learned at the conclusion of this investigation, like yesterday, and I have concerns. That is why I have spoken with Lt.-Gen. Eyre, have asked him to look into this and conduct a review on how this matter was and we need to look at what additional steps can be taken.”

Sajjan, who has been criticized for not ordering an investigation when then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne flagged an allegation of sexual misconduct involving Vance to the minister in March 2018, described his most recent order as a “review.”

However, he added, “if more is learned on that, then they obviously need to take it further. I can't prejudge where it needs to go nor am I putting any limits to it. ... If more information is found, obviously, it needs to be looked into more deeply.”

Eyre said 132 naval officers were on the call and that after a request to speak to them went out, 54 responded. He added that he has ordered a review and told military leaders that the onus is on them to stop inappropriate behaviour.

“I expect leaders at every level, when they see something that doesn't look right, something that doesn't sound right, to take action,” he said. “Take action immediately.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press