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War of words breaks out as admiral pushes for reinstatement as Canada's defence chief

OTTAWA — A war of words broke out at the very top of Canada’s military on Friday, as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and acting defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre blasted Adm.

OTTAWA — A war of words broke out at the very top of Canada’s military on Friday, as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and acting defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre blasted Adm. Art McDonald’s decision to write a letter to senior officers about why he should be reinstated as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The unprecedented back and forth comes as the Liberal government and Canadian military have faced a reckoning over their handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against several current and retired officers.

That reckoning has led to questions about how to balance the principle of due process against widespread criticism over the process for investigating senior commanders and holding them to account.

In his letter, McDonald, who stepped down as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces in February due to a military police investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct, blasted the Liberal government for its refusal to reinstate him after the investigation concluded in August without any charges.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet instead effectively suspended McDonald by placing him on administrative leave right before the election, saying Eyre would continue to serve as acting defence chief for the time being.

"I am quite disappointed that my exoneration has not seen my return to duty," McDonald writes in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press.

"Instead, now two months since the investigation conclusions were disclosed, the process underway to bring the situation to a close remains unknown to me. This leaves me concerned whether this unknown process will respect the due process assumed to underpin military, public service, and Canadian culture generally."

McDonald goes on to say that he only learned the results of the investigation through the media, and that no one from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office — or anyone else within the military or the Department of National Defence — have contacted him.

“Likewise, my own efforts to initiate a private dialogue beginning with the prime minister have been rebuffed save for a staffer’s delaying response,” he added.

The former Royal Canadian Navy commander, who served only five weeks as Canada’s top military commander before stepping aside due to the police investigation, argues that with the investigation over, the principles of due process require his reinstatement as defence chief — or at least a discussion about his future.

“Since February, many have rightly emphasized the need for procedural fairness for all involved,” he said. “They’ve stressed that, without due process for everyone, we are left only with witch hunts that are not conducive to culture change.”

McDonald’s letter to senior commanders appears to be part of a public-relations strategy that includes targeted interviews with select media aimed at pressuring the Liberal government into reinstating him or negotiating some other type of agreement.

Yet the letter did not sit well with Eyre, who responded with his own message to the top brass on Friday in which he described McDonald’s missive as “shocking” and affirmed his intention to continue serving as Canada’s top military commander until the government says otherwise.

“We must remember that in a democracy, the military is subordinate to our duly elected civilian leadership,” Eyre wrote.

“I was asked to act as chief of the defence staff on Feb. 25, and I will continue in that role until told otherwise by our civilian leadership. To that end, this shocking letter changes nothing with respect to our vital work of defending our nation, changing our culture and preparing for the threats ahead.”

Sajjan in turn blasted McDonald’s letter as out of touch with both the way the military is governed, and the needs of survivors and victims of sexual misconduct.

“The email message sent by Art McDonald to general and flag officers is inappropriate and unacceptable,” Sajjan said in a statement.

“In Canada, civilians provide necessary oversight of the military and decide who is best suited to lead the armed forces. McDonald’s email does not reflect this, nor does it reflect the need to put survivors and victims of sexual misconduct first.”

The nature of the allegation against McDonald has not been publicly confirmed, but CBC has reported that it related to an allegation of sexual misconduct dating back to his time commanding a Canadian warship in 2010.

The Liberal government has faced calls not to reinstate McDonald, with some experts and victims' advocates questioning the decision to have military police, rather than civilian authorities, lead the investigation.

These experts and advocates have suggested this casts doubt on the veracity of the investigation, and that McDonald does not now have the moral authority to lead the military in changing its culture.

Yet McDonald's legal team have noted McDonald passed a polygraph test that asked about past incidents of misconduct before taking over as defence chief in January and co-operated fully during the investigation. They argue that a failure to respect due process threatens to undermine a key principle in Canada’s legal system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press