Good afternoon, Madam Chair and committee members.
I have appeared in front of 13 committees; however, this is the first time under summons.
I am joined today by my legal counsel Mr. Jordan Lester, partner of the law firm Cheadles in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
As you are aware, I am the former ombudsman of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. As ombudsman, I played a vital role for the 120,000 members of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans, their families and all those who served.
Among many other things, the office of the ombudsperson helps individuals and families with complaints or concerns, and can investigate any report and publicly release such a report on any issues that affect the well-being of those who have served or who are serving.
In 2011, I joined the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman as executive director of operations and deputy ombudsman. Prior to that, I was director general to the executive secretariat at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, where I was accountable for the coordination of parliamentary affairs, access to information and privacy, and ministerial correspondence. Before joining the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, I was the director of strategic initiatives at the Department of National Defence for several years.
My last day on the job as ombudsperson at DND was October 31, 2018. I left the job early on the advice of my doctors and my own realization that no reasonable person could possibly be expected to continue in the hostile circumstances created by the Department of National Defence.
The hostility from DND started around March of 2017, when I prepared and released a report called “The Case for a Permanent and Independent Ombudsman Office”, which I will call the “governance report”. The governance report concluded that the current governance structure, with its delegations and administrative arrangements, has negatively affected the operational effectiveness of the ombudsman's office.
My primary concern, as was expressed in the report, was that the ombudsman, who reports to and is accountable to the Minister of National Defence, falls under the legislative responsibilities of the deputy head. This, I concluded, affected the independence of the office.
The governance report recommended that the Minister of National Defence support the enactment of legislation aimed at giving the office permanence and independence from National Defence with respect to all functional authorities.
On March 18, 2017, Minister Sajjan rejected the report and its recommendation. In his letter informing me of the same, the minister, quite ironically, stated the following:
If you ever feel that your ability to carry out your duties is being constrained by the Department of National Defence or the Canadian Armed Forces, I would encourage you to make full use of your direct reporting relationship to make the situation known to me.
I publicly spoke out against Minister Sajjan's decision to reject this recommendation, and as some of you may know, my concerns were widely reported by national media.
Several months later, on July 17, 2017, I met with then deputy minister John Forster to discuss governance issues, specifically the department's administrative order and directive number 7024-1, which sets out internal procedures for disclosure of wrongdoing in the workplace. I've been trying to address these issues with the minister and then deputy minister since 2015.
During this meeting, I directly expressed my frustration with DND's lack of interest in improving its governance structures, and threatened to make my concerns public. One week later, on or about July 24, 2017, I was advised by then deputy minister Forster that a senior officer in the Department of National Defence had made allegations of wrongdoing against me and my staff, under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, PSDPA.
The precise allegations being made were not disclosed; rather, vague and cryptic descriptions such as inappropriate contracting and discriminating hiring practices were provided. These allegations were meritless, and I knew it was a hit job.
On July 27, 2017, I wrote to then deputy minister Forster advising him that I intended to co-operate with the investigation. Further, I asked that I be consulted on the selection of a third party investigator. I was never consulted on the selection of a third party investigator.
For three months nothing happened with this investigation, until October 27, 2017, when I was advised by Deputy Minister Jody Thomas that the allegations against me would proceed to formal investigation. This was odd, because, once again, I was not provided the specifics of the allegations.
The timing of advising me of this investigation was, in my opinion, suspicious. It was conveyed to me just before I was scheduled to appear before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, where I would be providing an update to the committee on DND's implementation, or lack thereof, of my recommendations. There is no reason why it would take three months to determine whether a formal investigation was necessary. It was obvious this process was being used as a means of intimidation to me prior to my testimony before committee.
I appeared before the committee, and wouldn't you know it, there was radio silence regarding the investigation. On January 12, 2018, I wrote directly to Minister Sajjan to express concerns about the fairness of the investigation, notably, the length of time in advancing the investigation and the secrecy surrounding the specific allegations being made against me.
Minister Sajjan responded more than one month later with no substance other than to thank me for co-operation in the matter. The investigation process inexplicably moved at a snail's pace until March 2018, which just so happened to be the time when I personally met with Minister Sajjan to address an allegation of inappropriate sexual behaviour within the senior ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces, specifically, against the chief of the defence staff, and to discuss my concerns about this allegation.
This meeting happened on March 1, 2018. I explained to Minister Sajjan that the complainant had approached me only after the assurance of confidentiality. As to what I will say here today, it will only be restricted by the oath I took as ombudsman, and more specifically, I will not reveal the name of the complainant or the details of the complaint, for this is their story to tell, not mine.
Minister Sajjan was told the complaint was not formal and my request of the minister was for him to get back to me with some advice on how we could potentially proceed. Now, I understand that there have been several requests to see the calendar of meetings between myself and the minister. This has now been made available to the clerk for distribution to the committee.
It will show that I met with the minister at the following pace: once in 2015, twice in 2016, three times in 2017 and once in 2018, specifically, March 1, 2018. After this meeting, there were over a dozen requests from myself to the minister to meet. All were rejected, and I never spoke to Minister Sajjan again. This meeting was very hostile and ended bitterly.
Wouldn't you know it? Suddenly, the investigation processes were being pushed forward again. Shortly after the tumultuous March 1 meeting with the minister, and without any warning consultation, my financial authority and my HR delegations were altered, changed and truncated. This decision directly impacted the independence of my organization.
On March 2, 2018, I informed Minister Sajjan of my intention to resign from my position. My letter to the minister stated, “There is absolutely no trust in the environment and more effort is focussed on isolating this Office rather than listening to evidence-based reporting. As mentioned this has become a toxic workplace and has had grave impact on my health and well-being and thus has pushed me to this decision.”
Despite delivering my resignation letter directly to Minister Sajjan, and despite the very serious allegations being made against the Department of National Defence, the minister did not acknowledge the resignation letter until August 15 of 2018, a delay of five months. In this response, he did not address the serious allegations, nor did he address my concerns regarding a toxic workplace.
Meanwhile, the investigation continued, and others were launched against members of my team who defended me. Several innocent victims were caught up in the investigation, some who still suffer in situation to this day, and those of us who left early.
One of the people vexatiously charged went to Federal Court for a judicial review. Here's a quote from that review. On July 23, 2019, the Honourable Mr. Justice Zinn said:
She was denied procedural fairness in the investigation and in the decision-making process. The decision to accept the investigator's findings that she engaged in wrongdoing must be set aside.
To add further injury, after I had met with the minister on March 1, I was contacted by the Privy Council Office the very next day for a meeting. I thought it had to do with the investigation that I was under, but I was completely floored when they asked me about the details of the complaint and the allegation against the chief of the defence staff when I had specifically told the minister that I did not have the complainant's permission to investigate, and it was to be held in confidence.
Much has been said about the independence of both the ombudsman's office and the sexual misconduct response centre. The fact is neither is independent. Even though I am no longer an ombudsperson, while I'm here I would like to use this platform of the committee to advocate.
There is no construct that allows for independence when both financial and staffing delegations are controlled by the very entity you are reporting on. I liken it to sending young adults off to university; they live independently while their parents pay the rent. That's close. I published two reports regarding independence that are as applicable today as they were when they were published.
I'll give you a little history. In 1998 the ombudsman's office was created, and, yes, dealing with sexual assault and harassment were the responsibility of the ombudsman's office. What was missing was the support and resources to fully implement a program. I suggested that the sexual misconduct response centre be rolled into the ombudsman's office and that this entity be made to report to Parliament.
It irritates me as I hear the continued rhetoric of yes, we're all here for you, but in reality not much changes.
The time has come to get these organizations out from under the boot heel of the department. You will hear opposing points of view, I'm sure, but I will ask you this: how is it working for your now? Changing the name on the door and flashing advertising is not going to fix this, as we have seen.
I'm aware of the allotted time given to me by the committee to make an opening statement, and I don't doubt there are some questions. To to conclude my statement, I will say that, yes, I did meet with on March 1, 2018, and, yes, I did directly tell him about an allegation of inappropriate sexual behaviour made against the chief of the defence staff.
Very shortly after that meeting, as I have said before, the autonomy and financial independence of my office were gutted yet again, and despite the fact that I was the ombudsman of the department I oversaw, that was the last time I ever spoke to the minister.
I now stand ready to take questions from the committee, but I do ask that if anyone comes to committee to refute what I have said here today, please invite me back so that I can provide evidence to support my testimony.
I stand ready for your questions, Madam Chair.