Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee.
I want to thank the committee for inviting me back for this two-hour session.
There are points that I hope all members in this committee agree upon. Sexual misconduct and harassment are unacceptable. They're not acceptable in Canadian society. They're not acceptable in the Parliament of Canada and they're definitely not acceptable in the Canadian Armed Forces or the Department of National Defence. We want to prevent it and we support their network. We want to ensure that those who come forward feel safe and confident when sexual misconduct and harassment are reported and investigated.
Eliminating all forms of misconduct and abuse of power and creating a safe work environment for everyone in the defence team has always been my top priority as Minister of National Defence. However, recent media reports show that still too many members of the Canadian Armed Forces do not feel safe to come forward.
I want to be clear that I had no knowledge of these allegations before they were reported. I know, we know, that we must do more to make sure that every Canadian Armed Forces member feels safe to come forward and that we will be ready to support them if they do.
I spent my lifetime serving Canadians, as a police detective, as a Canadian who served in uniform and as a member of Parliament. I know that perpetrators must be held accountable. I know that any organization, including the Canadian Armed Forces, must work hard to eliminate the toxic masculinity that creates an unacceptable culture. We have taken action to change this culture of toxic masculinity and it tackles sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, but we have more work to do and every option is on the table. We owe it to our members and to Canadians to get this right.
As I stated previously, I disagree with parts of Mr. Walbourne's testimony concerning our meeting in 2018. Last week, the former ombudsman presented his version of the facts. In my previous testimony I wanted to respect the confidential nature of my meetings with the former ombudsman, but in light of his testimony, there are issues I need to set straight.
I did meet with Mr. Walbourne on March 1. At the end of a regular meeting with staff, Mr. Walbourne asked to meet alone. The majority of this private meeting did not concern General Vance. Rather, in this private meeting, Mr. Walbourne spent the majority of his time focused on the investigation into claims of misconduct involving him and his office.
As I have said before, any investigation needs to run its course, no matter the rank, no matter the position of those involved. It must be free of political interference. That also applied to the investigation of the ombudsman's office, as I told him at that time. Politicians inserting themselves into an investigation is wrong.
At the very end of this private conversation, Mr. Walbourne brought up concerns of misconduct involving the former chief of the defence staff. He did not give me any details. I did not allow him to give me any details. I very purposely respected the investigative process to ensure that it remained independent.
Drawing an elected official, a politician, into the sequence of an investigation would have been wrong and dangerous. Politicizing any investigation threatens a just outcome for those who come forward. Given his position and experience, Mr. Walbourne should have known this. In our society, the last thing we want is for elected politicians to make decisions that investigators need to make independently.
In Mr. Walbourne's testimony, he stated that he came to me for advice on what to do. I advised him exactly what to do. I said that Mr. Walbourne should use the already existing powers and processes to address the complaint. As Mr. Walbourne stated in his testimony, he knew the powers he had as ombudsman.
According to the directives that govern his office, in matters involving a potential criminal act or breach of code of service discipline, the ombudsman can report these complaints to the judge advocate general, the provost marshal or the military police complaints commission. To my knowledge, Mr. Walbourne did not take these complaints to any of these bodies.
I provided the advice that Mr. Walbourne said he sought. Investigations into complaints like this should start with proper investigative authority, not with an elected official.
To provide Mr. Walbourne with additional support, senior officials in the Privy Council Office were informed of the complaint regarding the former chief of the defence staff. By Mr. Walbourne's own admission, he was asked to provide details regarding this complaint to those appropriate authorities the very next day. Unfortunately, he did not do so. Mr. Walbourne said he sought top cover to show the complainant that we took this allegation seriously.
Madam, Chair, it is because I took this concern so seriously, as I would with any allegations of misconduct, that I raised it to the appropriate independent authority outside of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
Mr. Walbourne suggested that if he had received feedback, he would have gone back to the complainant to see if they would provide specific information. We did, in fact, provide that feedback. At no time, according to Mr. Walbourne's testimony, did he say he went back to the complainant to ask if they were willing to make a formal complaint following his meeting with these senior officials. I've learned that at no time did the appropriate authorities receive information.
Finally, Mr. Walbourne stated that there was no follow-up. That is not true. Senior officials followed up. Actionable information was asked for. Information was not shared. At the core of our democratic and justice systems, at their very heart, is the belief that any investigation into potential wrongdoing should never come under the sway of political influence. Being involved can prejudice a just outcome for those who come forward. When any concerns or allegations are brought to my attention, I have always followed the proper processes. I would never want to be the reason that somebody who came forward did not get the just outcome they deserve.
As for the suggestion that the board of inquiry or summary investigation would be the appropriate venue, that suggestion is absolutely wrong. In fact, under the defence administrative orders and directives into boards of inquiry and summary investigations, we are prohibited from using a board of inquiry or summary investigation to seek evidence related to a potential breach of the code of service discipline or assign criminal responsibility.
Madam Chair, let me quote article 2.7 from directive 7002-0:
2.7 A [board of inquiry] or [a summary investigation] must not be conducted if any purpose of the [board of inquiry] or [summary investigation] is to:
a. obtain evidence relating to a potential breach of the Code of Service Discipline; or
b. assign criminal responsibility.
As well, the board of inquiry is prohibited from recommending that a charge be laid. These are critical points.
When individuals come forward, they rightfully expect that their complaints will be acted upon while respecting their wishes and, if warranted, the appropriate charges should be laid under either the code of service discipline or criminal charges. Any interference in this process, which is what has been suggested, puts into jeopardy a just outcome. That would mean a complainant, a survivor, could be denied the just outcome they deserve.
That is why it would have been extremely inappropriate and damaging to discuss any allegation with General Vance.
A just outcome is what those who come forward deserve, an outcome that Canadians, including Canadian Armed Forces members, expect, an outcome our society needs, an outcome that I—and our entire government—want. We have processes to investigate regardless of the rank or position of the person involved.
However, despite the cries from some of the members, investigations should not be politicized, not by a minister and not by anyone in political office. Any investigation should be conducted independently by the relevant and appropriate authorities. This is a fundamental part of our justice system, a principle some of the members seem to forget.
I have always insisted that we have more work to do to ensure that any member of the Canadian Armed Forces feels safe to come forward. Though we have made meaningful progress, we need to accelerate these changes. We need a complete and total culture change. We need to improve our policies and processes to prevent misconduct and to prevent abuses of power.
That is why we are moving forward with an independent external review, to ensure we can comprehensively address the fact that members still do not feel safe to come forward. As we have said, we'll be moving forward with an independent reporting structure to look at allegations of misconduct. All options are on the table. For those who have experienced misconduct, we will do everything possible to rebuild the confidence we have lost.
We're focused on doing everything possible to prevent and eliminate sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. We will have a complete and total culture change. We will eliminate the culture of toxic masculinity that still exists. We will make sure that those who have experienced misconduct feel safe and supported if and when they come forward. We will build a more inclusive Canadian Armed Forces that better reflects and represents the Canadians that they protect each and every day.
Thank you, Madam Chair.