Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to formally fire Adm. Art McDonald from the top job in the Canadian Armed Forces to bring some badly needed stability to the military’s beleaguered leadership, experts say.
McDonald has been on leave from his position as Canada’s chief of the defence staff since February, when military police began investigating an allegation of sexual assault against the backdrop of a wider sexual misconduct crisis rocking the military.
He has been insisting that he wants to return to his previous role since August, when police decided against laying criminal or disciplinary charges.
McDonald has denied the allegation against him, and doubled down on his demand for his old job in the last week in media interviews and in a letter to all senior military officers.
That letter prompted McDonald’s temporary replacement, acting chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, to remind those same officers that Eyre is in charge.
While the chief of the defence staff is formally appointed by the governor general, he or she is chosen by the prime minister and serves “at the pleasure” of the government — meaning they can be dismissed without a reason at any time.
“McDonald has no leg to stand on. His job is at pleasure, and he has created displeasure,” said Stephen Saideman, Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University, who researches civilian control of the military in democracies.
“For cohesion in the military, the government should make a statement and end this. They have the power to do so ... Civilian control of the military stops at (Trudeau’s) desk.”
The Prime Minister’s Office would only say Monday that McDonald remains on leave “as the government reviews the situation” — although McDonald wrote in his letter last week that “the process underway ... remains unknown to me.”
McDonald voluntarily went on leave in February after the launch of the military police investigation. In August, once the probe was over and it became clear that he wanted to return to duty, the government suspended him until further notice.
The fact that a final decision has not yet been made about McDonald’s future speaks to the government’s failure to get sexual misconduct in the military under control and to provide more robust civilian oversight, critics say.
Even more scrutiny was drawn to the case over the weekend, when Global News reported that the complainant in the military police investigation — Lt. Heather Macdonald — said several eyewitnesses to the alleged assault corroborated her story.
She alleges that during a party aboard a ship before he became chief of the defence staff, McDonald shoved her commanding officer’s head into her breasts. McDonald has denied the allegation against him.
The longer the government allows the uncertainty around the chief of the defence staff to linger, the more damage it does to morale and public confidence, said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“I think that what is not being grappled with on the government’s side is the blow that this is for the trust of service members toward the senior leadership,” she said.
“I’m scratching my head about the government’s inaction on this.”
The tug of war at the very top of the military comes as several other senior CAF officers remain subjects of probes into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Last Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin lost a court bid to be reinstated as head of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. He is facing a criminal charge of sexual assault.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that the installation of Lt.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu as commander of the army was postponed in September because he is being investigated following an allegation of sexual misconduct.
And on Friday evening, it was reported that the head of military personnel, Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan, has stepped aside during an investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct. His predecessor in the role, Vice-Adm. Haydn Edmundson, went on leave in March and is also the subject of a probe into an allegation of sexual misconduct.
McDonald should have taken the hint that he would not be allowed to return as chief of the defence staff in August, when Eyre was promoted from lieutenant-general to general, Saideman said.
“At this time where we have this extended personnel crisis, the person who leads the (Canadian Armed Forces) has to be above reproach,” he said, “and McDonald is not above reproach.”
The experts who spoke to the Star also took issue with McDonald’s claim last week that he has been “exonerated” by the investigation into the allegation of sexual assault.
“In the Canadian military system, or the justice system, the fact that charges are not laid against you does not exonerate you,” said retired colonel Michel Drapeau, a lawyer specializing in military issues. “It simply says there isn’t sufficient evidence, or there’s no reasonable prospect of conviction.”
Drapeau said he presumes the government is waiting to make a decision on McDonald until after next week’s cabinet shuffle, when it’s widely expected that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will be replaced.
Sajjan was censured by the House of Commons in June for failing to get sexual misconduct in the military under control.
“I understand the political reasons for not moving now, but come on,” said Duval-Lantoine.
“We’re losing sight of the human impact of all of this. There are people on the ground that are doing their absolute very best to serve Canada, to serve the military, but this chips away at their well-being in the workplace and that might lead to a worse workplace environment.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant