I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 15 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of January 25, 2021. Therefore, members are attending in person in the room or remotely using the Zoom application.
Before speaking, please make sure you wait until I recognize you by name. If you're on video conference, please use the microphone icon to unmute yourself. To those of you in the room, your microphone will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer.
I'll remind you that all comments by members should be addressed through the chair. When speaking, speak slowly and clearly in order to help our interpreters. Please, when you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Tuesday, February 9, 2021, the committee is commencing its study of addressing sexual misconduct issues in the Canadian Armed Forces, including the allegations against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.
With us today by video conference for the first hour is the Honourable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence. From the Department of National Defence, we have Madam Jody Thomas, deputy minister and Admiral Geneviève Bernatchez, judge advocate general of the Canadian Armed Forces.
After the opening remarks from the minister, we will proceed with rounds of questions. I would like to advise the committee members that I will be quite rigid with time-keeping today. Please track your time because even though you may not believe it, I really do hate interrupting you. I would also like to caution the members that we only have a limited amount of time with the minister today. I would like to make the most of his and our time.
With that said, we would like to welcome the Honourable Minister Harjit Sajjan. I would like to invite you to make your opening statement.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Members of the Standing Committee on National Defence, thank you for allowing me to address the serious concerns that were brought forward regarding the former chief of the defence staff.
I was as shocked as everyone else at the allegations that were made public two weeks ago. I want to stress that any inappropriate behaviour, harassment or sexual misconduct is completely unacceptable in the Canadian Armed Forces and in the Department of National Defence.
Regarding the allegations involving the former chief of the defence staff, the Canadian Forces national investigation service has initiated an investigation, so I can't comment on the specifics of the case. I have full confidence the investigation will proceed fairly and in accordance with the law. I am confident this process will make sure that if the evidence shows wrongdoing, we will hold those responsible accountable. Nobody in Canada is above the law, no matter their rank or position.
I know how important it is for any investigation by CFNIS to occur independently from outside influence. The last thing I want, the last thing we want here, is to undermine the independence of the process, preventing a just outcome.
I'm deeply troubled that members of the Canadian Armed Forces have felt trust has been broken and that people believe they could not come forward. No matter the rank, no matter the position, sexual misconduct and harassment is not acceptable. We want it reported. We want it investigated. We want to support those impacted.
Eliminating sexual misconduct and creating a safe work environment for everyone on the defence team has been one of my top priorities as the Minister of National Defence. We have more work to do to ensure that any member of the Canadian Armed Forces or civilian in the Department of National Defence feels able to come forward with complaints without fear of any sort of reprisal.
I also want to recognize the women who have come forward with these allegations. We're offering all available resources to them to help support them through this difficult time. Ensuring their well-being must be our focus.
We recognize how difficult it can be to bring forward allegations, and we must do more to eliminate the barriers that prevent people from reporting. I treat all allegations of inappropriate behaviour, harassment or sexual misconduct with the utmost seriousness. I can assure this committee and all Canadians that any allegations that were brought forward were aggressively and very quickly put forward to the proper authorities. All the proper processes were followed.
Along with the defence team, I will continue ensuring the recent allegations are addressed through the proper authorities. We will have a thorough and deep independent investigation separate from the chain of command.
You want answers, Canadians want answers and I want answers, but most importantly those who have stepped forward with allegations deserve answers.
Madam Chair, any inappropriate behaviour, harassment or sexual misconduct damages our institution beyond repair. These actions undermine morale, they jeopardize operational readiness and they break the trust of those who have volunteered and stepped up to serve Canada. It is a betrayal of the trust between our defence team members and their leadership.
Our members and all Canadians expect the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces to embody a culture where all are treated with dignity and respect. This work will and must continue. This is an ongoing and enduring effort. It is one on which we need to do more, and we will do more.
When incidents of misconduct do occur and are reported, our members rightfully expect that we undertake a thorough and meaningful investigation. That is what Canadians expect. That is what I expect. I have no tolerance for sexual misconduct.
Each and every allegation needs to be investigated, no matter the rank or position of those involved. Whenever any concerns were brought to my attention, I've always insisted and ensured they were brought to the proper authorities for any and all investigations that may be warranted.
We will do absolutely everything in our power to make the changes that need to be made to eliminate and discourage sexual misconduct from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence. We took meaningful steps by releasing a policy on sexual misconduct last year to prevent and address sexual misconduct and to support those who have been affected by it.
I also know how hollow this may sound given the situation, but there are those like Dr. Preston, those in the sexual misconduct response centre and many members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence who are tirelessly working to make our institution a safer place for all.
We have also launched a panel meant to uncover systemic discrimination and bias within the Canadian Armed Forces. This panel will make recommendations for systemic change based on a number of factors, including gender. As an organization, it is our collective responsibility to support those who have been harmed and to ensure that people are treated fairly. When people come forward with allegations, we must believe and support them to allow the appropriate authorities to investigate. It is the responsibility of every single person in the defence team to respect one another, to hold themselves and their peers accountable, to act according to the values and principles that Canadians expect of us and to recognize, address and report unacceptable behaviour.
We know that we need to do more to help people feel safe and empowered to bring forward their stories. We must eliminate the barriers and the fear that prevent people from coming forward and reporting. When they do come forward, we must take their concerns seriously. Just as importantly, we must make sure that they are heard. We must ensure that they do not face any retaliation or reprisal, even informally. We must support them through every step of the process. We must show every single member of the defence team that we are committed to this through meaningful action.
Our work has not stopped since 2015, and it will not stop now. Though we have made meaningful progress, we have more work to do. We need a complete and total culture change. Our actions to root out this insidious behaviour must match our words. We need to ensure that, no matter your rank or position, your behaviours and attitudes must match the values that Canadians expect and that we ensure a safe and respectful workplace for everyone.
The Canadian Armed Forces has traditionally had a culture of masculinity. There are toxic elements of masculinity that have risen to the fore on numerous occasions. To be serious about genuine culture change, we need to acknowledge this and tackle this head-on. Though institutional culture change is complex and takes time, the time for patience is over. Change will not and cannot happen on its own. It requires a persistent and complete acknowledgement that we must do better, and we will.
Every member across the organization must be invested in it. Every member must be accountable for their actions, no matter their rank, no matter their position. It involves everyone in the chain, from the bottom up and the top down. It goes without saying that the same rules and standards must apply to all.
We must continue building trust in each other and in our organization, trust that must be continually earned. We will continue to work to earn it.
Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity to speak. I welcome your questions.
Madam Chair, thank you very much.
Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon and for your opening statement.
You'll recall from past appearances before this committee that, like yourself, this committee has been very engaged in questions of gender equality, equity, diversity and inclusion since our government took office in 2015.
In your opening remarks, I very much appreciated that you referenced trust. You made reference to it in a number of different contexts, and this is about trust on the battlefield, trust in theatres of deployment, trust in the hallways of defence headquarters in Ottawa and trust anywhere else in between.
Minister, in light of recent circumstances, what do we need to do to restore the trust of our Canadian Forces members, particularly female members, and beyond that, how do we work together, not only to restore trust, but to empower victims and witnesses of sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces?
No one's asking about the investigation. We're asking about your actions as the minister.
If you knew about this, you had two different responsibilities that are before the committee today. One was to act to make sure that those were investigated.
There's a second responsibility as the minister. That's to protect the integrity of Operation Honour and to protect the ability of women to serve equally in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Your responsibility as the minister seems to have been breached, I guess I would say. You knew that there were allegations of a very serious nature against the person in charge of the program for rooting out sexual misconduct in the military. Without disciplining the chief of the defence staff, there are other actions you could and should have taken. One would be to transfer responsibility for that program away from the person who had already been accused.
When Operation Honour was launched, General Vance himself said, “It does not matter, for even a single incident is too many...even unintentional harm or offence is unacceptable.”
If that's true and you actually believe that, why didn't you transfer the responsibility for Operation Honour to another officer as soon as you knew of these very serious allegations?
I can begin and will ask JAG to jump in.
The process will depend on where the complaint goes. If it comes informally to my office, I would refer it to, for example, the NIS. I would certainly bring in the civilian lawyers and the judge advocate general.
A complaint can go directly to the national investigation service from a complainant; it can go from the chain of command to the national investigation service; it can go into the chain of command and, depending what the complaint is, the chain of command can investigate it.
What we have done under the processes to improve transparency and stop interference from the chain of command into sexual misconduct—or any other kind of inappropriate behaviour—is open multiple avenues for affected members to come forward.
Once it's in the national investigation service process, no one in the chain of command or the departmental management structure, nor the minister, is aware of the investigation, for the independence reasons that have already been stated.
However, there is a very transparent process to ensure that complaints can come forward, and they can be dealt with through a variety of options. As stated earlier as well, the ombudsman can certainly investigate, again depending upon the nature.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
With respect, Mr. Minister, no one is suggesting that we should undermine the independence of the office of the ombudsman. However, you have a second duty here that I've been talking about, and that is to protect your government's commitment, and indeed all of Parliament's commitment, to the ability of women to serve equally in the armed forces without facing sexual misconduct.
We are in a situation where, if you do not answer the question of when you knew, then the suspicion will be there in public that you knew about this and took no action to remove the chief of the defence staff from his responsibilities. It would not interfere in any way for you to tell us when you knew about this.
I'm not asking you to say what you did in terms of launching an investigation or who you talked to. All I'm asking is, when did you know about these allegations? If you can't answer that question, the suspicion will linger that this commitment that you and the government supposedly have to women serving equally in the armed forces isn't real.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you very much, Minister, Deputy Minister and JAG for being here today.
I'd like to delve into what I think is becoming an erroneous perception of an inconsistency here and ask you a little more specifically.
The fact is that this is an independent body. If somebody goes to that ombudsperson and provides information but does not wish to make a formal complaint, hypothetically—and I know you have to be very careful about what you say about this—whether or not something like that was ever told to you, you can't say if it was or if it wasn't. Presuming that, if you didn't know anything, if nothing was told to you, you would not be able to tell this committee that either.
I wanted to clarify that, and I know you have to be careful. The fact is that when you're saying you were surprised, you were shocked, I don't think that is inconsistent, given that you cannot even reveal what may or may not have been told to you in the past.
As I stated, it is so important to protect the integrity of that office so the confidentiality is always there and that regardless of what the conversation might be, regardless of what somebody else might think those conversations might be, we have to protect that so people can come forward. That office is so important.
As we're talking about sexual misconduct now, it takes many different complaints. We need to create multiple avenues so people can come forward. I've been in a place at a time when you feel you're not being heard, and protecting the integrity of not only this office but of the various processes that are independent when it comes to investigations is extremely important to build that confidence.
Ultimately I know that every member of the committee here, when we're talking about trying to put a system in place to have people come forward...but at the same time, you can't assert and try to accidentally undermine that either, and it pains me that this has taken place, that women did not feel comfortable to come forward. We take this very seriously; we do need to look at it deeply, and this is why I've said we will conduct an independent investigation administratively to take a look at those types of issues.
What are the changes we need to make? But now that women have finally come forward, we need to protect the importance and the integrity of the investigation to allow a process to take place, and I can't say more than that. Regardless of how uncomfortable it makes me feel, I have to make sure the protection is there.
Madam Chair and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that the land from which I am joining you virtually today is the traditional unceded territory of the Huron-Wendat people, while my colleague Janine Sherman is joining you from land that is the traditional unceded territory of the Anishinabe people.
I am Christyne Tremblay. It is my pleasure to be meeting with you today. I am the Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council, Associate Secretary to the Cabinet and Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. I was appointed to this role a little over five months ago. Since my arrival, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, my primary focus has been to support and advise the , the and cabinet on federal-provincial-territorial relations, but also on coordinating federal support when provinces or territories face particular issues relating to the pandemic.
With me today is my colleague Janine Sherman. As the Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet for Senior Personnel and Public Service Renewal, she is responsible for advising the Prime Minister and cabinet on Governor in Council appointments, which we commonly refer to as “GICs.”
Before I delve further into the roles and responsibilities of the Privy Council Office, PCO, I would like to underscore the importance of safe and inclusive workspaces. Every person working within the Government of Canada has the right to work in a safe, healthy and inclusive environment.
As deputy clerk, I take this important issue very seriously. I understand that every situation is unique, but that the right to a safe workplace, free from harassment, applies to all people who work within public organizations. I also understand that it is our responsibility to take all appropriate measures when there is evidence of inappropriate conduct.
To give the committee some background and context for what I can say today, I will provide further details about PCO's responsibilities with respect to GICs.
PCO supports the Prime Minister in the exercise of his prerogative for appointments by providing policy and operational advice. In practical terms, this translates into the recruitment, appointment and management of GICs over the span of their tenure.
As the deputy secretary to the cabinet responsible for senior personnel, my colleague Ms. Sherman advises the government—that is to say, the Prime Minister and cabinet—on: policy and operations related to GIC appointments; the terms and conditions of employment for GICs; and the management of GICs throughout their appointment. In the context of the committee's study, this last element includes advice on any complaints made against a GIC.
Four main principles are central to managing a complaint: respecting procedural fairness for all parties; supporting investigations that are independent, fair and free from bias; safeguarding personal information of those implicated to respect legislative frameworks—in particular, the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act; and respecting the confidentiality of advice provided to ministers and the government of the day.
In general, when we have information to provide advice on an issue related to the conduct of a GIC, we rely on the legislative and policy frameworks based on the four principles I just described.
Every case is unique, and our advice takes into account the specific circumstances. At all times, respecting the confidentiality of the process and personal information is paramount. Officials have a legal responsibility, as well as a general duty, to protect the personal information provided in the context of complaints.
On the specific issue the committee has chosen to study, I would note that the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service has opened an investigation, as it was mentioned during the previous panel's appearance.
When an active investigation of a GIC is underway, we must respect the rule of law and preserve the integrity of the investigative process. Consequently, Ms. Sherman and I will be limited in our ability to respond to questions related to specific circumstances.
We would both be pleased to answer your questions within these limitations.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Like all federal departments, the Privy Council Office, as an employer, takes the importance of a safe workplace for our employees very seriously. We do have a broader role as well, in terms of my own responsibilities in respect of Governor in Council appointees who work in numerous organizations across the federal family.
We do have terms and conditions of employment for GICs. Those set expectations for GIC appointees in terms of a level of conduct that is respectful and in line with all the federal requirements, such as those set out in the Treasury Board policies against harassment and workplace violence. We adhere to those kinds of guidelines, policies and practices in how and when we manage GIC appointees. We try to ensure that there are known avenues, such as ombudspersons, in place or accessible to people.
In 2017, the Privy Council did conduct a review, entitled “Safe Workspaces”, which was published and shared widely with Governor in Council appointees and indeed with all federal departments and leadership across the enterprise. It outlined some of the policies, procedures and the legislative frameworks that are in place. Broadly speaking, they are effective. They provide many avenues of recourse for people.
We also understood that there are situations where people don't come forward. There were several recommendations out of that report that apply across the government, as well as in our own situation as a department and Privy Council Office.
It is about getting better information, building awareness about some of the avenues that people have for bringing issues forward and making sure that we are listening and providing people access to the various recourse mechanisms.
We take it very seriously. In terms of practices and procedures, we do make sure that all of those guidelines are followed by GIC appointees. We offer information to them, in terms of how they manage. When there are complaints about GIC appointees, my office does get involved. We will work with the portfolio departments that may be involved as well. We make sure that we take the appropriate steps to investigate where there are allegations. Where there are not allegations but concerns, we to try to make sure that we are doing everything we can to open that conversation for people to feel comfortable coming forward.
Maybe I could start and you could complete it.
I think it's a very good point. We spoke about barriers. We spoke about having to change the culture. We have to improve the process. We have to increase accountability.
Recently, in order to strengthen policies that protect federal public service employees and to ensure that violence and harassment would not be tolerated, condoned or ignored within the public service, the Treasury Board Secretariat issued the new directive on the prevention and resolution of workplace harassment and violence. That directive is in line with the recent amendments to the Canada Labour Code concerning federally regulated workplaces.
The directive requires departments to improve harassment prevention and the way they respond to harassment, and to support those affected by harassment and violence in the federal public service. It also requires departments to investigate all harassment and violence complaints in their organization, to identify them and to report them.
We continue to work closely with our bargaining agents to promote a work environment that is positive, safe and healthy across our workplaces to foster a diverse, inclusive and accessible public service.
This new directive came into force on January 1, 2021. We are already working on it. Much like other initiatives, like the recent creation of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, this directive is one of the important changes we are implementing within the federal public service to help all public servants—including those who are most vulnerable—remove barriers and make cultural changes that will encourage victims or people who feel wronged to file a complaint and to have full trust in us to deal with the complaint.
I would say, I think, that as my colleague mentioned, every case is unique.
If there is a situation in which allegations are made and there is a danger to someone in the workplace, if there is a situation in which the workplace is under duress in some shape or form, if I can use that word, it is possible—and again, specific to the case and the circumstances—to remove the person who is being complained about from the workplace on a temporary basis while an investigation is done.
Until allegations are proven, we try to manage that kind of process in a way that is confidential for all parties. In respect to the rule of law and procedural fairness, you have a right to hear what the complaints are and to have those be investigated, proven, responded to. There is thus quite a process that must be followed when a formal complaint comes forward.
I would say it is not something that is presented in terms of its not being an issue that goes to a number of ministers in the form of cabinet; it is something that a minister, who is responsible, would be aware of.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here today.
I want to follow up where Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe was going.
What I believe I heard you say was that if there were a risk to the workplace, someone could be removed temporarily while allegations were being investigated.
Clearly, if the chief of the defence staff, who is in charge of eliminating sexual misconduct in the military, is accused of that very thing, surely this would be a situation that would qualify as something that required his removal, at least temporarily.
I'm not going to ask you to judge that, but I am going to ask, shouldn't it be the role of the minister to inform you, if that were the case? If it were perceived to be that he couldn't do the job because of the allegations without potentially causing serious damage to the program and to the Canadian Forces, is it the responsibility of the minister to inform the PCO, if that were the case?