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View Karen McCrimmon Profile
Lib. (ON)
I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 31 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the order of the House of January 25, 2021. Members are attending in person or via the Zoom application.
The proceedings will be made available on the House of Commons website, and so you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking, rather than the entire committee.
For those participating virtually, I would like to outline a few rules to follow. Please let me know if interpretation is lost at any time. We want to make sure that it is working well so that everyone can fully participate in the proceedings.
For members participating in person, proceed as you usually would when the whole committee is meeting in person in a committee room. Please wait until I recognize you by name before you start to speak. Please speak slowly and clearly, and when you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
We will do our best to keep track of who wants to speak and when. It is much easier when it's done virtually via the Zoom application. That helps us to keep track of things. It's being fixed right now, because it's not up at the present time.
Pursuant to Standing Order 106(4), the committee is meeting today to consider a request received by the clerk, submitted by four members of the committee, to discuss the request for additional witnesses pertaining to the study of addressing sexual misconduct issues in the Canadian Armed Forces, including the allegations against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.
I will now open the floor for debate.
Go ahead, Mr. Bezan.
View James Bezan Profile
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I want to thank colleagues for meeting during this constituency week to consider a new motion to look at more witnesses and dive deeper into what actually has happened in the sexual misconduct allegations against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, former chief of the defence staff Admiral Art McDonald, and others, as this has evolved over the past 100 days.
Therefore, I would like to move the following motion. It was circulated by the clerk about 20 minutes ago, so I take it that all members of the committee have a copy in front of them.
It reads:That, in respect of the committee's study on addressing sexual misconduct issues in the Canadian Armed Forces, including the allegations against former Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance,
(a) recalling that Zita Astravas, former Chief of Staff to the Minister of National Defence, was invited on Monday, March 8, 2021, to appear before the Committee within 14 days and was ordered by the House of Commons on Thursday, March 25, 2021 to appear before the committee on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, and did not appear on either occasion, the committee issue a summons for Zita Astravas to appear before this committee, at a televised meeting, at a date and time determined by the Chair which is no later than Friday, May 21, 2021, or two days following the adoption of this motion, until she is released by the committee, provided that, in the event that Zita Astravas defaults on the summons, (i) the clerk and analysts be directed to prepare a brief report to the House, outlining the material facts of the possible contempt the situation would represent, to be considered by the committee, in public, at its first meeting after the consideration of the main report on the study has been completed, and (ii) the Minister of National Defence and Gary Walbourne, former National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, be invited to appear jointly on a panel for two hours, at a televised meeting, no later than Thursday, May 27, 2021;
(b) that the study be expanded to include matters related to the allegations against Major-General Dany Fortin, lately Vice President (Logistics and Operations) of the Public Health Agency of Canada, which have recently come to light, with a view to addressing these matters in the report referred to in paragraph (c) or, if that is not practically feasible, in a further report to be tabled before the House begins its summer adjournment, and, to this end, the committee invite representatives of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Privy Council Office and the Public Health Agency of Canada to appear as soon as possible to discuss these matters; and
(c) that the provisions of the motion adopted on Monday, April 12, 2021, concerning a report to the House, be supplemented as follows: (i) notwithstanding the motion adopted on Monday, April 12, 2021, drafting instructions and recommendations arising from the evidence received by the Committee after Friday, April 16, 2021, may be sent to the clerk, (A) in respect of evidence received before the adoption of this motion, within 24 hours of the adoption of this motion, or (B) in respect of evidence received as a consequence of paragraphs (a) or (b), within 24 hours of the adjournment of the meeting where the evidence was received, (ii) until Friday, May 28, 2021, the committee hold at least one meeting per week to receive evidence related to the study and at least one meeting per week to consider the draft report, (iii) at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, May 28, 2021, or, if the committee is not then sitting, immediately after the committee is next called to order, the proceedings before the committee shall be interrupted, if required for the purposes of the motion adopted on Monday, April 12, 2021, and every question necessary for the disposal of the draft report, including on each proposed recommendation which has not been disposed of, shall be put, forthwith and successively, without further debate or amendment, (iv) the committee declines to request, pursuant to Standing Order 109, that the government table a comprehensive response to the report, and (v) dissenting or supplementary opinions or recommendations shall be filed, pursuant to Standing Order 108(1)(b), in both official languages, no later than 4:00 p.m. on Friday, June 4, 2021.
Madam Chair, I would like to speak to the motion.
View James Bezan Profile
As we all know, we have invited Zita Astravas to come to our committee. We know that we have had an order from the House of Commons to have her appear at this committee and that she has failed to appear on either of those occasions.
We know from testimony we've received from Elder Marques, Minister Sajjan, Katie Telford, Michael Wernick and Janine Sherman that nobody seems to know how the concerns raised by Zita Astravas regarding the allegations of sexual misconduct and evidence that were presented by Gary Walbourne to Minister Sajjan were received in the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office.
Mr. Marques said he was notified to look into the matter by Katie Telford. Katie Telford said she believed she was told by Elder Marques about the allegations against General Vance. We have Michael Wernick, who said he was contacted about it by the Prime Minister's Office.
The only person who can shed light on how the information flowed is Zita Astravas. We need her to appear to answer questions related to who she phoned, who she talked to and how many times she talked to different people within the Prime Minister's office and the Privy Council Office.
We also have the claim made by Katie Telford at the meeting at which she testified that she knew that what was being alleged did not present a safety concern. Who told her it was not a safety concern? I believe that Zita Astravas, who received first-hand information from Minister Sajjan, would be in the best position to answer how they knew this wasn't a safety concern and also how these allegations became reported as sexual harassment within all official documentation that flowed from the Prime Minister's Office to the Privy Council Office.
Now, if Ms. Astravas refuses to appear, I think that is an issue that needs to be considered as potential contempt of Parliament. I also believe that if she's unprepared to appear or if the government decides that ministers will appear on behalf of political staff, I then think it's only right that the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, will appear alongside the former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne so we can get down to the facts instead of having, “I said this, and he said that.” We need to have both witnesses sitting as a panel in front of this committee no later than May 27 if we cannot have Zita Astravas appear.
Interestingly, allegations came to light on Friday, at the end of a sitting week and before a break week for the House of Commons, against Major-General Dany Fortin, who's been seconded over to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
There's no question that the Canadian Armed Forces has been rocked by all of these allegations of sexual misconduct. There is now concern that the government actually knew about this for weeks. Prime Minister Trudeau said in his presser this morning that he was aware of these allegations and that he didn't do anything with them for several weeks. Canadians need to know how that information flowed and why it took so long to have General Fortin step aside while this investigation is ongoing. Major-General Fortin is saying that he just learned of these allegations when media approached him on them last week.
The Prime Minister was aware several weeks ago, so are we looking at another cover-up of sexual misconduct allegations in the Canadian Armed Forces, which as actually been compounded by the Prime Minister and his staff themselves? We need to drill down, and that's what paragraph (b) is about.
Paragraph (c) ensures that this committee will get to have a report tabled in the House before summer break. Essentially, we can start and still hear from witnesses that this motion calls to hear. We can have at least one meeting a week and have one meeting a week dedicated to consideration of the draft report and making additions to it as required, based upon new testimony that we hear. The purpose here is to ensure that by the end of business on Friday, May 28, we will then proceed to the approval of all outstanding paragraphs and recommendations in that report by a simple vote by roll call.
We'll go paragraph by paragraph, recommendation by recommendation if it's required, because the committee has been stalled on discussing elements of the report or on the recommendations themselves.
Madam Chair, this essentially is an autopilot motion to ensure that we get to the final end of this, that the report will be tabled, that it does provide a provision for minority reporting or supplemental opinion, if one or more of the parties sitting around this table are not comfortable with all of the recommendations, different paragraphs and language within the report.
I think it's fairly straightforward, although this is a fairly lengthy motion. It's clear to everyone that this is about getting down to who knew what, and when, bringing clarity to the conflicting testimony that we've heard from numerous witnesses, including the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan; Katie Telford, chief of staff to Prime Minister Trudeau; Elder Marques, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Trudeau; and officials in the Privy Council Office.
I'm done. Thank you, Madam Chair.
View Xavier Barsalou-Duval Profile
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to comment on the honourable member's motion, which contains some really interesting points. As I have repeatedly said, this process needs to culminate in a committee report. This work is important and should be reported on.
I think it's positive that the motion seeks to bring witnesses such as Ms. Astravas before the committee, so it can gather more information on the conflicting versions of events it has heard. If the committee is to have any hope of getting to the truth and being able to produce a final report, it absolutely needs to hear from Ms. Astravas.
It may be due to how the motion is worded, but I'm not sure whether the idea is to have the committee produce a final report or a preliminary one. Perhaps Mr. Bezan could clarify that, but my sense is that we may run into problems given the short time frame for hearing from witnesses and the fact that we may not have time to amend or, at least, adjust what we receive from the analysts. I don't know whether they plan to make adjustments to reflect the new evidence from witnesses. I think we need some clarity on that.
The motion also deals with calling witnesses in relation to the allegations against Mr. Fortin, or at least, beginning an investigation into the matter. I have to say, that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. According to the information that's out there, we are not talking about someone in a senior position or a position of authority who abused their power to do something wrong. At least, that is the impression I have. We have bits and pieces of information only. This makes me wonder whether we wouldn't be holding something of a people's court or, at least, investigating the matter ourselves. I have a hard time getting behind that part of the motion.
As for the rest, I look forward to hearing from Zita Astravas and getting clarification from her. If that doesn't happen, though, at least we would have the versions of the former ombudsman Mr. Wallbourne and the defence minister Mr. Sajjan to compare, because they really do not match.
View Randall Garrison Profile
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I am happy to support this motion as it has been submitted. We have a critical issue before us. The study we've embarked on is about how a complaint against General Vance, as the former chief of the defence staff and the highest-placed Canadian military officer, was handled.
If we're to move forward on the serious crisis we have of sexual misconduct in the military, which includes a large number of those at the very highest levels, it's important to restore the trust, and that those at the highest levels, both within the military and politically, understand and will take action on sexual misconduct allegations.
To me, that's a fundamental part of what we've been doing in this study. I believe that Ms. Astravas is the one who can answer the question that is still outstanding before us. It's who made the decision not to investigate the allegations against General Vance, and if there was no decision, does this indicate that people didn't really understand the seriousness of sexual misconduct within the Canadian military?
Either one of those answers will be critical to instill confidence among the rank and file serving members and the Canadian public in any reforms that are suggested going forward. For that reason, I am supportive. I could support expanding the issue to include how the allegations against General Fortin were handled. I could also support the motion without section (b) in it.
I'm disappointed that the government rebuffed offers from me and other opposition members to set aside this most contentious report and to finish the two draft reports that we have before us on studies that we began before this study, on COVID-19—
View Randall Garrison Profile
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I'm going to return to what I was saying when the meeting was arbitrarily suspended. What I was saying is that this motion doesn't deal with the problem that we have two outstanding reports for studies that began before this study of sexual misconduct, reports that we made a great deal of progress on as a committee and that we were dealing with at the draft stage, as was published on the committee website earlier.
One of those is the COVID report. I really think there are important recommendations there. We're not out of this pandemic yet. We could face further repercussions, further waves. I think it's very important that this report gets tabled in the House of Commons to provide that advice.
The second report is on mental health in the Canadian Armed Forces. This is an issue that I've been raising in two Parliaments now, both the specific issue that self-harm remains a disciplinary offence in the military code of conduct and the more general lack of services for those in the Canadian Armed Forces facing mental health challenges. We still continue to lose one serving member a month to death by suicide, so we have a real crisis here that needs to be dealt with.
We had very important testimony with very important suggestions of what might be able to happen, and we have a draft report. At one point, our agenda very clearly and publicly said that we would deal with the draft report on COVID and then deal with the mental health report. Unfortunately, at the next meeting, the chair arbitrarily changed the order of business to deal with the sexual misconduct report.
I am going to once again express my disappointment that the government has rebuffed all offers to deal expeditiously with these two important reports and instead appears to be holding these reports hostage to get its way on the sexual misconduct report. Obviously, the sexual misconduct report is much more difficult for us to make progress on because we have two different conceptions of what the question is.
I think that Mr. Bezan's motion helps us get at the essence of what the question before us really is: Why was there no action taken on allegations of sexual misconduct against General Vance in 2018, and why was he allowed to stay for another three years in charge of Operation Honour? If someone made that decision, we need to know who that was, and we still have contradictory testimony about that. If no decision was made, that raises an even larger problem of whether the Minister of National Defence in particular, or the Prime Minister's Office, actually understood the severity of the crisis of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. As I have said repeatedly, until we answer those questions, any reforms going forward will be taken less seriously than they should be by perpetrators, and they won't have the full confidence of those who are survivors of sexual misconduct.
I am in support of this motion. As I said, with or without section (b), I would be prepared to vote in favour of the motion, but I do regret that the important work on COVID and on mental health in the Canadian Armed Forces is being held hostage by the government to try to force some concessions from the opposition on the sexual misconduct study.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
View Xavier Barsalou-Duval Profile
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Earlier, I spoke to Mr. Bezan's motion, which contains a number of important points, including the summoning of Ms. Astravas. My understanding is that she would be able to provide the committee with the information it needs to draft its report. I would not feel good about preparing a report without that information.
We have received conflicting information from both sides. I think Ms. Astravas could shed considerable light on the matter and give us the answers we are looking for. I really think it's important that the committee hear from her.
What I find quite frustrating is how much time we have lost, not to mention how much the stories have changed over time. These conflicting versions of events hinder the committee's ability to do its job properly, which makes hearing from Ms. Astravas all the more necessary.
The main reason I wanted the floor a second time was to put forward an amendment, one I referred to earlier but did not move formally.
I would like to do it now. I move that point (b), which deals with expanding the study to include the allegations against Major-General Dany Fortin, be removed.
I'm basically comfortable with the rest of the motion, as it stands right now.
That's my amendment, Madam Chair.
View James Bezan Profile
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I had my hand up for a while because I wanted to respond to some of the questions that our colleague Mr. Barsalou-Duval had earlier. I wanted to again make sure that the committee understood that section (b) is about the new allegations that have come forward on General Fortin. We don't want to at all dive into the allegations themselves, and although this seems very fresh, we have moved quickly as a committee on all of the allegations against former generals and admirals as they became public.
It's interesting to note that all the action by the government doesn't take place until after media outlets start reporting on an allegation of sexual misconduct against one of our commanders. If you actually look at the way things have played out, February 2 is when Global News broke the story on General Vance, and then we had the headline on February 8 about Minister Sajjan not having acted upon it for three years. On February 9, this committee then had an emergency meeting, and we brought forward the motion to start the study into sexual misconduct allegations against the former chief of the defence staff. On February 24, news broke about sexual misconduct allegations against chief of the defence staff Admiral McDonald. We moved as a committee, and by March 8, we already had a motion to expand the scope of our study.
Having us look at the allegations against General Fortin—or, not the allegations, but rather how this information has been handled—is germane to the overall study. Again, we have allegations that broke in the news media that General Fortin wasn't even aware of last Friday, and Prime Minister Trudeau, in a press conference this morning, said he was aware of this several weeks ago, and of course it only became public after media sources started to report.
Madam Chair, and to my colleagues, it is important that we look into how that flow of information is being handled and why there is this lack of transparency. If we have commanding officers who are continuing to be implicated in sexual misconduct allegations, why are they allowed to stay in command posts as long as they have, until we actually get to the point in time when due process has been completely fulfilled for both the complainant and the commanding officers?
We should be drilling down into this. On the report side, I'm not suggesting at all that we slow down the report, and that's why part (c) is there. It's to make sure that we have a timeline, that we have an autopilot in case we can't come to decisions through constructive debate and working together on the draft report. It's to ensure that we do get to the point of just voting on each paragraph and each recommendation as we go forward after the end of the month. If the Fortin part of this study yields some extra information on how information flows from the Canadian Armed Forces to the Minister of National Defence and up into the Prime Minister's Office, we can include it before the deadlines that are laid out in this motion and include it as a separate paragraph or two. If it is impossible because it actually creates more questions than answers, we would then have a supplemental report just on this part of the motion, on part (b).
It's about making sure that we can address the full scope of sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces as it's impacting our highest-ranking officers.
View Anita Vandenbeld Profile
Lib. (ON)
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I think the amendment would remove one of the problematic pieces of this particular motion, so of course we would be supportive of that.
In this country we do have due process. We want to ensure that people are not tried in the court of public opinion. I think that is incredibly important, not only for the person who stands accused but also for the survivors, for the people who are impacted by that behaviour. It is, I think, very important that we allow that due process. I would support the amendment.
However, there are significant issues both procedurally and with the content in this motion, and frankly, in the tone of the debate we started seeing here today.
First of all, a motion that is this comprehensive was once again table-dropped minutes before the meeting began, without any courtesy for other members of the committee, especially in an era when we're mostly using Zoom. We're not sitting side by side with our colleagues, as we normally are, when we can look to each other and say, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” We are at a distance.
The Zoom format also makes it more difficult to look at the other side and come to agreements on things, but even more so when something is table-dropped just before a meeting starts, when we have to start speaking on it minutes after the first time we read it. That's fine if it's a sentence that you want to change in a motion, but for a motion that is I don't know how many paragraphs long, it's very unfair. This has been a habit throughout the last number of weeks and months.
Having said that, I think there's some very inflammatory language being used here. I truly don't know where the idea that anybody would hold a report “hostage” is coming from. I know there have been many meetings set aside over the last few months in order to look at those draft reports, some of them when opposition members decided they were going to stop participating in camera in order to start a motion, as opposed to actually looking at the draft reports. This is something that's gone on for three or four months. I think there have been many attempts to make sure we do get those reports out. Frankly, I think we still would very much like to see all of the reports.
As a committee, we passed a motion that required that we would consider the sexual misconduct report before a certain date. I think to suggest that the chair is doing things unilaterally is very unfair when all the chair is doing is following the motion that was adopted by this committee, a motion with a particular timeline.
Having said that about the timeline, Madam Chair, I feel as though each time we get to a point where we say, “Okay, we're going to make sure we get this report done, and we have finalized all of the witnesses”, then there's one more. I remember that in the discussions about having Mr. Elder come, the idea was, “Well, this is the last one we need. Once we get his perspective on things, we don't need to have any more” and we could move on with not just the reports but the next study, which is on military justice.
I can tell you from my discussions with survivors that military justice is an incredibly important piece. We know that former Justice Fish is working right now on finalizing a review of the National Defence Act that looks at military justice. I know that right now it is very important for us as a committee to move on to study that review.
Then we said, “Yes, of course”, and Mr. Elder came. He said the exact same thing that all the other witnesses said, which was that clearly there was no substantive knowledge—I think his words were “very limited knowledge”—about what the complaint was. Nonetheless, there was an attempt by PCO to reach out, to try to have it investigated. Without knowing anything or knowing what it was or who it was, there was very limited ability to pursue any investigation. I think we heard from the Clerk of the Privy Council that there was an impasse.
Nonetheless, we were preparing at that point to get the report done. I would note that there's mention about differences of views about what this report is. This could be the single most important report that this committee does. This is one of the biggest issues facing the Canadian Armed Forces today.
Obviously the report is still in draft form, so I can't comment on the report itself, but I can comment on the recommendations that I know the Liberal members put forward. Out of 24 recommendations coming from Liberal members, 23 are focused specifically on survivors and on how to fix the system moving forward.
I believe there has been enough finger pointing. To be honest, we could do the same thing. We have seen in the Toronto Star this weekend some really concerning quotes. Different people are saying different things. What is becoming very apparent is that unlike what happened in 2018, it does not look like the allegations that Mr. O'Toole brought forward in 2015 were investigated at all. In that case, they actually had something. They knew where it occurred. They knew what it was. They knew that it was a relationship with a subordinate. There was actually something that could potentially have been followed up on, which—as we are starting to see and I think we could elaborate on—didn't happen.
I'll be honest. I would love to have this committee have both Mr. Fadden and Mr. Novak sit here side by side and ask them questions. Both of them are saying different things. Mr. Novak came to this committee and was very clear that there was an investigation, that everything was done properly and that it was Mr. Fadden who conducted the investigation. Now we find that Mr. Fadden is saying to the media that he did not, in fact, conduct any investigation and has no recollection of it.
We could keep the study going and bring those witnesses. We could bring.... Honestly, I have a whole list here of people we could add. I'm not sure, but perhaps that's something we need to do. What I would prefer is not to continue down this very politicized road. Every single time another witness is called, we think we're going to be able to get that report done, and then there's yet another one.
We had the chief of staff to the Prime Minister come. Even at that point, it wasn't enough. Now we're recycling back through the older witnesses, going back to Ms. Astravas and Mr. Walbourne and the minister. The minister was here for six hours at this committee alone.
It seems to me that at this point, what we're looking at is.... I'm not convinced that the opposition wants to see this report or the other ones see the light of day. Every time we get to a point where we could move forward as a committee, there is yet another motion and yet another series of witnesses to call. Now they're literally going back and recycling witnesses who've already appeared. I'm not entirely certain that this is completely good faith.
Having said that, I want to address some of the things in this motion.
First of all, we have a piece here that talks about Zita Astravas. First of all, the minister did come—
View Anita Vandenbeld Profile
Lib. (ON)
Okay, I will save those comments for when we speak to the main motion.
In terms of the amendment and in terms of the process, I honestly think that if this committee is concerned about the survivors and about the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces, there are some very good recommendations in that draft report and in the other two draft reports.
Instead of continuing to put forward these procedural things and calling meetings so you can move motion after motion to surprise the other side with and putting things in that you know the other side won't agree to so that you keep the debate going, honestly, what we should be doing is getting the reports out. We should be moving on to the study on military justice and trying to use the time that we have in this committee to work together to find ways to solve the problem.
This is not a new problem. This is something that has existed for decades. It is something that I believe all governments have tried to find solutions to. I could go through all of the things that we have done since we came into—
View Cheryl Gallant Profile
Madam Chair, I have point of order. We are discussing the proposed amendment and she is discussing our work, our line of business and our calendar. Could we get onto the amendment, please?
View Anita Vandenbeld Profile
Lib. (ON)
Madam Chair, I am discussing the process that we took to get to this amendment and—
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