If you listen to the Conservatives, there is nothing that Justin Trudeau personally isn’t responsible or liable for that ills this country. Usually these days, they are trying to paint him as being solely responsible for the third wave of the pandemic because somehow didn’t procure enough vaccines in January and February (never mind scarcity, production ramp-up or supply chain issues), as though the premiers west of New Brunswick engaging in half-measures, re-opening too soon and not imposing more restrictions soon enough was not the actual cause of said third wave. In the past, they have insisted that Trudeau somehow controls the world price of oil when it comes to how it has affected the oil patch in Alberta (when they didn’t blame Rachel Notley). And now, they are trying to make him personally liable for sexual misconduct in the military.
“Women in the military have lost hope,” Conservative MP Leona Alleslev declared in Question Period last week. “Some have lost their career, others have tragically accepted there will be no justice. Service to country is an honourable profession. My father served, I served, and I would be incredibly proud if my daughter wanted to as well, but under the Prime Minister, if she chose a military career I would be worried for her safety.”
The implication that Trudeau is responsible for the statue of sexual misconduct in the military is risible, and yet the Conservatives are trying to make this narrative stick. On Monday, Erin O’Toole tried to pin Trudeau personally on the removal of Major-General Dany Fortin from the head of the federal vaccine distribution task force when an investigation into a past allegation of sexual misconduct was started.
“It is clear that Justin Trudeau’s failure to take action on sexual misconduct in the military is having serious consequences not only for our brave men and women in uniform, but all Canadians,” O’Toole said in a release. “Now we fear his inaction will affect our country’s vaccine rollout, which is already behind other countries.”
Our vaccine rollout is among the highest in the world after a slower start, but Fortin’s deputy, Brigadier-General Krista Brodie was announced as Fortin’s replacement hours after O’Toole’s release went out. Nevertheless, trying to pin the systemic issue of misconduct in the military solely on Trudeau is hard to take seriously, precisely because this is a systemic and endemic issue. It has existed long before this government came to power, and previous governments did precious little to address the problem, including Stephen Harper’s.
True, they did commission the Deschamps Report after a damning report in Maclean’s made it clear that nothing had been done over decades when incidents of sexual harassment and assault were brought to light, but once they engaged the former Supreme Court justice, they didn’t do much, citing the need to wait for the report, and once it was delivered, had the better part of six months to start implementing its recommendations and didn’t make much in the way of progress. And when they replaced the massively tone-deaf General Tom Lawson as Chief of Defence Staff with General Jonathan Vance, they certainly didn’t do a thorough job in investigating the rumours around previous inappropriate relationships – and there are now conflicting reports as to just who they asked to do the investigating.
This isn’t to say that Trudeau’s government, and Harjit Sajjan in particular couldn’t have done more, because they absolutely could have. They could have better vetted Admiral Art McDonald before appointing him as the new Chief of Defence Staff to replace Vance, as well as ensured much better vetting lower down the ranks, as evidenced by the choice for the head of personnel, who was also quickly forced to step aside for allegations of past sexual misconduct. And more importantly, they could have done the hard work of insisting on the recommendations of the Deschamps Report being implemented, and pushing the recalcitrant military leadership to take those actions, but they did not. This is one of the reasons why it’s clear that Sajjan needs to fall on his sword – his inability to provide that leadership, combined with his deep incuriosity about the status of the investigation into the latest round of Vance allegations – given that, as minister, he is responsible to Parliament for the Canadian Forces and its leadership – have ensured that he has lost the moral authority to remain in his position.
Clearly, more could have been done, but even if Trudeau and Sajjan had been more diligent, I’m not sure that the whole problem of the highly sexualized culture of the military would have been sufficiently changed in those six years, and that more allegations wouldn’t still be coming out the woodwork even now. Part of the reason why, as some like former Army officer and current professor Leah West have noted, is that there still isn’t enough of an impetus within the rank and file of the military to make those changes, and if there is to be lasting change, it has to come from within. But this is something else that Trudeau and Sajjan should have been working to address – to know why there was such resistance to the Deschamps Report before they hired yet another former Supreme Court justice to produce yet another report for them.
Change is hard. Systemic change is even harder. That the Conservatives are pretending these kinds of changes could have happened already if Trudeau had merely exerted enough willpower is not only a poor attempt at scoring cheap points, it undermines the severity of the work that is necessary if there is going to be actual reform to the institution. There are serious challenges ahead for this government and future ones when it comes to applying enough pressure when it comes to civilian oversight, and sustaining that pressure, so that we see the change happen. But this game of trying to personally implicate Trudeau merely underscores that the Conservatives are not serious about this problem, or any of the other problems they blame him for.
Photo Credit: CBC News