Defence chief's leave shows how seriously misconduct allegations are taken, PM says

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OTTAWA — The fact Admiral Art McDonald stepped aside as Canada's defence chief while misconduct allegations are investigated demonstrates how seriously such cases are taken, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.

But Trudeau said Friday that more must be done to ensure workplaces are free of harassment and intimidation.

"This is something that is extremely important. And it's something we've taken strides on, both in our government and in the military. But there's always more to do," Trudeau said during a news briefing.

"Because there is an ongoing review into this situation, and we're ensuring that all the steps are properly taken, I won't be commenting specifically on this process at this time."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said late Wednesday that McDonald had "voluntarily stepped aside'' as chief of the defence staff while military police investigate unspecified allegations. He is on paid leave.

McDonald took over as chief last month from Gen. Jonathan Vance, who is being investigated over allegations of inappropriate behaviour that became public following his retirement.

Vance has denied any wrongdoing and McDonald has not commented.

Canadian Army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre has been appointed acting chief of the defence staff.

Trudeau said he wants anyone who has experienced sexual assault or other such abuse to know that "we will be there, to listen, to hear them, to work with them and to move forward through processes that will get to the right answers."

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Friday that a Tory government would launch a service-wide independent investigation of sexual misconduct in the military.

General officer promotions would be suspended during the probe, along with salary increases, O'Toole said.

He also pledged that future complaints would be made to an independent body outside of the chain of command.

Sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces is an "ongoing and serious problem that must be addressed," O'Toole added.

“This unsafe culture must change."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.

—With a file from Christopher Reynolds

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press