Canada

Analysis: His own words sunk Admiral Art McDonald as chief of the defence staff

The position of CDS is a governor-in-council appointment, meaning the government can dismiss the chief at any time.

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Admiral Art McDonald is leaving the military and entering the history books as one of the shortest serving chiefs of the defence staff in Canadian history.

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His lawyer, Rory Fowler, blames this situation on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canadian Forces officials and the news media. The admiral, Fowler says, is “an innocent man (who) was accused of wrongdoing and tried in the court of public opinion.”

What isn’t mentioned is that the admiral’s own statements in the past several months probably sealed his fate, leaving the federal government with little choice but to select a new defence chief.

McDonald was named chief of the defence staff by the Liberal government on Dec. 23, 2020, and he officially took over on Jan. 14, 2021. On Feb. 25, though, the naval officer voluntarily and temporarily stepped aside after he came under military police investigation. It was eventually revealed the allegations involved sexual misconduct.

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On Aug. 6, Canadian Forces Provost Marshal Brig.-Gen. Simon Trudeau announced the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service had completed its investigation. “The investigation did not reveal evidence to support the laying of charges under either the Code of Service Discipline or the Criminal Code of Canada,” Trudeau stated.

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The Privy Council Office responded it was reviewing the situation and next steps would be announced in due course.

At that point, some Canadian Forces personnel, mainly in the navy, believed McDonald might return as chief of the defence staff (CDS).

But then came McDonald’s Aug. 11 statement. McDonald’s lawyers announced the officer was coming back as defence chief. “After consultation with his counsel, Admiral Art McDonald has decided to return to his duties and functions immediately,” the statement noted.

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“Given that it was his decision to step aside, it is now his decision — indeed, obligation — to return to his duties.”

The statement sent a rocket down the halls of National Defence headquarters, surprising both the Liberal government and the Canadian Forces leadership. McDonald’s actions were interpreted by some as open defiance to civilian authority: It was the admiral who decided he was coming back and government had no say in the matter.

Others pointed out the position of CDS was a governor-in-council appointment, meaning the government could dismiss the chief at any time.

An Aug. 11 statement said Admiral Art McDonald intended to resume his duties as chief of the defence staff. That statement sent a rocket down the halls of National Defence headquarters, surprising both the Liberal government and the Canadian Forces leadership.
An Aug. 11 statement said Admiral Art McDonald intended to resume his duties as chief of the defence staff. That statement sent a rocket down the halls of National Defence headquarters, surprising both the Liberal government and the Canadian Forces leadership. Photo by Andrew Vaughan /THE CANADIAN PRESS

In response, the Privy Council Office tersely noted McDonald was being put on leave and would remain on leave until the matter was reviewed. But it also added that, “Public office holders have an obligation to perform their official duties in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”

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Two days later, Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, was promoted to full general, a move interpreted as a strong message to McDonald that the government remained in charge.

In mid-October, McDonald doubled down on his position, giving interviews with journalists and pointing out he had been “exonerated” by military police.

McDonald also took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to all generals and admirals. The government’s management of the situation, he maintained, had harmed the Canadian Forces. It was time for the institution to accept the results of the police investigation and for himself to be returned immediately to the job of CDS.

In the wake of McDonald’s claims he had been exonerated, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service took its own unprecedented step and released a statement questioning the naval officer’s interpretation. “The CFNIS investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct against Admiral McDonald resulted in no charges being laid based on insufficient evidence,” the police organization noted. “This does not mean that the allegation was unfounded.”

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Gen. Wayne Eyre was officially named Chief of the Defence Staff on Nov. 25.
Gen. Wayne Eyre was officially named Chief of the Defence Staff on Nov. 25. Photo by Fred Chartrand /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Eyre responded to McDonald’s letter to the generals and admirals by calling it shocking and pointing out the civilian government was in charge and would decide who led the Canadian Forces. “We must remember that, in a democracy, the military is subordinate to our duly elected civilian leadership,” Eyre wrote to his fellow senior officers. “This fundamental is paramount to our profession.”

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By Nov. 25, it was all over. Eyre was officially named chief of the defence staff.

The PCO issued a letter that McDonald’s appointment as CDS was being terminated. The PCO noted that all governor-in-council appointees have an obligation to act in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny. The termination order specifically referenced McDonald’s statements on Aug. 11, the public statements made by the admiral during his public-relatinos campaign and the letter sent to all generals and admirals on Oct. 14.

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