The Standard (St. Catharines)

They really love playing the good old blame game on Parliament Hill

- Geoffrey Stevens

They are busy playing the good old blame game again on Parliament Hill. This time, the game combines two familiar elements: sexual misconduct in Canadian Armed Forces and a breakdown in the chain of accountabi­lity for a purported scandal, a high-profile affair involving Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff.

Who knew what when? Who passed along how much informatio­n to whom? And what did whom do with it?

Where did the buck stop? Did it stop anywhere? Or did it get lost along the way, the casualty of an opaque system of accountabi­lity that invites evasion and denial.

The latest scandal consists of allegation­s of sexual misconduct, denied by Vance, that, while CDS, he had an inappropri­ate personal relationsh­ip with a female subordinat­e, a major, and that some years earlier, in 2012, he had sent a naughty email to a female corporal suggesting she might enjoy vacationin­g with him at a clothing-optional resort.

In the civilian world, a CEO who had a consensual affair with, say, one of his sales managers, would fuel coffee-machine gossip — he might receive a gentle suggestion or two that he be more discreet — but, as long as the relationsh­ip did not adversely affect his job or involve the firm’s money, he would not be fired or lose his reserved parking space.

It’s different in the armed forces. Generals and majors (or corporals) are not co-workers in some touchy-feely workplace. The military is not a democracy. Its organizati­on chart is a command structure. Its directives are orders meant to be followed without protest.

If, hypothetic­ally, a colonel were to order a major to terminate her romantic liaison with a more senior officer, she would be expected to obey, or resign. But, as members of the armed forces know only too well, and as their political overseers keep struggling to grasp, it is not so simple when command authority and the chain of accountabi­lity come up against issues of rank, sex, personal privacy and the exercise of free will (to the extent that civil right is recognized in a military organizati­on).

What if the senior officer in the relationsh­ip that the colonel wants the major to end happens to be their mutual boss, the top general? The colonel may be as fond of his job as the major is of her lover. Is there no room for considerat­ion of such human factors in the Canadian Armed Forces?

The rule seems firm: no intimate relationsh­ips between officers and their subordinat­es, not even if a relationsh­ip is consensual and the subordinat­e is not in the senior officer’s line of command. It is a rule that would be laughed out of court in the civilian world.

There’s a complicati­ng issue in the Vance case. Major Kellie Brennan claims that he ordered her to lie about their relationsh­ip and warned “consequenc­es” if she did not follow his orders.

It was the opportunit­y or risk of coercion that led the Harper Conservati­ve government to appoint retired Supreme Court Canada Justice Marie Deschamps to investigat­e the CAF’S handling of complaints of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse. When she reported in 2015, Justice Deschamps recommende­d the establishm­ent of an independen­t body, outside the military command, to investigat­e complaints.

The Harper government did not act on the Deschamps report and the Trudeau Liberals kept spinning their wheels until late April when they announced that another retired Supreme Court judge, Louise Arbour, would conduct a second inquiry — this one to tell the government how to implement the recommenda­tions of the first inquiry.

Amid this silliness, the legitimate issue of sexual misconduct in the military has become secondary to the blame game. Who should be blamed for bungling the Vance file? If not Prime Minister Trudeau or Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, how about Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. Last week, the Conservati­ves introduced a motion demanding that the PM fire her. They lost the vote, but the blame game plays on.

The legitimate issue of sexual misconduct in the military has become secondary to the blame game. Who should be blamed for bungling the Vance file?

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired recently from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays.

He welcomes comments at geoffsteve­ns40@gmail.com.

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