PM WADES INTO MILITARY LAWSUIT
‘Argument does not align with my beliefs’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has attacked his own Justice Department lawyers for their defence in an $800-million lawsuit over harassment in the military because it doesn’t align with his or his government’s beliefs.
On Wednesday, Trudeau said he had asked Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to follow up with the lawyers, “to make sure that we argue things that are consistent with this government’s philosophy.”
At issue is a claim by Justice Department lawyers that the government does not “owe a private law duty of care to individual members within the (Canadian Armed Forces) to provide a safe and harassment-free work environment, or to create policies to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault.”
In question period, Conservative Opposition leader Andrew Scheer criticized the Liberals for the conflicting messages.
He told Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, “This minister specifically instructed his lawyers to argue that the armed forces does not have a duty to provide woman a safe place to work. That’s shameful.”
The government is facing a lawsuit brought forward last year by three former service members who say they were harassed or assaulted while in uniform. They are seeking $800 million for themselves and others in similar situations.
Justice Department lawyers filed documents in late December in which they asked the Federal Court to quash the suit, which comes as military leaders are pushing for a culture change to eliminate all forms of sexual misconduct in uniform.
The documents include a number of arguments for why the lawsuit has no reasonable chance of success and should therefore be dismissed before going to trial.
But lawyer Rajinder Sahota, who is representing the three former service members involved in the lawsuit along with lawyers from five other legal firms, cited the no “duty of care” statement as being of primary concern.
Trudeau on Wednesday said that the arguments were “of concern to me, and I’ve asked (Wilson-Raybould) to follow up with the lawyers to make sure that we argue things that are consistent with this government’s philosophy.”
“Obviously the lawyers’ argument does not align with my beliefs or what this government believes.”
Trudeau did not say exactly which arguments were of concern, and his office didn’t offer further information.
University of Ottawa law professor Bruce Feldthusen said the government was not arguing it had absolutely no obligation to create a safe workplace or prevent sexual misconduct.
“What they’re saying is: ‘We have an obligation to do it under the Human Rights Act, we have an obligation to do something under the Criminal Code, but we don’t have an obligation under negligence law,” ’ he said.
“‘We don’t have an obligation to compensate individual victims.”’
Feldthusen said it made sense for federal lawyers to make such an argument as part of their attempt to get the lawsuit tossed out of court, but he didn’t believe it had much chance of success.
The lawsuit was front and centre during a heated question period Wednesday, where concerns about sexual misconduct and the #MeToo movement have dominated debate for weeks.
With Trudeau having left on tour of the U.S., it fell to Sajjan to respond to Conservative allegations that the government was arguing it did not have a duty to provide a safe workplace for women in uniform.
“We are committed to making sure that we have a harassment-free workplace within the Canadian Armed Forces,” Sajjan said at one point while noting that dozens of service members had been kicked out for sexual misconduct.
“We are going to stomp this matter out.”
But Sajjan did not respond when NDP House leader Ruth Ellen Brosseau demanded the government end the “irresponsible and reprehensible” efforts to quash the lawsuit, which she said flew in the face of Trudeau’s promise to support victims of sexual abuse.
“We want to be able to work with the opposition on this issue because this is an important issue that impacts all of us,” Sajjan said.
“We need to make sure that we have a harassmentfree workplace, especially in the Canadian Armed Forces.”