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Committee to hear from officer allegedly threatened after coming forward with misconduct claim against defence chief

Admiral Art McDonald assumed command of the Canadian Armed Forces from General Jonathan Vance, January 14, 2021. Both men are currently under military police investigation. (Canadian Forces photo)
Admiral Art McDonald assumed command of the Canadian Armed Forces from General Jonathan Vance, January 14, 2021. Both men are currently under military police investigation. (Canadian Forces photo)

A Commons committee will hear from an officer who was allegedly threatened for trying to report misconduct by Canada’s defence chief, Admiral Art McDonald.

But Zita Astravas, another witness the committee wants to hear from, has proven more elusive.

Astravas, who was Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s chief of staff when allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against the former chief Gen. Jon Vance, couldn’t be found, according to Karen McCrimmon, the Liberal MP who is chairperson of the Commons defence committee.

Astravas, who is well known in Ottawa political circles, is currently the chief of staff for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.

McCrimmon didn’t explain why the committee couldn’t find such a high-profile person, but the Conservative MPs on the committee pointed out Astravas is listed in the government phone book.

McCrimmon confirmed Astravas had been located just shortly before Monday’s meeting.

The committee voted to try to include Astravas once again in the witness list.

The committee will also hear from navy Lt.-Cmdr. Raymond Trotter, who is reported to have been told by a female complainant about alleged sexual misconduct by McDonald. Trotter became concerned about whether the allegation would be duly investigated within the military justice system, and called Sajjan’s office, Global News reported on Sunday. Officials there ultimately declined to take the information and Trotter reported the allegations to the Canadian Forces national investigation service on Feb. 5.

Global reported that Trotter began receiving anonymous threatening phone calls that his military career would be destroyed if he testified at the defence committee.

The committee will also hear from Sajjan and DND deputy minister Jody Thomas, who had previously testified.

Both McDonald and Vance are currently under military police investigation over allegations of misconduct.

The Canadian Forces national investigation service launched an investigation Feb. 4 into Vance after a series of reports from Global News, which alleged the officer had an ongoing relationship with a woman he significantly outranked. Global also reported Vance is alleged to have made a sexual suggestion to a second, much younger soldier in 2012, before he was appointed chief of the defence staff.

Vance has said he did nothing wrong.

Shortly after McDonald took over Vance’s job as defence chief, he voluntarily stepped aside when it was made public that he was the subject of a police investigation. McDonald has declined comment.

Former Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne told the committee of a toxic culture at national defence headquarters. His testimony also contradicted Sajjan’s statements that he only found out about the sexual misconduct allegations against Vance from news media reports several weeks ago. Walbourne said that not only had he briefed the minister about the misconduct allegations in March 2018, but offered physical evidence of those allegations. Sajjan refused to accept the evidence, he said.

Sajjan said he disputes some parts of Walbourne’s testimony, but didn’t provide specifics.

Walbourne also testified that his request to be an independent ombudsman prompted a campaign of retribution against him.

DND had kept the ombudsman on a short leash, with Walbourne even having to seek permission from the department’s deputy minister to travel to a base to hear concerns of military personnel and their families.

Several months after Walbourne tabled a report in March 2017 recommending the ombudsman’s office be made independent, DND officials told him a complaint had been made against him. They refused to provide details other than to suggest it had to do with inappropriate contracting.

Walbourne testified he heard nothing more until Oct. 27, 2017 when Thomas told him the allegation against him would proceed to a formal investigation. Walbourne still wasn’t told of the specifics.

The notification came the day before Walbourne was to testify in front of a Commons committee about DND’s failure to act on his recommendations to help military personnel. “It was obvious this process was being used as a means of intimidation prior to my testimony before the committee,” Walbourne testified.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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