A Comment or Two on the Standing Committee on National Defence
On Tuesday, 9 February 2021, the Standing Committee on National Defence convened at the request of four members of the Standing Committee:
MEETING REQUESTED BY FOUR MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE TO DISCUSS THEIR REQUEST TO UNDERTAKE A STUDY OF ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT ON THE PART OF RETIRED GENERAL JONATHAN VANCE DURING AND BEFORE HIS TENURE AS CHIEF OF DEFENCE STAFF OF THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES
In light of both the notoriety and sensitive nature of the subject, I thought I might offer some unsolicited commentary regarding this recent initiative. In part, I am motivated by the wording of the ‘notice of meeting’, which could be construed as suggesting that the Standing Committee might pursue an investigation into the allegations.
My initial reaction was: Please just do your job. Or, perhaps more specifically: do your job. Don’t try to do someone else’s job, for which you are ill-suited.
To be fair to the Standing Committee, despite the wording of the ‘notice of meeting’, the discussion that occupied nearly 90 minutes of the Committee’s time on Tuesday appeared to indicate that the focus of their inquiry would be the decisions and actions of the Minister and other decision-makers, as opposed to an inquiry into General Vance’s alleged conduct.
However, a passive observer might be forgiven for concluding that the Standing Committee might be venturing a problematic inquiry into those allegations.
In light of what I perceive as ongoing confusion in public discourse about what investigations are being conducted, what investigations should have been conducted, and what investigations ought to be conducted, I thought that I might offer a word or two on what the Standing Committee could do, and what they should not do.
It does not fall to Parliament, the House of Commons, or any Standing Committee of Parliament to conduct investigations into alleged breaches of the Code of Service Discipline. Not surprisingly, that is left to persons in leadership positions within the Canadian Forces and the Military Police (including, but not limited to, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service or CFNIS).
If the Standing Committee wishes to investigate what the Minister of National Defence (MND) knew, or didn’t know, prior to 2021, regarding any allegations concerning General Vance, that certainly falls within their scope of responsibility. After all, in a Parliamentary representative democracy, such as ours, founded on principles of ‘responsible government’, it falls to Parliament to hold Ministers of the Crown accountable.
If the Standing Committee wishes to inquire into what the MND did, and did not do, in response to such allegations, that, too, falls within the scope of their functions. Similarly, if the Standing Committee wishes to inquire after the knowledge (or lack thereof), actions (or lack thereof) or motives of the Prime Minister, key actors within the Privy Council Office, or even senior Departmental officials, such as the Deputy Minister of National Defence, that would fall within their remit. In light of concerns about General Vance’s conduct prior to appointment as CDS, if the Standing Committee wished to enquire into the vetting process followed by the previous MND, who recommended General Vance’s appointment to CDS, they could pursue that line of inquiry as well.
Finally, if the Standing Committee wishes to explore potential barriers to the conduct of Code of Service Discipline investigations where the subjects of the investigations are very senior officers (such as the CDS or Commanders of Commands), that might also be a worthwhile avenue of inquiry, provided they do not interfere with any ongoing investigations.
But please do not usurp the functions of the CFNIS at this stage in their inquiries. Granted, I have been critical of the quality and timeliness of CFNIS investigations in the past. And it appears that they may have ‘dropped the ball’ in 2015. But, if there is going to be an investigation into allegations that the former Chief of the Defence Staff contravened the Code of Service Discipline, such an investigation must be left to the proper investigative agency, and that is manifestly not the Standing Committee on National Defence.
Similarly, the Standing Committee must manage their inquiry to ensure that it does not jeopardize the merit of the CFNIS investigation or General Vance’s rights under the Code of Service Discipline.
Granted, I recently indicated that, if the current CFNIS investigation did lead to one or more charges against General Vance under the Code of Service Discipline, there are several potential barriers to any prosecution that would ensue. To be clear: even if the CFNIS identifies sufficient evidence to support one or more charges under the Code of Service Discipline, I would be surprised if a court martial would actually be convened and conducted through to an actual hearing of evidence and consequent verdict.
However, even though any eventual Code of Service Discipline proceeding brought against General Vance (if any such proceeding even arises) would likely encounter insurmountable procedural or jurisdictional barriers, the integrity of the disciplinary investigation that is purportedly underway must nevertheless be safeguarded.
I watched the video recording of the Standing Committee’s meeting of the afternoon of 9 February 2021. While that is 90 minutes of my life that I won’t get back, it did illuminate, to a degree, the intentions of the members of the Standing Committee. Despite the misleading wording of the motion, which was passed by the Standing Committee, it appears that the intent of the Standing Committee is to question senior governmental actors, particularly the MND (and quite possibly the MND who recommended the appointment of General Vance to the position of CDS), regarding their actions in light of what they knew at certain material times.
Let’s hope that they limit their inquiry to the relevant governmental decision-making, and not to the actual allegations against General Vance.
And, for those of you who might be inclined to watch the meeting from last Tuesday, and are curious why Members of Parliament spent more time discussing their rules of procedure than the substance of the motion, here is a link to the Rules of Parliamentary Procedure for the House of Commons.