OTTAWA — The fact Admiral Art McDonald stepped aside as Canada's defence chief while misconduct allegations are investigated demonstrates how seriously such cases are taken, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
But Trudeau said Friday that more must be done to ensure workplaces are free of harassment and intimidation.
"This is something that is extremely important. And it's something we've taken strides on, both in our government and in the military. But there's always more to do," Trudeau said during a news briefing.
"Because there is an ongoing review into this situation, and we're ensuring that all the steps are properly taken, I won't be commenting specifically on this process at this time."
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said late Wednesday that McDonald had "voluntarily stepped aside'' as chief of the defence staff while military police investigate unspecified allegations. He is on paid leave.
McDonald took over as chief last month from Gen. Jonathan Vance, who is being investigated over allegations of inappropriate behaviour that became public following his retirement.
Vance has denied any wrongdoing and McDonald has not commented.
Canadian Army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre has been appointed acting chief of the defence staff.
In a message to members Friday, Eyre said that in the face of uncertainty the Canadian Armed Forces must remain resilient and ready to answer the call of duty.
"At the same time, we must strive to ensure we look after our people — all of them — and ensure we are an institution in which Canadians can see themselves. How we do things is as important as what we do."
Trudeau said he wants anyone who has experienced sexual assault or other such abuse to know that "we will be there, to listen, to hear them, to work with them and to move forward through processes that will get to the right answers."
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Friday that a Tory government would launch a service-wide independent investigation of sexual misconduct in the military.
General officer promotions would be suspended during the probe, along with salary increases, O'Toole said.
He also pledged that future complaints would be made to an independent body outside of the chain of command.
Sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces is an "ongoing and serious problem that must be addressed," O'Toole added.
“This unsafe culture must change."
Political studies professor Stefanie von Hlatky told MPs on the House of Commons defence committee Friday that if a Forces member does not engage in sexual misconduct, it does not mean they perform their duty with honour.
"The standard of performance is much higher than that if you want to get to zero tolerance," said Von Hlatky, Canada Research Chair on gender security in the Armed Forces at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"The challenge moving forward is not simply about how to eradicate sexual misconduct within the military, but entails identifying positive steps to create a culture of equality for women in the CAF and a culture centred around respect for all."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.
—With a file from Christopher Reynolds
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press