This is a very important motion before the House today, but one that should make Canadians very concerned.
It is a motion that should never have had to come before this house. The fact that we as Opposition members have been left with no other choice but to bring it forward is as important as the motion itself.
The motion is to direct the government to provide the support committees require to enable them to carry out the studies they are carrying out.
Essentially to instruct the government to provide critical documents and political staff witnesses for the conflict of interest and lobbying in relation to pandemic spending study that the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
And to instruct Zita Astravas the former chief of staff to Minister of National Defence and Director of Issues Management for the Prime Minister and current Chief of Staff to the Minister of Public Safety to appear at the National Defence Committee for their study on addressing sexual misconduct issues in the Canadian Forces.
Canadians could be forgiven if after hearing this they said – that seems incredibly reasonable – two House of Commons committees need to hear from critical parliamentary staff to do their work. That makes sense? Why wouldn’t they? So hang on – what’s really going on?
And that is why this is such an important motion – because this motion is not a root cause but a symptom of something much bigger. Something that speaks to some of our fundamental assumptions around our system of government and the values we hold dear.
I want to focus on the Defence study and why it is critical that Zita Astravas appear before the committee – or the Prime Minister as her ultimate boss in her stead.
Defence committee is conducting a study on addressing sexual misconduct issues in our Canadian Forces including the serious allegations against Gen Vance the highest ranking member in the Canadian Armed Forces – the Chief of the Defence Staff.
At the heart of the matter is that the Defence Minister, his staff – then Zita Astravas, officials in the Privy Council Office, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and possibly the Prime Minister himself knew of these serious allegations in Mar 2018 and took no action for 3 years.
No investigation was carried out. Gen Vance was not suspended.
Worse still in May 2019 the Prime Minister signed an Order in Council –to give Gen Vance a salary raise to $306,000 a year, and backdated to 1 Apr 2018.
Gen Vance retired as CDS in Jan of this year and these allegations have yet to be resolved.
A replacement CDS was appointed and he is now facing allegations of sexual misconduct. He has stepped aside from his position during the investigation.
Then Canadians learned of another Lieutenant General who held the position responsible for all the military Human resources is facing allegations of sexual misconduct.
And then news broke of another Lieutenant General who had an inappropriate relationship while posted to NORAD with the US military. While no Canadian rules were broken had he been in the US military there would have been serious consequences.
Further Canadians have learned through numerous media reports that allegations of sexual assault and misconduct in the military have been ignored, investigations have been shut down, critical testimony and evidence has been lost and charges have been dropped.
These tragically are not isolated incidences but a reflection of a much more damaging systemic issue.
In 2015 a scathing report by Madame Justice Deschamps on the state of a toxic misogynist culture in the Canadian Armed Forces was published. Op Honour – a military operation to eradicate sexual assault, harassment and misconduct in the Canadian Forces was enacted.
Gen Vance appointed himself as the Champion.
Gen Vance was responsible for eliminating the behaviour for which he now stands accused.
And in 2018 the Defence Minister knew and did nothing. He states that staff and PCO were responsible to act. Not him.
Which leads us back to today’s motion.
That’s why it is critical to hear from the Defence Minister’s then Chief of Staff, Zita Astravas. We need to know to what she knew, when she knew it and what action she took.
No lasting change in military culture can happen if we don’t understand the full scope of the problem and know exactly where things went wrong.
A military stands to defend the values of the nation but it must also embody them.
If the Defence Minister does not hold the military accountable to those values, including the ability for all members to serve equally with honour, free from sexual assault and discrimination – who will?
And if House of Commons committees can’t do the work to hold Cabinet Ministers accountable – who else can?
Liberals will say that only Cabinet Ministers are accountable to provide testimony at committee, not staff. But that is simply wrong. If the Minister delegates to staff, then staff need to be the ones to report on how they carried out those instructions. They are paid by the citizens of Canada – and are in service to Canadians. Canadians need to hear from them.
While this motion is about mandating that the committees can hear from critical witnesses, like Zita Astravas, so they are able to fulfill the invaluable role in our Parliamentary democracy of acting as check and balance on the government.
It is about much more than that.
It is about the fundamental values and foundations of our society.
Cabinet Ministers are elected to set policy direction, draft laws and to govern.
Governing doesn’t mean delegate and disappear. It means ensuring that government departments and public servants deliver the services Canadians need to the standards they expect and in a manner that brings honour and pride to Canada as nation.
When it comes to ensuring the conduct of the highest level of the Canadian Armed Forces – the Defence Minister says its not up to him.
When it comes to giving the CDS a raise the Defence Minister says its not him and the Prime Minister says its not him.
If the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister are not responsible? Then who is?
Ministers and the Prime Minister must be held to a higher standard. Their behaviour must be beyond reproach.
The need for this motion today – simply to mandate the government to provide critical information and testimony – makes Canadians ask – are the PM and his ministers more interested in protecting themselves than governing in the best interest of all Canadians?
And if they won’t act in the best interest of Canadians who will?
If they don’t embody the values and principles we treasure as Canadians and lead by example how can we ask it of any citizen?
If they won’t accept responsibility for their actions why should any Canadian?
The ends can’t justify the means. Every act – at every step – must be honourable and be carried out with integrity or the end itself is compromised.
Democracy is fragile – and it is only as strong as the trust and confidence that Canadians place in all of us – their elected officials. That trust is hard fought and easily lost.
I strongly urge all of my colleagues in the house to honour the trust that Canadians have placed in them, vote in favour of this motion and ensure that committees can hold the government to account – and in doing so deliver a better Canada for all.