Military leaders circumvent access to information law, says former major general

“(It is) difficult to believe that my case has not been politicized if records can be unreasonably delayed for so long or denied disclosure because the case was the subject of cabinet discussions.”

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Senior leaders of the Canadian military and National Defense must be held accountable for refusing to release government records requested under the law, says a former major general.

Major General. Dany Fortin, acquitted of sexual assault last year, filed a lawsuit in March 2023 against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and other military officials for their alleged actions linked to her case. .

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Fortin alleged that shoddy police work and political interference not only damaged his reputation, but also led to a sexual assault charge that had no basis in fact. He announced in October that he had settled the lawsuit and that he received an unspecified settlement from the federal government.

But Fortin, who has used the Freedom of Information Act and federal privacy law to try to obtain records about the behind-the-scenes actions of his fellow generals, is now being blocked.

In some cases, officials say there is not a single record. For other requests, military and department officials must first consult with their political superiors before publishing the material.

“There appears to be a deliberate effort to avoid disclosure,” Fortin said in statements to this newspaper. “Avoiding the law is petty and reprehensible. Leaders must be held accountable.”

Fortin is trying to obtain the records to understand what happened behind the scenes with Eyre and senior department officials, such as former deputy minister Jody Thomas.

“(It is) difficult to believe that my case was not politicized if records can be unreasonably delayed for so long or denied disclosure because the case was the subject of cabinet discussions,” he added.

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But National Defense spokesperson Frédérica Dupuis stated in an email that the department’s Directorate of Access to Information and Privacy (DAIP) “diligently processes the requests it receives, in accordance with policies and the law. DAIP does not retain or destroy records, nor has it ever received orders or instructions to do so.”

Critics, however, have noted that the military and National Defense are sliding toward greater secrecy, even as they advocate for billions of dollars in additional spending.

The problem has become so serious that the House of Commons National Defense Committee has launched hearings into the lack of openness and transparency. So far you’ve heard that National Defense violates the law in nearly 40 percent of the requests it receives to produce records under the Access to Information Act.

Dupuis did not explain how National Defense could claim to diligently process such requests in accordance with the law, while at the same time defense officials admitted to parliamentarians that their organization breaks the law 40 percent of the time by not submitting the records requested as required.

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The committee also heard that the department continues to retain a wide range of records, including documents on shipbuilding and fighter aircraft requested by a Conservative MP in 2017 and 2018, as well as files needed for legal purposes by survivors of military sexual assault. Additionally, some former soldiers have complained that they face uphill battles getting the military to provide the documents needed for medical benefits claims.

The Canadian Forces also require freedom of information requests to be submitted for documents that should be available to the public.

Just days after Eyre publicly advocated for greater openness on defense issues, his office informed this newspaper that it would not publish a copy of the March 7 speech in which he made such comments. Instead, this newspaper must file an Access to Information request for the speech, which was publicly televised, and that process could take up to two years.

In January, this newspaper reported that National Defense covered an unprecedented new cloak of secrecy around a controversial warship project estimated to cost taxpayers more than $80 billion. The department hid records about the Canadian surface combatant for nearly three years; When they were published, under the Access to Information law, all cost figures were redacted in the documents.

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Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard testified on February 21 before the House of Commons defense committee that she was taking the department to court in two cases to try to force the release of records. But Maynard also acknowledged that military officers and department officials faced few real consequences for ignoring the law, which is supposed to provide public access to federal records.

The Canadian Forces and National Defense have a long history of incidents involving the destruction of records and the retention of documents. In December 2018, a military officer at the civilian trial of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman testified that Canadian Forces leadership circumvented the Freedom of Information Act to conceal records even though they had been legally requested. No officers were disciplined after that incident.

David Pugliese is an award-winning journalist who covers the Canadian Forces and military issues in Canada. To support his work, subscribe: ottawacitizen.com/subscribe

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