Canada’s embattled military ombudsman says he welcomes the investigation into his office ordered by Defence Minister Peter MacKay after former and current employees complained the organization has become dysfunctional, with questions raised about travel expenses, sexist jokes and whether issues raised by soldiers were being dealt with properly.
Pierre Daigle, a retired major general, will not step aside as the assessment of his office is done and intends to continue on with his role as ombudsman.
He also defended his decision earlier this year to spend more than $16,500 to travel with two members of his staff to Switzerland for two days of meetings, adding that the trip was essential to his work.
“As I travel back from an outreach visit to Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, I would like to say to our many constituents that I welcome the workplace assessment that has been initiated by the Minister of National Defence,” Daigle said in a statement Friday. “Independent review is a foundational principle of ombudsmanry and I am confident that this assessment will show that our actions have always been targeted at strengthening our ability to serve Canada’s Defence community.”
“Indeed, my number 1 priority — our number 1 priority — is always to provide the best possible service to the men and women of the Canadian Forces, civilian employees of National Defence and military families,” Daigle added.
But some soldiers who have made complaints to the ombudsman’s office disputed that.
“In my case I certainly wasn’t his number 1 priority,” said retired Master Cpl. Kevin Clark, who filed a complaint with the ombudsman’s office more than five years ago.
Clark alleges Daigle’s office watered down the final report dealing with the complaint he made against a senior officer. Clark also said he has put forward a number of questions to Daigle’s office about his case, including why the officer in question was able to meet with senior staff in the ombudsman’s office while Clark’s similar request was denied. Clark said he has heard nothing back from Daigle’s office and the report still hasn’t been released.
Similar complaints have been made by retired Sgt. Major Mike Spellen, who filed another complaint against the same senior officer. “I have no trust in (Daigle) whatsoever,” Spellen said Friday.
Spellen, who fought in the Medak Pocket battle in the former Yugoslavia, said it is totally unacceptable that the investigation into his case has taken more than five years and is still not finalized. “Maybe (Daigle) should travel a little less and clean his desk off every now and then,” he said.
The ombudsman’s office acknowledges there has been a 50 per cent turnover in staff. But Daigle says that was because he restructured the office for the better.
“Change is not always uniformly welcomed within an organization and we always understood that, unfortunately, some employees would be unhappy and choose to leave,” Daigle said. “Others may not have the capacity to learn, change and develop as the organization needs them to.”
Daigle said his office has handled more than 1,900 individual cases and complaints over the last year. It is also now completing several followup systemic investigations, including one regarding the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“So our priority is — and always has been — on meeting the needs of the men and women in Canada’s Defence community,” Daigle said.
Daigle’s statement did not address the issue of complaints by staff of his telling of inappropriate jokes. At one point he told a joke to a group of female and male staff, referring to women’s’ menstrual cycles as a reason not to trust them. At a staff meeting, Daigle told a joke about sperm and lawyers. Employees were upset; with some viewing the joke as directed at the only lawyer in the room, a woman.
Daigle has admitted telling the jokes.
The Citizen also revealed on Friday that Daigle travelled to Geneva with his executive assistant and her sister. At the time the sister was a casual employee in the ombudsman’s office: a contract worker who had been hired for 90 days.
Some in the ombudsman’s office privately questioned the timing of the trip, noting it came as government departments and agencies were being told to cut their budgets or tighten spending. Others in the office questioned why a casual employee would be taken on an international trip.
But Daigle defended the trip, noting that it “was absolutely essential to ensure that Canada is prepared to co-host the Fourth International Conference of Ombudsman Institutions for the Armed Forces in Ottawa in September, a prestigious and important conference for military Ombudsmen from around the world.”
“I would like to assure Canadians that I brought with me only those individuals responsible for organizing the conference,” he added. Expenses were kept to an absolute minimum and all Treasury Board and National Defence guidelines were followed, Daigle said.
Daigle also said he is proud to be the ombudsman and after serving in the military for 36 years he is honoured to have the opportunity to resolve problems military and DND personnel face.