Handwritten notes by Canada’s acting chief of defence staff before Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin’s removal as head of the country’s vaccine rollout reveal weeks of intense discussions between top government and military officials over how to handle the situation that was creating “anxiety” across the government.
The heavily redacted notes taken by Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre are among more than 100 pages of documents — including Eyre’s notebook, emails and internal communications — filed by the federal government on Friday evening with the federal court and Fortin’s legal team.
The notes written by Eyre start in mid-March when he learned of the sexual misconduct allegation against Fortin and run until mid-May when the government publicly announced Fortin was facing an investigation and would be stepping aside. The notes suggest the acting head of Canada’s military viewed dealing with the allegations as an “impossible situation.”
“If we can’t follow values, at what point do I resign?” wrote Eyre in mid-March, days after the allegation against Fortin first came to light.
Eyre jotted down that the “DM” — which in bureaucratic parlance usually means deputy minister — mentioned “political pressure” and that the government “could fall,” though the context of those remarks is unclear.
Fortin is challenging the government’s decision to publicly terminate his secondment in May to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). The move followed the government learning the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service was investigating Fortin for an allegation of sexual misconduct said to have occurred more than 30 years ago, according to Fortin’s lawyer’s original court application.
The case has been passed onto the Quebec prosecutor’s office to decide if criminal charges should be laid against Fortin.
Heath minister’s ‘reaction’
Fortin’s legal team argues the federal government’s decision to publicly announce he was leaving his post at the public health agency was tainted by political pressure and for the personal gain of the ministers of health and defence and the prime minister.
In his notes, Eyre refers to the clerk of the Privy Council as having spoken to Health Minister Patty Hajdu four times and notes “Min H insulating/protect herself.” Another note says “Min H … reaction – protect herself” and that she “doesn’t want to create a narrative.” It also said she “understands” the complainant’s “perspective,” according to the notes.
In a statement to CBC News on Friday, Hajdu’s office said the minister never spoke directly to Eyre about the issue, but didn’t deny meeting with the Privy Council clerk.
When asked by CBC News what “narrative” she didn’t want to create, her office said she wanted to be transparent about why Fortin was leaving his role with Canada’s vaccine rollout.
“At all times, the Minister has emphasized the need to be transparent with Canadians to keep their confidence in the process, and to provide media with the reasons for this change to the vaccine distribution operation in Canada,” wrote Hajdu’s office in a statement to CBC News.
In mid-March, just days after the allegation surfaced, Eyre wrote down in his notebook a number of scenarios on the table to handle Fortin’s situation, along with the pros and cons for each.
The first option was to leave Fortin in his position at PHAC, but it came with political and institutional risk, Eyre wrote. The second was to remove Fortin, which would look like the military took control of the situation, but the institution would be harmed in the process, Eyre wrote. Eyre wrote the third option was that Fortin steps aside.
Throughout the notebook, the government officials and ministers are also seen raising concerns about workplace safety, support for the complainant and due process for Fortin.
The notes suggest Eyre spoke to Fortin on at least two occasions including a welfare check and heard Fortin was “devastated” and “shocked.”
“Still cannot fathom what this is about,” Eyre jotted down about what Fortin told him.
The notes say Fortin was “adamant about continuing to work” and had support from his wife at home.
The Privy Council Office raised concerns about being able to “ensure public confidence in vaccine rollout” and the “level of anxiety was high.”
Fortin’s lawyer, Natalia Rodriguez, said the handwritten notes corroborate a sequence of events that Fortin outlined in his own affidavit.
“It is clear from the documents disclosed today that the decision-makers were more concerned about the political optics of Major General Fortin’s situation than about ensuring a fair process free of political interference,” wrote Rodriguez in a statement to CBC News.
Rodriguez also accused the government of not being transparent by “refusing” to release additional documentation about the decision. The documents filed with the court Friday do not include notes from the offices of the ministers or clerk of the Privy Council.
Eyre’s notes show Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan questioning how the military deals with historical allegations that are not criminal, and said a round table was needed with experts to create a process. Sajjan also questioned what the complainant wants, and added that due process has to take its course, the notes say.
Eyre’s notes say the unnamed complainant reached out to him about a historical case that was “not rape” and that she wanted “due process through justice.”
“Sending me letter, wants to meet,” Eyre’s notes say. “Does not want a public spectacle … Wants to use her experience to make CAF better. Trusts me.”
An email included in the court documents show Eyre later contacted a colleague on May 14, saying he got word the complainant in the case was contacted by a journalist on her personal cellphone.
In a statement, the Department of National Defence said it would not comment on the contents of the newly released documents.
“As the matter is proceeding through the judicial system, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time,” wrote DND spokesperson Dan Le Bouthillier.
Sajjan’s office said Friday that since the matter is before the court, “it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”
Prothonotary Mandy Aylen agreed to expedite hearing the case. Fortin’s legal team wants the case heard before his secondment to PHAC is slated to expire on Oct. 31.
The two-day federal court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28 and 29.