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Senior military officer acquitted of sexual assault sues government, PM for $6M

OTTAWA — Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, a senior military officer who was acquitted of a sexual assault charge late last year, has filed a $6-million lawsuit against the Canadian government.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin speaks to members of the media following an acquittal in his case at a Gatineau, Que., courthouse on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Fortin, a senior military officer who was acquitted on a sexual assault charge late last year, has filed a $6 million lawsuit against the Canadian government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

OTTAWA — Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, a senior military officer who was acquitted of a sexual assault charge late last year, has filed a $6-million lawsuit against the Canadian government. 

Fortin, who was dropped as the lead for Canada's COVID-19 vaccine program in early 2021, has named 16 high-ranking officials in a wide-ranging suit, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, former defence minister Harjit Sajjan and former health minister Patty Hajdu. 

A statement of claim filed on Wednesday with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice accuses the officials of "reprehensible, extreme, flagrant and high-handed" conduct and seeks $5 million in general damages and $1 million in punitive damages. 

The document alleges that Fortin suffered the damages due to defamation and misfeasance in public office. It also accuses the officials of negligent investigation, the inappropriate public disclosure of private facts, breach of confidence and conspiracy to cause damages. 

"He was not afforded due process," Fortin's lawyer, Thomas Conway, said in an interview. 

"It's caused him the kind of grief that you expect anyone would go through, facing the kinds of allegations that he had to face publicly."

Fortin was removed as head of the government's COVID-19 vaccine rollout in May 2021 pending the investigation of a historical allegation stemming from his time at military college in 1988. 

He was charged with sexual assault in August 2021 and acquitted of the charge last December in the Quebec Superior Court.

The lawsuit alleges that the investigation was grossly negligent and that there was never any basis to make a criminal prosecution in the first place. It accuses officials of dismissing Fortin from the prominent vaccine role for political reasons. 

"There is a certain, I would say, chill that has descended over the Canadian Armed Forces relating to all of these allegations of sexual misconduct," Conway said.

"And we are not by any means trying to trivialize that issue. Not by any means. It’s a serious issue. However, unfortunately, everyone seems to have tossed out the notion that someone is entitled to … a fair process."

He added that despite Fortin's acquittal, there is a stain on his reputation. 

"That stain, that damage, is not something that is ever going to be removed unless he seeks redress for what has happened in the courts by way of civil remedy," Conway said. 

The military formally cleared Fortin of misconduct on the balance of probabilities in January, and said it would assign him to a new role. But the lawsuit alleges the Canadian Armed Forces is either refusing or unreasonably delaying his reintegration. 

The statement of claim says that's because defendants it names as "political actors" have "made it clear" to the military's leadership that Fortin cannot return to his regular duties, have "tarnished" his reputation with the military itself and have created a climate in which someone who "has done nothing wrong" cannot advance their career once someone else makes an allegation. 

The Defence Department still intends to reassign Fortin to "appropriate duties commensurate with his rank and experience," spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said in a statement. 

"We will review the statement of claim and will not be commenting further at this time," she said.

The Prime Minister's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

No statement of defence has been filed responding to the allegations in the lawsuit. 

Separate proceedings are still ongoing at the Federal Court of Appeal, in which Fortin is appealing a Federal Court decision that tossed out his request for reinstatement last year. 

In that matter, Fortin has argued that he was ousted from the vaccine role due to political interference and without due process. The government has denied those claims. A spokesperson for Fortin said a date has not been set for further proceedings. 

Fortin, who previously served as commander of the NATO training mission in Iraq and as commander of the 1st Canadian Division, also initiated a complaint with the Military Police Complaints Commission after his acquittal. 

When asked about whether Fortin pursued a settlement with the government before filing the suit, Conway would only say that Fortin does not have any interest in getting into extended litigation with his former colleagues, and with an institution he served for more than 30 years. 

"Believe me, this is the last thing he wanted to do." 

Defendants named in the Fortin lawsuit include: 

— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

— Gen. Wayne Eyre, the chief of the defence staff

— Harjit Sajjan, former defence minister and current international development minister 

— Patty Hajdu, former health minister and current Indigenous services minister

— Janice Charette, clerk of the Privy Council Office

— Iain Stewart, former head of the Public Health Agency of Canada and current president of the National Research Council

— Jody Thomas, former deputy minister of national defence and current national security adviser to Trudeau

— Lt.-Col. Eric Leblanc, commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service

— Retired colonel Bruce MacGregor, former director of military prosecutions

— Brig.-Gen. Simon Trudeau, the military's provost marshal

— Retired brigadier-general Dyrald Cross, who was the supervisor of the complainant in the sexual assault case

— Laurie-Anne Kempton, the assistant deputy minister of public affairs at the Defence Department

— George Young, Sajjan's then-chief of staff and current acting chief of staff to the fisheries and oceans minister

— Warrant Officer Denise Hachey, a military police investigator

— Brig.-Gen. Alan Mulawyshyn, then-chief of staff for Eyre and now a deputy executive director at Veterans' House

— The Attorney General of Canada, who is named in the suit as a defendant in the proceeding on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, the Ministry of Health, the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023. 

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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