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Feds face growing calls for answers after general overseeing vaccine effort sidelined

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OTTAWA — The federal government faced growing calls for answers from experts and political opponents alike on Sunday amid lingering questions about the abrupt reassignment of the military general who was overseeing Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, as well as who may be stepping into his critical role.

The Defence Department announced in a terse three-line statement on Friday evening that Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was stepping aside from his role overseeing the delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses across the country.

The reasons for his departure were not revealed, aside from a brief mention of a “military investigation.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office and the Defence Department, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office, have since refused to provide further information, including on the nature of the investigation.

The government has also declined to say when officials became aware of the probe and whether Fortin was vetted before being appointed to lead the vaccination campaign in November. Nor has it yet indicated who will be taking over from Fortin as government across the country to ramp up their immunization efforts.

Experts say the lack of information underscores existing frustration over a lack of transparency within the military and Defence Department, as well as raising concerns about Canada’s vaccination effort.

“There is a lot of speculation about what’s going on,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, an expert on sexual misconduct in the military at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“Dany Fortin had an impact on everyday Canadians because he was responsible for the vaccine rollout. So I think the Department of National Defense, at least in my opinion, has an additional duty to kind of tell us what’s going on.”

Nobody is expecting the Defence Department and government to reveal the specifics of any allegation, Duval-Lantoine added. But she argued a lack of transparency now undercuts already-shaky confidence that the military will hold top officers to account.

“There’s no question that type of secrecy is going to be an additional blow to the legitimacy of the military justice system and how the military regulates itself,” she said.

University of Ottawa law professor Penny Collenette, who previously served in prime minister Jean Chretien’s office while her husband David Collenette was Canada’s defence minister, echoed some of those concerns.

“This is a huge operation we’re doing, probably one of the most important ever,” she said of the vaccination campaign.

“And we don’t know what the allegation is. … We’re all at a loss. So that’s a vacuum of information, which is inexplicable to me.”

The Defence Department has taken a mixed approach to the release of information about investigations into several other senior officers, revealing details for some cases but remaining tight-lipped about others.

It has also approved media interviews by two female officers who are at the centre of allegations into the conduct of former defence chief general Jonathan Vance and his successor, Adm. Art McDonald despite ongoing police investigations.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan called on the government on Sunday to start answering questions.

“As the sexual misconduct crisis continues to rock the Canadian Armed Forces and now our vaccine rollout, the Liberals’ lack of leadership is making the situation worse,” he said in a statement.

“Justin Trudeau must be transparent with Canadians. Canadians need to have confidence in our military, and that starts with the government providing information.”

Collenette also questioned the government’s continued silence over who will replace Fortin, with the Prime Minister’s Office, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada refusing to say who will now oversee the vaccine effort.

The government has insisted the vaccination campaign will not be negatively affected by Fortin’s departure, but Collenette worried about the impact on Ottawa’s work with the provinces to get vaccines into the arms of Canadians.

“It seemed very odd that there wasn’t something that said: ‘No problem, we have an interim person,’ or ‘No problem, his second-in-command will take over,’” she said. “Just something that lets voters, that lets citizens have some security and some certainty.”

Fortin joins a growing list of generals and admirals who have been suspended or forced to step aside in recent weeks, many of them because of inappropriate conduct.

Those include Vance and McDonald as well as Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, who until last week commanded the military’s human resources section.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe was also forced to step aside as commander of Canada’s special forces after writing a letter in support of a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting a comrade’s wife.

And Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates retired after concerns were raised about an affair that he had with an American civilian while serving as deputy commander of NORAD.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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Biden nominates Cindy McCain to UN food and agriculture post

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President Joe Biden is nominating Cindy McCain to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, one of 17 nominations announced Wednesday that included major diplomatic and arts assignments.

McCain, the widow of Arizona Sen. John McCain, broke with Republicans and endorsed Biden for president, making her a key surrogate for the Democrat after Donald Trump spent years criticizing her husband. McCain is the chair and director of the Hensley Beverage Company, a Phoenix-based distributor of beer, wine, spirits and nonalcoholic drinks.

The president is also nominating Massachusetts state Rep. Claire Cronin to be ambassador to Ireland. Biden frequently emphasizes his Irish heritage and has stressed the U.S. support of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided for peace with Northern Ireland but has come under stress after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

Michael Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Jack Markell, a former Delaware governor, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The president also announced nominations to the National Council on the Arts, including Fiona Whelan Prine, widow of the singer-songwriter John Prine and president of Oh Boy Records, the country’s second-oldest independent record label still in operation.

Josh Boak, The Associated Press

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O’Toole against cancelling Canada Day; ministers, NDP say it’s time for reflection

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OTTAWA — Federal politicians are faced with the country’s legacy of residential schools as July 1 approaches, with the Conservative leader railing against calls to cancel Canada Day, while Liberal ministers and the NDP leader say it should be a time of reflection.

Leader Erin O’Toole says Conservatives are committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, but stands firm against so-called activist efforts to “cancel” Canada, particularly on the national holiday.

O’Toole offered his insights on the moment the country finds itself in to members of his caucus and staff gathered in Ottawa before the House of Commons breaks for summer.

He called the discovery in British Columbia of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children from a former residential school “a necessary awakening for our country.”

O’Toole pledged that a government led by him would be dedicated to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, as speculation swirls that the minority Parliament may be headed toward an election.

The Conservative leader said the road to repairing the country’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples and better equality doesn’t involve attempts to destroy Canada.

“I’m concerned that injustices in our past, or in our present, are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself,” he said.

Standing up to cancel culture and the “radical left” was part of the platform O’Toole ran on to win the party’s leadership last summer, where he billed himself as the “true blue” candidate to the Conservative faithful.

He’s also been trying to modernize some of the party’s positions and broaden its support base to include more people, including those who are Indigenous.

Like other federal party leaders, O’Toole has in recent weeks had to respond to the discovery of the unmarked burial site in late May and renewed demands for the government to make better progress on calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Canada Day, known for its fireworks, festivities and flapping Canadian flags, has in recent years become viewed with apprehension in some quarters, as more people reckon with the country’s colonial past and the harm it caused Indigenous communities.

The focus on unmarked burial sites at residential schools has pushed those feelings further. Where before some called for Canada Day celebrations to be boycotted, some organizers decided it was best to cancel.

St. Albert, a city northwest of Edmonton, said it wouldn’t have a Canada Day fireworks show because it was to be held on the site of a former residential school.

City councillors in Victoria also announced it would forgo its holiday broadcast to instead host another event later in the summer, where people could reflect on what it means to be Canadian.

At a press conference Wednesday, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he himself has mixed feelings about Canada Day. He drew on his own experience being from Quebec to say he knows the national holiday can be controversial, and is not universally celebrated.

For himself, he said, it’s a time of reflection and a chance to look at “what we are as a country.”

“The flags are still lowered to continue to commemorate the children that were stolen from their communities and taken to residential schools. Those wounds are still very much open in Indigenous communities,” Miller said.

Appearing virtually alongside Miller was Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, who agreed the holiday should be used to think about Canada’s ugly past.

She said the summer itself will be a time for people to wrestle with the country’s racist wrongdoings, as Canada prepares to mark its first statutory holiday remembering the legacy of residential schools on September 30.

“On Canada Day I will be wearing an orange shirt,” said Bennett.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh says people are looking at Canada Day differently this year.

“It does us a disservice when we ignore the injustice, we ignore the bad parts of our history and the ongoing legacy and the impact of those horrible things that have happened and continue to happen,” he said.

O’Toole, for his part, spoke out against calls from some to cancel Canada Day celebrations and singled out the actions of activists and those “always seeing the bad and never the good.”

“As someone who served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead this country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day.”

O’Toole, who served in the military for 12 years, says he’s proud to be a Canadian, as are millions of others. He suggested that collectively, people use the pain felt from where Canada has failed in the past to build a better home.

“We are not a perfect country. No country is. There is not a place on this planet whose history can withstand close scrutiny.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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