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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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Two charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance in Regina

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REGINA — Two people accused of killing a Mountie by hitting him with a truck in rural Saskatchewan made their first appearance in court Monday.

Alphonse Stanley Traverse, 41, and Marlene Velma Louise Pagee, 42, have been charged with manslaughter in the weekend death of Const. Shelby Patton.

RCMP have said the 26-year-old officer died Saturday after he stopped a suspected stolen truck in the small town of Wolseley, 95 kilometres east of Regina.

Patton was hit by the truck before it sped off. The officer died at the scene.

Pagee and Traverse were arrested two hours later in a field outside Francis, a town about 80 kilometres southwest of where the officer was killed.

They also face charges of failing to stop after an accident resulting in death as well as of theft of a motor vehicle. Pagee is also charged with possession of a controlled substance.

They appeared in a Regina court in person. Pagee is to be back in court Friday, while Traverse is scheduled for a video appearance on Monday.

Both are from Winnipeg and RCMP have said the truck was stolen in Manitoba. Winnipeg police said they could not provide any information about the investigation.

“The tragic, senseless death of Const. Shelby Patton is being investigated by Saskatchewan RCMP,” Winnipeg police Const. Rob Carver wrote in an email.

Manitoba court records show Traverse and Pagee have been in and out of jail for multiple convictions, including theft and break and enter. In 2006, Pagee was found guilty for operating a motor vehicle while being pursued by police.

Both face outstanding charges in Manitoba for unrelated offences.

Meanwhile, a memorial of flowers continued to grow at the Indian Head detachment where Patton was posted.

He had been a Mountie for just over six years and worked at the detachment since 2015. Before that, he was briefly on assignment at Parliament Hill.

Saskatchewan RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore said officers have appreciated the outpouring of support and condolence messages.

“These messages help us through this difficult time. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to let us know they share our grief,” Blackmore said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2021.

— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

The Canadian Press

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Putin likens Russian crackdown to arresting Capitol rioters

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is to meet President Joe Biden at a summit Wednesday, has suggested that the hundreds of people arrested for rioting at the U.S. Capitol are being subjected to “persecution for political opinions.”

Putin is likely to come under strong criticism from Biden at their meeting in Geneva for moves against his political opponents in Russia, particularly the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the detention of thousands of demonstrators protesting his arrest, and the outlawing of Navalny’s organizations as extremist.

“You are presenting it as dissent and intolerance toward dissent in Russia. We view it completely differently,” he said in an interview with NBC News broadcast Monday. He then pointed to the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington when protesters barged into the Capitol to try to halt the count of electoral votes to certify Biden’s election victory over Donald Trump.

“Do you know that 450 individuals were arrested after entering the Congress? … They came there with political demands,” he said.

Although the protests that erupted across Russia after Navalny’s arrest in January were unsanctioned, demonstrators were largely peaceful and did not enter government buildings or cause significant property damage, unlike the Capitol riot.

Putin also reiterated denials that the Kremlin was behind last year’s poisoning of Navalny with a nerve agent that nearly killed him.

“We don’t have this kind of habit, of assassinating anybody,” Putin said.

“Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?” Putin said, referring to Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a window that led to the House floor.

At a news conference after a NATO summit Monday in Brussels, Biden declined to assess how he’ll measure the success of his meeting with Putin because “the last thing anyone would do is negotiate in front of the world press.”

Biden described Putin as “bright,” “tough” and a “worthy adversary.” But he indicated he would remain wary of any commitments coming out of their meeting, saying he would “verify first and then trust” the Russian leader.

He also suggested he’d be looking for areas of agreement with the Russian president, while also warning him against continued aggression towards the U.S.

“I’m gonna make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses, and if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and other activities, then we will respond, we will respond in kind,” he said.

In his NBC interview, Putin sharply dismissed the cyberattack allegations against the U.S. as baseless.

“Where is the evidence? Where is proof? It’s becoming farcical,” Putin said. “We have been accused of all kinds of things — election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth — and not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof, just unfounded accusations.”

In April, the United States announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and new sanctions connected to the so-called SolarWinds cyberattack in which several U.S. government branches experienced data breaches. U.S. officials blamed the Russian foreign intelligence service.

In May, Microsoft officials said the foreign intelligence service appeared to be linked to an attack on a company providing services to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

At the summit, Biden also is expected to raise the case of two Americans imprisoned in Russia: Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage, and Trevor Reed, convicted of assaulting police while drunk. U.S. officials say both were convicted in biased trials on flimsy evidence.

Putin said of Reed, a 29-year-old former Marine: “He’s just a drunk and a troublemaker.”

Putin brushed off one possible source of tension in the upcoming summit: Biden’s claim that he once told Putin he considered the Russian leader soulless.

“I do not remember this particular part of our conversations,” Putin said.

—-

Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed.

The Associated Press

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