Liberal cabinet ministers are expressing their dismay after senior military officers recently joined former defence chief Jonathan Vance for a game of golf in Ottawa.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says it showed "very poor judgment" for the officers to tee off with Vance, who is under military police investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct.
She says she and the rest of the Liberal government learned over the weekend about the actions of vice-chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau and Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Craig Baines, and she was "very disappointed and very surprised."
One of the officers, Rouleau, has the power to direct military investigations — a power recently flagged by a retired Supreme Court justice as a threat to police independence.
Vance has not responded to requests for comment on the sexual misconduct allegations from The Canadian Press, but Global News has reported he denies any wrongdoing.
Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna has also spoken out about the senior officers playing golf with Vance, writing simply in a weekend tweet, "It's appalling."
Freeland told reporters Monday that she absolutely understands and sympathizes with the concerns that military members, especially women, might have about the possibility of fairness.
"Let me be clear with Canadians and maybe particularly Canadian women: there needs to be a real change in culture in the Canadian Armed Forces," she said.
"Canadian women who serve our country in uniform must not be subject to sexual harassment, to any kind of sexual abuse, at work, and they need to know that if harassment or abuse happens, there is a clear, fair, objective way … that their complaints will be addressed. Our government is acting on this."
She noted there is nearly $250 million earmarked in the budget to tackle sexual misconduct in the military.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, however, accused the government of a vast coverup of sexual misconduct in the military that has sullied its reputation and Canadians' trust in it. He called the golf game "completely inappropriate."
"It shows that there is a broken culture at the senior ranks at the Department of National Defence that they did not have the personal judgment to make a better decision. There is no leadership from Minister (Harjit) Sajjan. Not a single person I know that served in the military or is there now has respect for the minister," he said.
"With no leadership at the top, an important institution is withering before our eyes. As a veteran, I'm very concerned by that."
O'Toole reiterated a call he first made months ago for a freeze on all promotions and salary increases for general and flag officers to send a signal that the "old ways of operation are not acceptable."
Sajjan's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, but he has said previously that he followed the correct steps when he became aware of an issue involving Vance three years ago.
The defence minister's spokesman said over the weekend that the department has accepted in principle a recommendation from a recent report by retired justice Morris Fish, which called for a repeal of the vice-chief of the defence staff's power to direct military investigations.
Rouleau, who is set to turn the vice-chief position over to Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen and move to a new role advising acting defence chief Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
In a statement, the Canadian Armed Forces' top police officer, Provost Marshal Brig.-Gen. Simon Trudeau, said Rouleau "has not issued any instructions or guidelines to the Canadian Forces provost marshal in regards to any ongoing military police investigations,'' including those involving Vance.
For his part, Baines apologized in a message to members of the Royal Canadian Navy on Sunday.
"I fully accept responsibility and accountability for not understanding how such a public display of support sends the wrong signal as to my commitment to lead in resolving our systemic cultural and misconduct issues,'' he said.
Baines said he's taking a few days of personal leave.
Vance is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, Maj. Kellie Brennan, that started in 2001 and continued after he became Canada's top military commander in 2015.
He is also accused of having sent a lewd email to another soldier in 2012.