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After criticizing the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence for failing to respond adequately to his investigations and to complaints from families of Forces members, Yves Côté left his position in December 2007, half-way through his five-year term. He then joined the Department of Justice.
The Ombudsman office was created in 1998 to investigate complaints from current and former Forces members, Department employees and their immediate families who allege unfair or improper treatment by the Department of National Defence or the Canadian Forces.
Mr. Côté was publicly critical of the military bureaucracy and the Defence Department over the years.
In a November 2006 report, Heroism Exposed, Mr. Côté revealed that during the first Gulf War (1991) Canadian soldiers in Kuwait were exposed to depleted uranium and a number of other toxic chemicals. The soldiers’ concerns were largely ignored by the Canadian Forces.
The leader of the soldiers affected by the toxins, Major (Ret'd) Fred Kaustinen, said: “It's just fantastic that a senior official has recognized both that [soldiers] were exposed to some toxins and they didn't receive the support they deserved."
In January 2007, Mr. Côté rebuked the Defence Department for not producing a full list of soldiers involved in current or past missions, even recent tours in Afghanistan, due to inadequate record keeping.
In May 2007, Yves Côté criticized the military for deliberately stalling attempted investigations into grievances from soldiers on a sniper team in Afghanistan about their commanders. Mr. Côté’s office ultimately dismissed the soldiers’ complaints, but Côté’s report, A Sniper’s Battle - A Father’s Concern, documented the frustration about information roadblocks that “severely hindered” the investigation. Mr. Côté said his office met “considerable resistance” to providing documents from the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces. The documents that were eventually released had large portions blacked out.
At the time of the report’s release, Mr. Côté also reported that “the Canadian Forces continue to treat military families like second-class citizens.”
A 2008 investigation, initiated under Mr. Côté’s watch but concluded after his resignation, revealed numerous problems for reservists who were injured while serving in the Forces and who subsequently required health care.
In late 2007, Prime Minister Harper announced that Mr. Côté would leave the Ombudsman’s office half-way through his mandate to become Associate Deputy Minister of Justice effective January 7, 2008.
The government said it would “move quickly to appoint the next Ombudsman,” but it took more than a year to find a suitable replacement. In the meantime, Mary McFayden was designated as “interim Ombudsman.”
In February 2009, Pierre Daigle was appointed as Ombudsman. He has also faced hurdles and has spoken out about the treatment of soldiers, and was accused in September 2012 by Defence Minister MacKay of overstepping his mandate and acting as an advocate for men and women in uniforms.
- August 2005: Yves Côté is appointed by Paul Martin’s Liberal government as National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman.
- 2007: Yves Côté reports that “the Canadian Forces continue to treat military families like second-class citizens."
- 3 January 2008: National Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirms that Yves Côté will no longer be working as ombudsman.
- 7 January 2008: Yves Coté begins his new post as Associate Deputy Justice Minister, while Mary McFadyen is appointed by National Defence Minister Peter MacKay as “interim Ombudsman,” a position she has kept February 2009, until Pierre Daigle filled the position.
- February 2009: Pierre Daigle is appointed as National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman.
- June 2012: Yves Côté is appointed as Commissioner of Canada Elections.
Role or Position
Yves Côté was appointed by the Martin Liberals as Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman. He held the position from August 2005 to January 2008. Mr. Côté is a lawyer with three decades of experience in the federal civil service including assignments at Justice Canada (Human Rights Section), the Somalia Inquiry (government coordinator), Department of National Defence (Legal Advisor), and the Privy Council (Counsel to the Clerk).
Implications and Consequences
- Democracy: The government consistently ignored the reports and recommendations of the Ombudsman, Mr. Côté, when he spoke out repeatedly about the treatment of Canadian soldiers and their families, as well as about the lack of information provided by the military and the government. He also asserted the need for his office to have more powers in order to fulfill its mandate. This behaviour is typical of the broader trend in the current government of disregarding the work and recommendations of independent officers and watchdogs. Stonewalling and obfuscation weaken the institutional tools that ensure accountability in Canada’s democratic system.
- Transparency: The government imposed roadblocks and withheld information that Mr. Côté had requested. This prevented him, as an independent watchdog, from fulfilling this mandate. Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Kevin Page has also faced major hurdles in obtaining the information necessary to do fulfill his mandate, as has Peter Tinsley who had been unable to properly carry out his investigations into Afghan detainees.
Date published: 20 November 2012
Photo by Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen.