'It would have been easier to simply continue to endure the sexual misconduct' — Lt.-Cmdr. Nicole Dugas
Warning: this story includes graphic sexual language that may offend some readers.
Two senior female officers say they are leaving the military because the commander of Canada's Atlantic fleet refused to hold three key subordinates to account for mismanaging and attempting to cover up a sexual misconduct case, CBC News has learned.
Lt.-Cmdr. Nicole Dugas said she's ending her 12-year navy career after losing all trust in Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia and the entire institution.
"It would have been easier to simply continue to endure the sexual misconduct and the sexual harassment rather than to report and and go through that," said Dugas. "If you're not holding people accountable from that top level, nothing is ever going to change.
Lt.-Cmdr. Jennifer McGean, who supported Dugas and her chain of command during the case, said she's also leaving the navy because she can no longer tolerate how the military handles accusations of sexual misconduct.
"I can't as a senior officer continue spouting what I know is lies — that it's safe to report, that you will get support and you'll be protected," said McGean, who has served more than 30 years.
Dugas claims her boss, Cmdr. Ian Bye, sexually harassed her and abused his position of power as a senior officer in charge of base administration. He was charged with making a sexual comment in the mess on Oct. 22, 2020, given a written warning and fined $1,500.
The navy released Bye in July 2021 as "unsuitable for further service" following an administrative review, according to a letter sent to Dugas. But three other senior, male officers involved in the handling of Dugas' misconduct case were not held accountable, Dugas and McGean claim.
'I don't think it's fair to hold them to account'
Dugas, an executive officer, said she felt pressure from a officer superior in rank to not report the alleged sexual harassment and shared a partial recording of that conversation with Santarpia.
Despite that evidence, Santarpia sided with his male senior officers at CFB Halifax.
"I don't think it's fair to hold them to account …" Santarpia told Dugas in September 2021, according to a recording of their call Dugas shared with CBC News. "I honestly don't believe there was malicious intent in any way … I think it's important we balance the intent against the impact."
Santarpia declined CBC's request for an interview. In a written statement, he said an administrative investigation he ordered into his male senior officers' actions, and the decisions in which he was involved, "revealed proper procedures were followed, however, the entire chain of command could have provided more effective support to the persons involved."
"… despite the efforts that were made to provide her with support, we failed to meet her needs," Santarpia wrote.
WATCH: Dugas says she regrets ever reporting her sexual harassment claims
‘This whole experience has destroyed me’
Lt-Cmdr. Nicole Dugas says she regrets reporting her sexual misconduct claim to the navy.0:57
CBC News has been tracking the case closely for a year and has obtained a series of documents, emails and audio recordings related to it.
Dugas claims that Bye was frequently seen drinking at lunch at the mess in the early fall of 2020 when he was president of the mess, which gave him access to a bar tab paid for by the membership. CBC News has obtained monthly mess records that show there was overspending on that account between September and October of 2020.
Dugas alleged that Bye made a comment with sexual overtones in late September 2020 in private — that she'd be surprised to learn what activities he'd accept in return for a better performance review — and that in the following month he talked about a suite he had on the base that he referred to as his "sex room."
In a statement issued to CBC News, Bye acknowledged making one "inappropriate" comment in the mess but insisted that the other allegations against him are "either misconstrued, taken out of context, or false." He also said his use of his bar tab at the mess was "in accordance with the procedures and precedent in effect at the time."
CBC News spoke to four other Canadian Armed Forces members, including McGean, who said Dugas told them about the alleged sexual harassment at the time. McGean said it got to the point where Dugas was locking herself in her office after Bye returned from the mess because she felt unsafe at work.
Dugas claims Commander J.J. Doyle and Commander Patrick Perks — senior officers who were not in Dugas' chain of command at the time — drank with Bye at the mess and witnessed him making inappropriate sexual comments in front of her, which included talking about his "sex room" and inviting her to his place on the weekend.
Doyle told CBC News over the phone that Dugas' claims are false and an investigation of them "came back unfounded."
'Let me deal with it', commander says on recording
Dugas claims that on two occasions after an inappropriate comment from Bye, Perks joked that she had asked for it because she chose to be transferred to that unit.
Dugas said that during a phone conversation on Oct. 27, 2020, Doyle asked repeatedly if he could speak to Bye privately to give him a chance to change his behaviour.
CBC News was given a roughly 12-minute audio recording of part of Doyle's call with Dugas, who said she started recording about 10 minutes into the conversation.
"I think we give it a chance and give it a month," Doyle is heard saying on the recording of the call with Dugas. "He goes away and f—ing thinks about it … Maybe he just thinks he knows you better than he does."
Dugas then tells Doyle she's experiencing a lot of anxiety at work and asks him why she has to protect Bye. In response, Doyle says he's simply explaining her options.
"I'm saying I'm willing to go and f—ing verbally beat him up about it to get him back in f—ing line so he understand the severity and how serious this is…" says Doyle on the recording.
"Let me deal with it. Then if you think that it's not solved, then you go bring it up through your chain [of command] … You're good with that plan? That I'll go talk to him, he's going to go away, but thing better change … It's time to f—ing smarten up."
Dugas breaks down crying on the call and eventually says she has to go.
"I 100 per cent believe the intent of the call was to convince me to not report the incidents that I had endured," Dugas told CBC News.
Base commander testified he had no concerns
Perks declined CBC's request for an interview. In a statement, Perks said he reported the allegations to the chain of command "as soon as I became aware of them" and later testified against Bye during a summary trial in April of 2021. Dugas said Perks witnessed multiple inappropriate comments throughout the month and failed in his duty to report until he learned she was going to report it.
The Canadian Forces National Investigative Service (CFNIS) investigated and laid one charge for "conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline" against Bye related to one inappropriate sexualized comment that witnesses other than Doyle and Perks heard.
Dugas said she was devastated that the navy failed to tell her about Bye's summary trial and did not publish a notice of the proceeding, as is customary.
The base commander, Capt. (navy) Sean Williams, testified under oath during the April 2021 trial that Bye was a good officer overall and he had no concerns. As base commander, Williams oversaw what went on in the mess. At that time, Bye had already been removed from his role at the mess over claims of mismanagement of his privilege, according to an internal email.
Bye apologized for making what he described as "stupid, juvenile joke."
The presiding officer at Bye's summary trial, Commodore Richard Feltham, commander of the Canadian Fleet Atlantic at the time, said Bye's "attempt at humour was degrading" and there was "no way you could not have known this was not OK."
Santarpia later told Dugas on a call that the preliminary results of a separate investigation into Bye's drinking "wouldn't surprise" her because it "lines up" what what she reported, according to a recording of that call that Dugas shared with CBC News.
In November of 2020, Williams gave Dugas a new boss — Doyle.
That meant the senior leader Dugas accused of putting inappropriate pressure on her to not report her case was suddenly her immediate supervisor and writing her performance reviews.
Dugas filed another complaint with the navy, alleging that her case had been mishandled. That led Santarpia to order a separate investigation into the actions the chain of command took after she reported. Dugas said she had to report her experiences with Bye all over again, which she described as "retraumatizing."
McGean called Santarpia's investigation "a farce and a complete conflict of interest because he was investigating decisions that he made, or was in part making those decisions."
Santarpia admits the case wasn't handled 'perfectly'
On Sept. 10, 2021, Santarpia called McGean and Dugas to let them know the results of his investigation. Dugas shared with CBC News an audio recording of that roughly 30-minute call, during which Santarpia apologized for not supporting Dugas the way "we wanted to."
Santarpia said his subordinates would receive training rather than punishment. He said they "tried to make light of the situation" and created a "communication issue" because they were "nervous" about being fair to everyone involved.
"That's really what the training is about," said Santarpia. "I think it's a human challenge that people aren't necessarily equipped to do by nature."
McGean pushed back with more examples of problems — including the fact that Bye continued working in another unit during his investigation, despite her repeatedly telling Williams that there was a known sexual assault complainant in that office.
"That's on me," says Santarpia on the call. "…I do not think we ever thought Bye presented a risk of rape."
WATCH: McGean says she doesn't believe the military is capable of changing its culture
'Being given hope and having that stolen is worse'
Lt-Cmdr. Jennifer McGean says she doesn't believe the military is capable of changing its culture to respond better to sexual misconduct claims.0:50
McGean called that comment the final "sucker punch" that made her end her career.
"The standard we're now living up to is that everything up until rape is OK?," said McGean.
In a statement to CBC News, Santarpia apologized for that comment and said the military makes a careful assessment to determine if a military member is at risk of further inappropriate behaviour.
"I sincerely regret and apologize for the insensitive manner in which I conveyed that information to LCdr McGean," said Santarpia.
Santarpia said that, in response to the case, the military brought in "professionals and volunteers with lived experience to train the members of our team at various levels." He said an assistant deputy minister in the Department of National Defence is investigating Dugas' case.
Williams said he could not provide a comment to CBC News due to that ongoing investigation.
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