Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan refused to say whether he was aware of the sexual nature of the misconduct allegation against Gen. Jonathan Vance that was brought to his attention in 2018.
Despite being asked five separate times whether he was aware of the sexual nature of the allegation, Sajjan refused to give a clear “yes” or “no.”
“I didn’t have much details on that,” Sajjan said, during an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson.
Global News first reported in February that an allegation of inappropriate behaviour by Vance was reported to then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne in 2018. At the time, the prime minister’s office, the defence minister’s office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan were all made aware of the claim.
However, Walbourne says he brought evidence of the allegation directly to Sajjan’s office — where the defence minister refused to see it
“Yes, I did directly tell him about an allegation of inappropriate behaviour against the chief of defence staff,” said Walbourne to the defence committee in early March.
“I did tell the minister what the allegation was. I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding. He pushed back from the table and said, ‘No.’”
Two weeks later, Sajjan told the defence committee committee that he refused to hear the details and had his staff refer the matter to bureaucrats, who promptly abandoned a probe when the then-military ombudsman refused to share information the complainant had asked to be kept confidential.
“(Walbourne) did not give me any details. I did not allow him to give me any details. I very purposely respected the investigative process to ensure it remains independent,” Sajjan said, despite MPs pointing out that there was no formal investigation underway at that time.
“You say investigation not started? I disagree.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also argued that “nobody” knew the complaint was sexual in nature.
“Nobody knew that it was a Me Too complaint. We did not have information on what was the nature of the complaint, of that allegation,” Trudeau said, speaking to reporters on Tuesday.
However, documents obtained by Global News under access to information laws showed that on the same day his office asked bureaucrats to open a probe, bureaucrats had been informed the allegation was about “sexual harassment” and were referring to it as such in emails.
And at least some of those emails seem to have been with staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to testimony made before the House of Commons defence committee.
But, speaking to Stephenson during his interview for The West Block, Sajjan repeatedly refused to clearly answer whether he was aware of the nature of allegation.
“Were you aware that it was sexual in nature or had to do with conduct around women?” asked Stephenson, repeating her question for the fifth time.
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“That’s something that, as I stated, I didn’t have much details on that. I wanted to, my priority was making sure that the former ombudsman was able to then take (the complaint) immediately and speak to the Privy Council Office about this so that the appropriate action could be taken,” Sajjan said.
It was an answer he repeated throughout the interview.
“We did not know the details. It was only, (we) did not know the details of the of the complaint, as I stated in in my testimony,” Sajjan said.
“Regardless of what type of complaint it was to us, any type of complaint that comes in by the chief of defence staff has to be taken seriously. And that’s exactly what we did.”
Sajjan’s comments come on the heels of his announcement of an external review into the issue of harassment and sexual misconduct in the military, nearly three months after allegations against senior leaders sparked a reckoning for the Canadian Forces.
Global News first reported allegations of inappropriate behaviour levelled against former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in February. In the weeks since, military police have opened investigations into Vance as well as Adm. Art McDonald, Vance’s successor as chief of defence staff. Multiple women have also spoken out publicly, sharing allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate conduct. McDonald declined to comment, citing legal advice and the investigation that remains underway.
The series of allegations have sparked what many experts have called an institutional “crisis” within the force as it reckons with the need to change a culture that former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps called “hostile” and “endemic” in 2015.
The records came roughly one month after testimony at the defence committee by Ray Novak, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2015.
Novak said that in March 2015, Harper was briefed by his national security advisor Richard Fadden during a discussion about the recommendation to make Vance the next chief of the defence staff. In that meeting, Novak said Harper was informed that Vance had a relationship while in Italy with a U.S. officer who was subordinate to him, but not in his chain of command.
Novak said Harper was informed that the Canadian military and Department of National Defence had reviewed the matter and that there was ”no open investigation or reprimand against the general.”
He said that briefing also noted that there was no reprimand on file with the U.S. army regarding the other officer involved, and that the U.S. officer was — by March 2015 — Vance’s fiancée.
Novak said Harper reviewed those details with Vance during a meeting and “asked if there was anything else he should know.”
“I don’t recall the general making any comment, other than to state he and his fiancée were relieved the matter had been reviewed and was behind them.”
Deputy Conservative Leader Candice Bergen defended the then-Conservative government’s handling of the issue in 2015.
“When our our government heard of rumors, the prime minister, the chief of staff, acted on those rumors,” she told Stephenson in an interview for The West Block.
“I think the system was broken. I think Gen. Vance took advantage of that. But there is a stark difference between our government, our previous government.”
Speaking in his own interview, Sajjan told Stephenson that the government’s actions to date to address the culture within the military have “clearly not worked to the extent that we wanted to.”
“We have made progress, but that progress was not enough. And that’s something that we admit. But we need to do better.”
He had a message for the survivors who have paid the price of a system that is unable — or unwilling — to help them in their push for accountability.
“We’re sorry, we’re sorry that a process that has as has failed you, that did not give you the comfort that you could come forward and without the fear of reprisal, something that we are absolutely committed to fixing. And we will.”
— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and Marc-Andre Cossette