The House of Commons defence committee’s hearings into sexual misconduct are wrapping up, thanks to a vote backed by Liberal and Bloc Québecois MPs. But don’t worry, there’s enough evidence to reach a conclusion.
We now know that the Liberal government, especially Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, ignored the problem to the point of culpable negligence and abject failure. It’s too late to cover that up.
Maybe the Liberals hope it will get lost in a pandemic. They insist that what matters is fixing the problem for the future. But there is no credible way to do that without accountability for the past.
It was a good thing when Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland made a gesture in that direction by apologizing in a TV interview that aired Sunday. It just wasn’t nearly enough.
There are only two people who are responsible for the military and its top officer, noted Conservative MP James Bezan. They are Mr. Sajjan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Mr. Sajjan, invited to apologize during the hearings, declined. “He showed no contrition,” Mr. Bezan noted.
In fact, at every turn, he denied that he’s responsible for, well, anything.
And the biggest problem is that Mr. Sajjan is still there. Mr. Trudeau is telling sexual-harassment victims that Mr. Sajjan, who failed them so comprehensively for so long, will fix the problem now.
Let’s think for a moment about the woman who brought forward an allegation of sexual misconduct against then-chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance in 2018. She had given the military ombudsman a copy of an e-mail that Mr. Vance had sent her, in which he suggested they might take a trip to a clothing-optional resort.
Last week, she told Global News that she never wanted to go public. She wanted the Defence Minister to know about Mr. Vance when the government thought about extending Mr. Vance’s tenure, or considered his command of Operation Honour, the mission to root out sexual harassment.
The then-ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, tried to show the e-mail to Mr. Sajjan, but he refused to see it. The minister’s aide told the Prime Minister’s Office in the Privy Council Office that there was an unspecified allegation, but Mr. Walbourne told PCO officials the complainant had not authorized him to show it to them.
Mr. Sajjan has made the absurd suggestion that he couldn’t look at the e-mail because it would taint evidence, which is false even if there was an investigation, which there wasn’t. The allegation hit a dead end, then officials forgot about it. Mr. Sajjan forgot, too.
But Mr. Sajjan wasn’t just responsible for that allegation. He was responsible for making a system where allegations would be heard, not ignored. And even as he ignored this allegation, he did nothing about the system.
Mr. Vance, incidentally, remained as CDS for another three years.
There was other testimony about Mr. Vance. Before he was appointed as the chief of defence staff in 2015, the former Conservative government tried to track down an allegation that years earlier he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate, but found no evidence.
Last Thursday, Major Kellie Brennan, who alleged she had a long-running relationship with Mr. Vance, said that the former general had fathered two of her children, and told her he was “untouchable” and that military investigators reported to him.
You have to wonder how all that could go on. That is, unless you read the report on sexual harassment in the military written by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps in 2015. She found the problem was widespread, and military members didn’t trust the system for reporting it. She recommended the creation of an independent body, outside the chain of command, to handle complaints. Mr. Sajjan didn’t do that over his six years as Defence Minister.
Maybe Mr. Sajjan hasn’t been held responsible for that because there’s blame to go around. The PMO, including Chief of Staff Katie Telford, knew about an unspecified allegation about Mr. Vance back in 2018, too. Mr. Trudeau’s whole government bears responsibility for failing to do more about sexual harassment in the military.
Still, in our system, we’re supposed to know who will be accountable: the minister. And when they are not held responsible, there’s only one person left: the Prime Minister.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.