“We take all allegations seriously” the Prime Minister’s press secretary assured Canadians yet again last week, in the matter of former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.
The statement came in response to mounting evidence that allegations of sexual misconduct by the nation’s highest-ranking military officer were not taken remotely seriously by anyone in government – least of all by the Prime Minister’s Office.
So, business as usual, then.
Where does one even begin? Begin in 2015, the year the Liberals took power. As it happens, that was the year in which former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued her report on what she called the “sexualized culture” of the military and the pervasive sexual misconduct to which it gave rise.
And it was the year Mr. Vance was appointed chief of the defence staff (by the previous Conservative government, we should note), tasked with implementing Operation Honour, the military’s response to the Deschamps report – though not before he himself had been investigated, and cleared, on charges of having carried on an inappropriate sexual relationship some years earlier.
So when, in March 2018, the military ombudsman at the time, Gary Walbourne, brought fresh allegations of sexual impropriety on Mr. Vance’s part to the Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan, there was, shall we say, some context. The Deschamps report had been sitting on the Minister’s desk for three years. Presumably the previous allegations would have been in Mr. Vance’s file. The #MeToo movement was in full flower.
A little more context that might also be relevant: Mr. Sajjan, a former military intelligence officer, had served under Mr. Vance. Mr. Vance, moreover, had lately performed a valuable service for the government: dismissing then-vice-admiral Mark Norman, whom it suspected of having leaked evidence of political interference in a lucrative shipbuilding contract.
At any rate, what did Mr. Sajjan do with the allegation that Mr. Vance had sent an e-mail to a female subordinate, years before, suggesting they repair to a “clothes-optional” resort? According to Mr. Walbourne, he refused even to look at the evidence. According to Mr. Sajjan, he referred the matter to the Privy Council Office. But according to subsequent evidence, it was in fact referred first to an official in the Prime Minister’s Office, who then contacted the then-head of the PCO, Michael Wernick.
Along the way, Elder Marques testified to the Commons National Defence Committee that he also told the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. And what did any of them do about it after that? Bupkis, or the next thing to it. The PCO made a few wan inquiries with the ombudsman, who refused – properly, according to military law experts – to give them the complainant’s name.
After that, they all seemed to lose interest. Well, there was a lot going on: as Mr. Wernick testified, “we had other preoccupations about the senior ranks of the military at the time,” by which one assumes he means the laying of charges against Mr. Norman, a week after Mr. Sajjan’s meeting with the ombudsman.
Another possible “preoccupation”: allegations surfaced later that spring that the Prime Minister, also years before, had groped a young newspaper reporter. Perhaps the government was reluctant to take down its most senior military officer over behaviour that, however improper, was much less serious than that of which the Prime Minister stood accused.
That’s a lot more credible explanation, at least, than the ones – plural – the government has offered. Mr. Sajjan has claimed he could not touch the case, as this would constitute “political interference.” Nonsense, say the experts. The Minister has the power under Section 45 of the National Defence Act to look into anything he pleases, via a board of inquiry.
Various Liberals, including the Prime Minister, have tried to shift the blame onto the ombudsman. Again, nonsense: the ombudsman is expressly precluded from launching his own inquiries into such matters. Besides, the complainant wasn’t looking for a formal investigation: as she later told Global News, she just wanted to give the Minister a heads-up, something to take into account when it came to future decisions about Mr. Vance’s career.
No such taking into account appears to have happened: Mr. Vance was awarded a pay raise in 2019. When the allegation – and others, more serious – came to light earlier this year, Mr. Sajjan at first claimed to have been “just as surprised as everyone else” by them. To this day, the Prime Minister claims not to have known anything until “media reports.”
Meanwhile, Liberals on the defence committee have done their best to make the whole thing go away: filibustering, refusing to hear testimony from ministerial staffers, even voting to shut down the committee’s inquiry. If all of this sounds familiar – from the tactics, to the players, to the watery half-denials – it should: This was exactly the pattern observed in the SNC-Lavalin affair. Well, with one difference. When it came to sparing a well-connected corporation from criminal charges, government officials, from the Prime Minister on down, moved heaven and earth. But when it came to allegations that the chief of the defence staff had engaged in repeated sexual misconduct, Canada’s most ostentatiously feminist government was Absent Without Leave.
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