For women in the Canadian Forces, there is no way to look up the ranks, past top military brass, to find the person who is accountable when there are allegations of sexual misconduct against high-ranking officers. There is no one.
Not Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who is supposed to be responsible, but who can’t give the country a straight answer after he is reported to have ducked when an allegation about Canada’s most senior officer was brought directly to him.
So who? The Prime Minister’s Office was given a warning of concerns about then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, The Globe and Mail reports. But everyone is expressing shock about the allegations now. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has let his Defence Minister duck and weave, when he should be held accountable.
On Wednesday, the former ombudsman in Mr. Sajjan’s department, Gary Walbourne, gave extraordinary testimony at a Commons committee. He said he had told Mr. Sajjan three years ago about an allegation of sexual misconduct by Mr. Vance. He even offered to show him evidence, but, according to Mr. Walbourne, the minister pushed back from the table and said, “No.”
Did that really happen? Mr. Sajjan didn’t deny it. He issued a squidgy statement saying, “I disagree with parts of the testimony,” without saying which parts. That’s not good enough.
When the Minister of Defence hears an allegation of sexual misconduct against the highest-ranking officer in the military, does he really stick his fingers in his ears and sing ‘La-la-la, I can’t hear you,’ then run out of the room so evidence doesn’t come to his eyes? Remarkably, Mr. Sajjan won’t say.
What he has said is that he was “as shocked as everyone else” by the allegations against Mr. Vance made public last month. That’s getting harder to believe.
It is true that the allegation Mr. Walbourne raised wasn’t easy to deal with. The complainant had asked for confidentiality, and didn’t authorize Mr. Walbourne to open an investigation. Mr. Walbourne testified that he was seeking Mr. Sajjan’s advice on how to proceed, on what to do next. After all, Mr. Walbourne reported directly to the minister. So did Mr. Vance.
What could Mr. Sajjan have done? Mr. Walbourne argued that the Defence Minister has all sorts of levers to conduct probes or reviews. At the very least, Mr. Sajjan, the minister responsible, could have given Mr. Walbourne the guidance he was seeking. He might have told Mr. Walbourne to go back to the complainant with assurances that the minister had heard her, and she would be protected from retaliation if she chose to come forward with a formal complaint.
Mr. Sajjan didn’t do that. He didn’t speak to Mr. Walbourne again. The minister apparently informed bureaucrats at the Privy Council Office of the allegation, but Mr. Walbourne told them he could not reveal the confidential complaint to them.
There was one other thing, a source told a reporter for The Globe: Around that time, Mr. Sajjan’s chief of staff told an adviser to the Prime Minister that there were troubling allegations about Mr. Vance.
Then, as far as we know, nothing happened. News reports of allegations against Mr. Vance surfaced three years later.
Mr. Vance has denied allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, and The Globe has not verified them.
But the startling thing is that Mr. Sajjan is accused of covering his ears when someone raised an allegation. And that he feels no duty to explain. It’s apparently okay to let the men and women of the Canadian Forces believe that if you take an allegation of sexual misconduct to the minister, he’ll cover his eyes and run. Mr. Trudeau seems to think that’s okay, too.
The Justin Trudeau of 2017 condemned that kind of thing when he talked about sexual harassment at a conference. “Whenever there’s news about this person or that person, a whole bunch of people show up and say, ‘Oh yeah, I wasn’t surprised at all by that. We saw that coming for a long time.’ Well, why didn’t you say something, then?” Mr. Trudeau said.
So why didn’t Mr. Sajjan say something? Or the PMO? If there is a reason, let’s hear it. It’s time for someone to be accountable.
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