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Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on Dec. 17, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan testified on Mar. 12 that there was nothing he could have done about a 2018 allegation of sexual misconduct about the military’s ranking officer, General Jonathan Vance, he was preceded by the testimony of a military officer who had put in a little more effort.

Lieutenant-Commander Raymond Trotter, a Navy officer based in Esquimalt, B.C., had tried to register an allegation on behalf of another complainant, against another Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Art McDonald – nearly three years after the complaint against then-general Vance.

LCdr. Trotter didn’t feel comfortable taking a complaint about the CDS to the military’s National Investigative Service, because it is part of the chain of command that reports to the CDS. He called the military’s Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and was told the SMRC supports victims, but doesn’t take complaints. They suggested he try the Defence Minister’s office. The minister’s office told him to call the SMRC. Eventually, the SMRC asked the Investigative Service to call him, and the frustrated LCdr. Trotter gave up and spoke to them.

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This was the Catch-22 tale of a military officer who couldn’t find a proper way to report misconduct allegations against the top officer. And it was three years after Mr. Sajjan watched an allegation against then-general Vance go nowhere.

What happened in the meantime? Then-general Vance remained in his post for a total of 5½ years. In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet approved a raise for the general, fixing his salary retroactively for 2017-2018 in a range between $260,600 and $306,500. (He would also have received “at-risk” performance pay of up to 20 per cent more, but the Prime Minister’s Office won’t say how much.)

As for the allegations – the Defence Minister did nothing to make things better.

In 2018, the defence department’s ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, had offered to show Mr. Sajjan evidence of the allegation made by a confidential complainant. Mr. Sajjan refused to see it. His aide advised the Prime Minister’s Office there was an unspecified allegation; a bureaucrat at the Privy Council Office contacted Mr. Walbourne, who said he could not reveal confidential information to them. That’s where it ended.

Mr. Sajjan, in his March 12 testimony, said he didn’t look at the evidence because it would amount to a politician getting involved in an investigation. There was nothing he could do.

For a moment, let’s set aside the specious argument that a minister can’t look at evidence of misconduct against an official under his purview without interfering in an investigation.

There was no investigation. Mr. Sajjan should have noticed. He should have questioned whether the system for reporting allegations against a top officer was adequate. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

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Now, we have learned that two other allegations about Mr. Vance were raised with the Conservative government of then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2015, just before he was appointed as the top military officer.

Mr. Harper’s former chief of staff, Ray Novak, testified that political staffers listened to the allegations, and to rumours, and asked officials to look into them, and even asked Mr. Vance about them.

One allegation, Mr. Novak testified, dated from when Mr. Vance was a NATO commander in Naples and was having a relationship with a subordinate officer. Because she was an American, she was not in his chain of command, and, by the time the allegation came to the government, she was Mr. Vance’s fiancée. The other was a rumour that as a colonel in Gagetown, N.B., Mr. Vance had dated a junior officer, but Mr. Novak testified officials could find no complaint or complainant.

It’s a good thing that, in Mr. Novak’s telling, the Conservative government took responsibility for military brass and asked for an investigation. But we now know it wasn’t a good enough way to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct against senior officers.

As Mr. Harper was preparing to appoint Mr. Vance, a retired Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, penned a scathing report in March, 2015, saying military women didn’t trust the system enough to come forward. She urged the creation of an independent body to handle sexual misconduct complaints.

Perhaps Mr. Harper didn’t have time to do that before deciding on Mr. Vance’s appointment, or before he lost power six months later.

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But Mr. Sajjan had nearly three years to fix the system before he heard an allegation about the top general. He and Prime Minister Trudeau had nearly three more years before LCdr. Trotter struggled to file a complaint about Mr. Vance’s successor. The only thing they did was approve a pay raise.

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