Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insisted he could not have done more to ensure former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance was investigated after learning of concerns of misconduct, despite being responsible for the top commander.
Mr. Sajjan testified for the second time before the House of Commons national defence committee on Friday in an effort to clear up discrepancies in stories regarding a meeting between him and former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne in 2018, when the watchdog informed the Minister of an allegation against Mr. Vance.
Mr. Walbourne told committee last week that Mr. Sajjan refused to look at evidence he had regarding an allegation against Mr. Vance, who was defence chief at the time. Mr. Walbourne said he asked Mr. Sajjan to keep the information confidential, but that Mr. Sajjan informed the Privy Council Office of the allegation.
On Friday, the Defence Minister said he refused to look at the evidence because he wanted to ensure the investigative process was independent from political interference. Mr. Sajjan insisted that he considered the investigation open from the moment Mr. Walbourne received the complaint.
But just before Mr. Sajjan’s testimony, members of Parliament heard from a senior member of the Canadian Armed Forces about the broken system. Lieutenant-Commander Raymond Trotter said he reported two unrelated cases of sexual misconduct in February on behalf of other members of the forces. In each case, he said, it was difficult to navigate the system, and in the case of a complaint about Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Art McDonald, there was no independent authority to which he could report the allegation.
Lt.-Cmdr. Trotter said a female member of the forces disclosed to him on Feb. 3 “allegations of serious sexual misconduct” by Adm. McDonald. Lt.-Cmdr. Trotter said he went in circles trying to find an authority to which he could report the allegations, including trying to contact the Defence Minister’s office because he was worried about reporting to an authority that was subordinate to Adm. McDonald. Adm. McDonald is now being investigated by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.
“Senior officers seem to get special treatment,” Lt.-Cmdr. Trotter said about the handling of sexual misconduct complaints.
The Canadian Armed Forces have been rocked by two military police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct involving both Mr. Vance and Adm. McDonald, who initially replaced the former defence chief.
Mr. Sajjan insisted that he took the Vance allegation seriously and had it raised with the appropriate “independent authority” outside of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. He said he informed his chief of staff, who informed the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, which Mr. Sajjan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have repeatedly described as the appropriate authorities.
NDP MP Randall Garrison said the Privy Council Office is “neither an investigating authority nor independent” and asked Mr. Sajjan whether he thought committee members would accept that he did not take any action because the PCO was handling the issue.
“Your whole argument today seems to turn on the existence of what I would call a unicorn and that’s that magical independent authority that exists to investigate claims of sexual misconduct against the chief of defence staff,” Mr. Garrison said.
The Defence Minister said Mr. Walbourne is independent from the chain of command and can conduct investigations and had options to get appropriate advice. Mr. Walbourne, in his testimony, had reiterated that he had to keep the information confidential and was seeking advice from Mr. Sajjan.
“The member talked about the unicorn. I’m sorry, when it comes to the independence of investigations from politicians, if you think that’s a unicorn that’s for you to decide,” Mr. Sajjan told Mr. Garrison.
Mr. Sajjan said the information was passed to the PCO, which followed up with Mr. Walbourne, and repeated that it is not appropriate for politicians to be involved in investigations.
He said there is a need to improve policies to prevent misconduct and abuse of power and repeated the government’s plan to create an independent body that would ensure members feel safe coming forward.
Earlier in committee, Lt.-Cmdr Trotter detailed the criticism he faced when he came forward with a second complaint.
On a Zoom call with more than 100 members of the Royal Canadian Navy, Lt.-Cmdr. Trotter said a senior officer called a female officer’s room a Red Room, which he said people on the call interpreted as a reference to the erotic romance movie Fifty Shades of Grey. He said several other members on the call then also made the same comparison and made “inappropriate sexual remarks.”
One member of the Canadian Forces made a complaint to him about the call, which he said he reported up the chain of command because she agreed to be identified.
He said the matter was played down by other senior personnel, and that a petty officer was assigned to investigate the complaint, but that person was a subordinate to the subject of the complaint. When he spoke with a senior civil servant about the incident, Lt.-Cmdr. Trotter said the civil servant (who is also a retired Navy captain) “raised his voice and spoke to me in a very demeaning manner, indicating – and pardon my language – that I had ‘fucked up’ and I had ‘ruined the respondent’s career over nothing.’ "
On the case involving Adm. McDonald, Lt.-Cmdr. Trotter said the complainant was fearful and did not want to be identified, but it was his duty to report the complaint. However, because the military police report to Adm. McDonald, as the Chief of Defence Staff, he said there was no obvious independent person to whom he could disclose the allegations.
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