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National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance listen to a question during a news conference Friday, June 26, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian WyldAdrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A former military ombudsman says he told Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan three years ago about an allegation of inappropriate sexual behaviour against then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.

Gary Walbourne told a House of Commons committee Wednesday that he met with Mr. Sajjan on March 1, 2018, and informed him of the allegation against the now-retired general. Mr. Sajjan had told the same committee two weeks ago that he was surprised to learn about the allegation when it was first reported last month.

The Canadian Armed Forces have been rocked recently by two military police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct involving both Mr. Vance and Admiral Art McDonald, who initially replaced the former defence chief. Experts have called for independent civilian oversight of the military.

Admiral McDonald steps aside as defence chief amid investigation into misconduct allegations

The former ombudsman said he explained to Mr. Sajjan during their meeting that the individual came forward after the ombudsman ensured confidentiality. Mr. Walbourne said he told the minister that the complaint was not formal and that his request of Mr. Sajjan was to get back to him on how to proceed.

Mr. Walbourne said that while meeting with the Defence Minister, he reached into his pocket to show him evidence and that Mr. Sajjan “pushed back from the table and said ‘no.’” Mr. Walbourne said Mr. Sajjan refused to look at the evidence.

“This meeting was very hostile and ended bitterly,” Mr. Walbourne said.

He testified he asked Mr. Sajjan to keep the information confidential and get back to him with advice. Instead, he said, Mr. Sajjan informed the Privy Council Office (PCO) of the allegation.

Global News is reporting the allegation discussed in committee is connected to an e-mail chain between Mr. Vance and a former corporal, where he allegedly proposed going to a clothing-optional vacation destination.

Mr. Sajjan said in a statement that he disagrees with parts of Mr. Walbourne’s testimony, but did not specify which parts.

“I was as shocked as everyone else at the allegations that were made public last month. I can assure the committee, and all Canadians, that any allegations that were brought forward were very quickly put forward to the proper authorities, while respecting the need to protect the privacy of any individuals involved,” Mr. Sajjan said.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Justin Trudeau learned of the allegation from media reports.

Mr. Walbourne said he learned from the PCO that Mr. Sajjan had informed that office of the allegation. A meeting subsequently took place between a PCO official and Mr. Walbourne. He initially thought they were meeting about an investigation that he was under, when in fact the official was interested in the information he had about the allegation.

Regarding the probe against him, Mr. Walbourne testified that after publicly raising issues about the independence of his office, a senior member of his department made allegations against him, relating to discriminatory hiring practices. He said the allegations were “a hit job,” which led to the investigation.

He said that after his March 1 meeting with Mr. Sajjan, the autonomy and financial independence of his office was “gutted” and his requests to meet with the minister were rejected. On March 2, he informed Mr. Sajjan of his intent to resign, citing a “toxic workplace” that had a grave impact on his health. Mr. Walbourne said Mr. Sajjan acknowledged his letter five months later and did not respond to his concerns.

Liberal members of the committee repeatedly questioned Mr. Walbourne about his own actions after hearing from the victim, including his decision to tell Mr. Sajjan about the allegation.

Mr. Walbourne said he could not investigate because he was not authorized to do so by the victim and that Mr. Sajjan “holds many powers under the National Defence Act and has levers he can pull far far above my pay grade.”

“I went to the minister as his direct report, looking for advice and guidance on what to do next. I felt that this was a very major, major issue. When we’re talking about the chief of defence staff, who else should I speak to?” said Mr. Walbourne.

“I wanted to go back to this complainant and say, ‘you have been heard, I’ve taken your complaint to the highest levels of the organization.’ That’s what I was hoping to be able to do.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Sajjan has said that Adm. McDonald voluntarily stepped aside and that the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is conducting the investigation. Mr. Sajjan named Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre as acting chief of the defence staff.

Global News first reported that Mr. Vance is facing accusations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, while he was defence chief. Mr. Vance has denied those allegations and The Globe and Mail has not verified them. Adm. McDonald has not commented on the allegations against him.

At the committee Wednesday, NDP MP Randall Garrison said he was “disturbed” that some of the questions from committee members focused on whether the victim knocked on the wrong door, instead of why no one took action.

He asked Mr. Walbourne if he took the allegation to Mr. Sajjan because Mr. Vance at the time also reported to the minister. Mr. Walbourne said that was a leading factor.

Conservative MP James Bezan said the testimony proved that Mr. Sajjan “failed to live up to his own standard of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct in the armed forces.”

“The Prime Minister has to answer how this is acceptable conduct by a member of his own cabinet,” Mr. Bezan said.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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