Former privy council clerk Michael Wernick said he regrets that no further action was taken regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, saying the entire system is to blame for what happened.
Mr. Wernick testified before the House of Commons national-defence committee on Tuesday, saying government officials who learned of the allegation in 2018 could have taken a different approach.
Last month, former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne told the committee that he tried to show Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan evidence of a sexual-misconduct allegation against Mr. Vance and that the minister refused to see it.
Mr. Sajjan told his chief of staff at the time, Zita Astravas, who alerted the PMO, which subsequently informed the Privy Council Office. When the PCO reached out to Mr. Walbourne to ask him to share information about the allegation, he declined and later told MPs he had promised to keep the complainant’s allegation in confidence.
“There were options for Minister Sajjan to do things differently,” Mr. Wernick said.
“I do think there were options for Mr. Walbourne to do things differently and I concede there may have been for the Privy Council Office to do things differently, that would have created different time lines. The sum total of what happened created an impasse and we couldn’t move it forward and I do regret that.”
The Canadian Armed Forces have faced criticism amid military police investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct involving Mr. Vance, his successor Admiral Art McDonald and Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson. Consequently, the Liberal government has been scrutinized over how it responded to an allegation against Mr. Vance.
The issue of sexual misconduct in the military is a big problem and stretches beyond any one individual, Mr. Wernick said. He pointed to a report conducted in Britain on the matter, which included 36 recommendations. “I think some mechanism similar to that would be necessary,” he said.
The House of Commons national defence committee and the status-of-women committee could give the government advice on design features of legislation, Mr. Wernick added.
Military Ombudsman Gregory Lick told the committee on Tuesday that other countries such as Britain, Australia and Germany have set up their military oversight bodies with full independence, legislated mandates and the ability to report to Parliament.
“It could be done in Canada if the political will exists,” he said. “So far, this has not been the case.”
Mr. Wernick said the matter involving Mr. Vance dropped off the radar in the spring of 2018 because it “didn’t have a sense of urgency” at the time.
“There were other issues going on in the senior ranks of the military that did get in the way of line of sight on this issue,” he said.
On March 9, 2018, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the former commander of the navy, had been charged with a single count of breach of trust after being accused of leaking cabinet secrets involving a contract that the Harper Conservatives awarded to Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding. In 2019, the charge against him was stayed.
Mr. Wernick also pointed to other challenges, including the fact the complainant was anonymous and that there were no other witnesses to interview. It would have been improper to confront Mr. Vance at the time, he added.
The former clerk said the first time he heard of the matter was on March 2, 2018, when Elder Marques, a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, came to see him.
“He said there was an issue the minister was concerned about and wanted us to look into regarding the chief of [defence] staff,” he said. “I said ‘OK, you better go and see Janine Sherman, who was my person at the time on senior personnel matters.”
Mr. Wernick also said an e-mail sent on that day suggesting the matter needed to be put into writing was sent by Mr. Marques to Ms. Sherman. Between the morning of March 2 and the end of the day, the file was effectively in the hands of the PCO, Mr. Wernick said.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan asked Mr. Wernick how much detail of the allegation the former PCO clerk was made aware of on that day.
“None,” Mr. Wernick said. “Just that there was an issue concerning the chief of defence staff that the minister wanted look into. I learned of the specific allegations earlier this year in the media reports.”
Mr. Wernick also said he believes it took a series of e-mails and calls to persuade Mr. Walbourne to meet with Ms. Sherman and that she met with him on March 16.
“As clerk of the Privy Council Office, was it your belief that you were acting with the Prime Minister’s knowledge of the allegations in March in 2018?” Mr. Bezan asked.
“No, I have no reason to think the Prime Minister was aware of any of this at the time,” Mr. Wernick said. “The only person that I know would have been aware would be Elder. And I don’t know who he would have spoken to within PMO at the time.”
“We reached an impasse on March the 16th,” Mr. Wernick said. “There must have been conversations back with PMO around March 16, 17 to report back that we had reached an impasse.”
Mr. Lick told the committee that he did not believe there was any reason why Mr. Sajjan could not look at the evidence Mr. Walbourne tried to show him.
“I say enough. Enough of the self-protectionism and deflecting. Enough political foot-dragging.”
Mr. Sajjan testified on Tuesday that he did not inform the Prime Minister directly of the allegation brought to his attention by the former military watchdog about the chief of the defence staff in 2018. The committee invited his former chief of staff, Ms. Astravas, to testify, but Mr. Sajjan appeared in her place.
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