Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was wrong to say ordering an independent investigation into a sexual misconduct complaint about the country’s top military commander would have been political interference, an analysis done for the military ombudsman says.
“Incorrect,” the document states. “Ordering an independent investigation does not constitute political interference. Especially if the independent entity doesn’t report to you.”
The analysis of Mr. Sajjan’s testimony before a parliamentary committee was prepared by staff in the military ombudsman’s office for the watchdog, and obtained by The Globe and Mail.
During an appearance before the House of Commons national defence committee on March 12, Mr. Sajjan defended the way he reacted when military ombudsman Gary Walbourne brought a complaint against chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance to his attention on March 1, 2018, and the minister declined to see the evidence.
Politicians inserting themselves into an investigation is wrong, Mr. Sajjan said.
“At the very end of this private conversation, Mr. Walbourne brought up concerns of misconduct involving the former chief of defence staff,” Mr. Sajjan said.
“He did not give me any details. I did not allow him to give me any details. I very purposely respected the investigative process to ensure that it remained independent.”
Mr. Walbourne said the complainant did not want him to investigate the matter.
Mr. Sajjan said he alerted his then chief of staff, Zita Astravas, about the issue Mr. Walbourne raised. Ms. Astravas flagged it to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which then raised it with the Privy Council Office (PCO), the department that supports the Prime Minister and the cabinet. PCO’s Janine Sherman met with Mr. Walbourne later that month, but was unable to obtain additional information.
The Trudeau government has faced political pressure since it came to light that the PMO knew about an allegation of misconduct involving Mr. Vance three years ago. Opposition MPs have questioned Mr. Sajjan’s behaviour regarding the concerns Mr. Walbourne raised.
Mr. Walbourne sparked the political firestorm earlier this month, when he told a parliamentary committee about raising the allegation related to Mr. Vance with Mr. Sajjan in March, 2018.
Mr. Vance, who is retired, is now the subject of an investigation over alleged sexual misconduct. He has denied any wrongdoing. His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, stepped away from his position and is also the subject of a misconduct examination.
Mr. Sajjan told the committee he would never want to be the reason someone who came forward did not get the just outcome they deserve.
The assessment for the watchdog noted, however, there was no investigation at the time of the meeting between Mr. Sajjan and Mr. Walbourne, and a probe or outcome would only be prejudiced if the minister “became involved in such a way that it would negatively impact the rights of the parties.”
Mr. Sajjan also said that when the military ombudsman receives a complaint, an investigation automatically starts, but the document says “this is not true” and the watchdog cannot begin an investigation without the consent of a complainant.
The document also says the only person Mr. Walbourne could have taken a complaint of this nature to is the provost marshal, adding that this official reports directly to the chief of defence staff.
“However, as he did not have the consent of the complainant, Mr. Walbourne could not do so,” the document states.
Mr. Walbourne has maintained that he acted appropriately when he tried to present the complaint to Mr. Sajjan. In a recent interview with The Globe, he said he disagreed with Mr. Sajjan’s suggestion that he could have taken stronger action when he was presented with the allegation of sexual misconduct.
The current ombudsman, Gregory Lick, told the House of Commons status of women committee last Thursday that he would have taken the same actions as Mr. Walbourne if faced with such a complaint.
Mr. Lick said he would have communicated the facts within his direct reporting structure, noting that this is to the defence minister and not any other body, including the PCO.
“This is a critical point that needs to be made in order to correct the record,” Mr. Lick said. “Had I been faced with the same facts, I would have done exactly as my predecessor did.”
Mr. Lick also said the ombudsman’s office has advocated for full independence from the defence department, but there has been no political will to act.
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