Justin Trudeau attempted to shift questions away from his government and onto a former military ombudsman, saying officials could not investigate an allegation of sexual misconduct against former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance because the watchdog would not provide further information.
“The ombudsman did not provide sufficient information to the officials in place to be able to follow up on these allegations,” the Prime Minister told reporters Friday in Ottawa.
Mr. Trudeau said he has not lost confidence in his Defence Minister.
On Thursday, The Globe and Mail reported that Harjit Sajjan’s chief of staff told a senior adviser inside Mr. Trudeau’s office three years ago that the minister was troubled by information about Mr. Vance after the minister met with former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
Mr. Sajjan’s chief of staff at the time, Zita Astravas, spoke to Elder Marques, a senior adviser to Mr. Trudeau, about concerns related to the country’s defence chief, two sources told The Globe and Mail. The Globe is keeping the sources confidential because they are not allowed to discuss internal matters involving the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, the federal body that runs the public service.
Mr. Marques then requested guidance from the Privy Council Office to ensure that there was a process and that appropriate steps were taken, one source said. Ms. Astravas didn’t mention a specific allegation about Mr. Vance, the source added.
The PCO’s Janine Sherman then met with Mr. Walbourne, who was the military ombudsman at the time, but she was not provided with evidence on the allegation involving Mr. Vance, the source said.
Mr. Walbourne told the House of Commons national defence committee on Wednesday that he was “floored” when the PCO asked him about the details of the allegation because he had told Mr. Sajjan he did not have the complainant’s permission to investigate and it was to be held in confidence.
Mr. Sajjan told the same committee two weeks earlier that he was shocked to learn about allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Vance when it was reported last month.
The Prime Minister reiterated on Friday that he also became aware of specific allegations against Mr. Vance through media reports.
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 has not verified them.
The allegation discussed in committee, according to Global, was connected to an e-mail chain between Mr. Vance and a former corporal, in which he allegedly proposed going to a clothing-optional vacation destination.
Conservative MP James Bezan is now accusing the Prime Minister of covering up the allegation against Mr. Vance.
“Justin Trudeau stated that he learned of allegations of sexual misconduct against Gen. Vance recently, but we now know that is false. According to media reports, the Prime Minister’s Office was made aware of allegations of sexual misconduct against the former chief of the defence staff three years ago,” he said.
“For three years, Justin Trudeau hid this information from Canadians and when asked about it, made the decision to mislead Canadians. This is clearly a cover-up,” Mr. Bezan said.
He said the Conservatives are calling for an emergency meeting of the defence committee to get “to the bottom of how this cover-up was orchestrated.”
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said it is now very clear that the Defence Minister, the PCO and the PMO were all aware of sexual-misconduct allegations against the Chief of Defence Staff in 2018.
“It is also clear that no effective action was taken to investigate these allegations,” he said.
“If these allegations had been taken seriously, everyone involved would have asked the Minister of Defence to listen to the evidence and information from the ombudsman.”
Mr. Garrison also said Mr. Trudeau promised to address the pervasive problems of violence, misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Forces but “the more we learn, the more it shows that this promise was not taken seriously.”
Mr. Trudeau said Friday that Mr. Sajjan is “committed to moving forward on establishing a more independent external process.”
In 2015, retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued an explosive report detailing a highly sexualized culture in the Armed Forces. She recently told a parliamentary committee that she expected more progress and her impression is that very little has changed.
Marie-Claude Gagnon, who served seven years in the Canadian Armed Forces and founded an online support group, military sexual-trauma survivors, and Maya Eichler, an associate professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, are also calling for an external monitoring body to hold the military accountable for sexual assaults.
“Accountability is possible,” they wrote last year in Policy Options magazine. “But it requires external oversight, evidence-based research to track progress, and responsiveness to the needs of sexual-assault survivors.”
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