Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff is under pressure from all three main opposition parties to appear before a parliamentary committee to explain what she knew about a sexual-misconduct allegation related to Canada’s top soldier in 2018.
The Conservatives plan to present a motion at the House of Commons defence committee on Friday to have Katie Telford appear for no less than two hours. They want the committee to be held in public, for it to be televised and for Ms. Telford to be called to testify within seven days.
The push to have Ms. Telford appear before the committee and to take questions from MPs is taking place after a committee appearance by Elder Marques, a former senior adviser inside the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), who testified on Friday.
Mr. Marques told MPs that in March, 2018, that Ms. Telford spoke with him about a concern related to Mr. Vance, who was chief of defence staff at the time. He also said that despite a lack of detail around the nature of the allegation, everyone appreciated the potential gravity of the issue. Mr. Vance has denied any wrongdoing in an interview with Global News, but otherwise has not commented.
Three years ago, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was alerted to an allegation that was raised directly with then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne. Mr. Sajjan declined to see the evidence and alerted his former chief of staff, Zita Astravas, who made the PMO aware. The Prime Minister’s Office then referred the matter to the Privy Council Office (PCO), the department that supports the Prime Minister and the cabinet, but it could not obtain further information, Mr. Trudeau said.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said “nobody knew that it was a Me Too complaint.” He has also said that he only learned of detailed allegations against Mr. Vance in news reports this year. The former chief of defence staff retired in January and is now the subject of an investigation by military police.
Opposition parties say Mr. Trudeau must take personal responsibility for the way the situation was handled in 2018.
“Everyone around the Prime Minister knew but he suggested he didn’t know it was a Me Too-style complaint,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in Question Period on Wednesday. “Is the Prime Minister going to stand in this House and tell the women of this country that he doesn’t think sexual harassment is a Me Too complaint?”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan also said his party wants to find out what Ms. Telford knew about the allegation of sexual misconduct three years ago.
“We need to find out why they took the actions they did and what she told the Prime Minister,” he said.
Mr. Bezan said he is hopeful that MPs on the defence committee will support the Conservative motion. There are 12 members of the committee, with six opposition MPs and six Liberal members including the chair.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said Wednesday that having Ms. Telford appear before committee is a necessary step.
“Service women and men deserve to know who knew what when,” he said. “Since neither the minister [Mr. Sajjan] nor the Prime Minister is taking responsibility here, we need to have Ms. Telford’s testimony for clarification.”
Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous, a spokesperson for the Bloc Québécois, also said Bloc MPs will support the motion to call Ms. Telford to testify. Liberal Karen McCrimmon, the committee chair, said all motions are voted on within the committee and noted the next meeting is scheduled for Friday.
Mr. Bezan said he would be surprised if the Liberals allowed Ms. Telford to testify, adding that they have fought against having political staffers come before the committee.
Liberal MP and committee member Anita Vandenbeld said in a statement that she cannot comment on a motion that she hasn’t seen.
“That said, my main focus is on supporting survivors and making the necessary systemic changes to ensure that we prevent sexual misconduct and abuse of power,” she said.
When asked if Ms. Telford would be willing to appear, PMO spokesperson Alex Wellstead said the office has always taken allegations of misconduct extremely seriously and that it cannot comment on a request that it has not received.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters Wednesday that it is important the Prime Minister ensures women in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are safe.
Experts have repeatedly stressed the need for the federal government to establish an independent body outside of the chain of command so members of the CAF can feel safe to bring forward complaints and to receive support.
In the federal budget, the government promised to implement new external oversight mechanisms to bring greater independence to the processes for reporting sexual misconduct in the military.
The Department of National Defence, in response to a query from Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, said a search of its system found 851 incidents of sexual assault and 221 incidents of sexual harassment were reported between April, 2016, and March, 2021.
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