Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he did not personally know about allegations of sexual misconduct against then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance that were brought to the attention of his office in 2018.
At a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau was asked if he knew three years ago about concerns of any kind regarding Mr. Vance, to which he replied, “No.”
Tuesday’s response from Mr. Trudeau was the first time he said he did not know about the allegations when his office learned of them.
The government has faced political pressure in recent weeks from opposition parties over how it handled concerns about Mr. Vance that were brought to the attention of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on March 1, 2018, by Gary Walbourne, who was military ombudsman at the time.
Mr. Sajjan declined to see evidence Mr. Walbourne offered, but told a Commons committee he alerted his chief of staff, who flagged the matter with the Prime Minister’s Office.
The PMO asked for a follow-up from the Privy Council Office, the department that supports the prime minister and cabinet. The PCO’s Janine Sherman met with Mr. Walbourne later that month, but was not able to obtain further information. Mr. Walbourne said he did not have the complainant’s permission to investigate, and that her wishes had to be respected.
Conservatives James Bezan, Pierre Paul-Hus and Leona Alleslev released a joint statement on Tuesday after Mr. Trudeau stated he was not aware of the concerns about the country’s top military commander. They said Mr. Sajjan told the House of Commons defence committee on March 12 that the Prime Minister was informed that the Defence Minister had raised the issue with the PCO.
“It is impossible for both statements to be true,” the MPs said. “Either Minister Sajjan or Prime Minister Trudeau are misleading Canadians about the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] sexual misconduct cover-up. Who is telling the truth?”
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said the important point is the PMO knew about the allegation and there was a responsibility for the Prime Minister to act.
“Either the minister or the Prime Minister should have ordered an investigation,” Mr. Garrison said. “Because what we have learned is that the military ombudsman brought a substantiated allegation, not just an allegation, but a substantiated allegation, to the minister which the minister refused to look at.”
Mr. Sajjan told the defence committee on March 12 that he could not take any action himself on the allegations of sexual misconduct Mr. Walbourne raised with him because it would constitute political interference in an investigation.
An analysis conducted for the watchdog and obtained by The Globe and Mail says, however, that Mr. Sajjan was wrong to suggest that.
“Incorrect,” the document states. “Ordering an independent investigation does not constitute political interference. Especially if the independent entity doesn’t report to you.”
Mr. Sajjan also told the committee 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.
Mr. Garrison said Mr. Sajjan could not have interfered in an investigation, because there was no investigation.
“You can’t interfere in something that isn’t in existence,” he said. “The minister refused to look at the evidence. That was a failure in his duties as minister.”
During a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Sajjan maintained that he did everything he could.
All processes that could have been followed were followed, he said, adding the PCO was immediately notified, and there was follow-up. It is important that a process is followed to ensure a just outcome, he said.
Mr. Bezan said Mr. Sajjan has eroded Canadians’ trust in his leadership, adding that the men and women of the Forces are also growing more and more frustrated.
“I want the minister to be honest,” Mr. Bezan said. “I want the minister to accept responsibility.”
Mr. Vance retired last year. The Canadian Forces announced in February that he is the subject of an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct. He has denied any wrongdoing. His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, stepped away from his position and is also the subject of an investigation.
Then prime minister Stephen Harper was aware in 2015 of some concerns about Mr. Vance when he was being considered for the position of chief of the defence staff, according to Ray Novak, who was Mr. Harper’s chief of staff. Earlier this month, Mr. Novak told the defence committee he asked officials if there was information the PMO was not aware of. He said the officials reported that was not the case. Mr. Novak also said it is possible Mr. Vance was “not truthful” when Mr. Harper spoke with the general directly.
The acting chief of the defence staff, Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, has said the Canadian Armed Forces are at an “inflection point” that must be acted upon to make it a better place to serve for all Canadians.
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