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Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance looks on as National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan makes his opening remarks at a news conference in Ottawa on June 26, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s top staffer told a senior adviser inside the Prime Minister’s Office three years ago that the minister was troubled by information about former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance, shortly after the minister met with a military watchdog.

Mr. Sajjan’s then-chief of staff, Zita Astravas, spoke to Elder Marques, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, about concerns related to the country’s top military adviser, 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.

A minister who ducked when the allegation came his way

Two weeks ago, Mr. Sajjan told the House of Commons national defence committee that he was shocked to learn about allegations of sexual misconduct against the now-retired general when it was first reported last month. The PMO has previously said that Mr. Trudeau learned details of allegations faced by Mr. Vance through media reports.

The Canadian Armed Forces have been shaken recently by two military police investigations into such allegations involving both Mr. Vance and Admiral Art McDonald, who initially replaced the former defence chief.

After Ms. Astravas discussed the situation with Mr. Marques in early March, 2018, he 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 did not convey a specific allegation about the now-retired general, the source added.

Later that month, the PCO’s Janine Sherman met with then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, but she was not provided with evidence on the allegation involving Mr. Vance, the source said.

On Wednesday, during testimony before the national defence committee, Mr. Walbourne said he was “completely 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 went on to sign Mr. Vance’s performance review in the spring of that year, the source said, adding that to their knowledge there was no reference to any allegations of misconduct.

The PMO issued a statement on Thursday evening stating all allegations are taken seriously and reported to appropriate authorities.

“The process through which any allegations are dealt with is of the utmost importance to protect the confidentiality of the complainants,” said spokesperson Alex Wellstead.

“In the case of the Canadian Armed Forces, that process can include the ombudsman, CNFIS [Canadian Forces National Investigation Service], or other appropriate authorities. It does not include politicians or their staff.”

Mr. Wellstead also noted that the PCO stated it did not have information that “would have allowed any action to be taken.”

In response to a request to comment from The Globe, Ms. Astravas referred to the statement from the PMO. Mr. Marques could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

An e-mail from Ms. Astravas to Mr. Walbourne on March 5, 2018, released through access to information, says she trusts that he communicated allegations about Mr. Vance to Ms. Sherman.

Global News first reported early last month that Mr. Vance is facing accusations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, while he was defence chief.

Global also reported that the allegation that was discussed in committee was connected to an e-mail chain between Mr. Vance and a former corporal, where he allegedly proposed going to a clothing-optional vacation destination. Mr. Vance has denied those allegations and The Globe has not verified them.

On Wednesday, Mr. Walbourne told the Commons committee that he met with Mr. Sajjan on March 1, 2018, and informed him of an allegation against Mr. Vance. He also said he was contacted by the PCO the following day.

He also said he explained to Mr. Sajjan during their meeting that the individual came forward after the ombudsman ensured confidentiality. Mr. Walbourne said he told the minister that the complaint was not formal and that his request of Mr. Sajjan was to get back to him on how to proceed.

Mr. Walbourne said while meeting with the Defence Minister, he reached into his pocket to show him evidence and that Mr. Sajjan “pushed back from the table and said “no,” refusing to look at the evidence.

“This meeting was very hostile and ended bitterly,” Mr. Walbourne said.

Mr. Sajjan said Wednesday that he disagreed with parts of Mr. Walbourne’s testimony, but his office would not say which aspects of the testimony he disputed when asked by The Globe on Thursday.

Members of the committee are now calling for the Defence Minister to testify a second time.

Conservative MP James Bezan said Thursday that Mr. Sajjan, along with additional witnesses, need to testify to explain why “the minister failed to act for three years” on the situation involving Mr. Vance.

Mr. Bezan said he is also concerned about Mr. Trudeau’s continued support of the Defence Minister.

“The women and men who serve our country in uniform deserve better,” he said.

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison called the former ombudsman’s testimony that Mr. Sajjan refused to listen to an allegation of sexual misconduct “very disturbing.”

“After having promised to change the culture in the armed forces and to tackle the serious problem of sexual violence and harassment, it is inexcusable that the minister refused to even hear these very serious allegations,” he said.

“He must return to the committee to address these allegations and restore the trust of service men and women who are rightly questioning his leadership on this important issue.”

Mr. Vance announced in July that he would retire as chief of the defence staff, marking the end of the longest term in history for a leader of the country’s military.

Despite being a potential candidate for a coming vacancy as chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Mr. Vance did not receive backing from Mr. Trudeau. It was a decision that the retiring general told The Globe in January that he accepted with good grace.

Mr. Sajjan has said Adm. McDonald voluntarily stepped aside and that the CFNIS is conducting the investigation.

Mr. Sajjan named Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre as acting chief of the defence staff.

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