Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff knew in March, 2018, of an allegation of misconduct involving then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, a former aide said Friday.
Elder Marques, a senior adviser inside the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) until December, 2019, told the House of Commons defence committee that Katie Telford or her assistant requested that he contact the then-chief of staff to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on an issue about Mr. Vance.
“I know I spoke to the [Prime Minister’s] chief of staff,” Mr. Marques said. “I think that’s how my involvement in this issue originated.”
Mr. Marques’s testimony is the first assertion that Ms. Telford was directly aware of concerns about Mr. Vance three years ago. Last month, The Globe and Mail asked the PMO multiple times whether she was aware of the matter. On March 12, Mr. Trudeau said his office knew of allegations that were directed to independent authorities but did not know the details of those allegations.
Despite the lack of details on the nature of the allegation, Mr. Marques said the office assumed the complaint could be very serious and that is why the office acted the way that it did.
The Liberal government has been under political pressure in recent weeks since former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne told a parliamentary committee that he presented Mr. Sajjan with an allegation about Mr. Vance in March, 2018, when he was chief of the defence staff. Mr. Sajjan declined to see the evidence, but told Zita Astravas, Mr. Sajjan’s former chief of staff, about the matter.
Mr. Marques told the committee on Friday that he spoke to Ms. Astravas in early March, 2018, and she advised him that Mr. Walbourne initiated an unscheduled discussion alone with her minister. Mr. Marques said in that meeting, Ms. Astravas told him Mr. Walbourne raised an allegation of personal misconduct against the chief of defence staff and there were no other details provided.
Mr. Marques said he then met with then-clerk of the Privy Council Office (PCO) Michael Wernick, who referred the matter to Janine Sherman who is in charge of personnel. Mr. Wernick recently testified that Ms. Sherman was not able to obtain further information from Mr. Walbourne on the allegation. Mr. Walbourne said that he did not have permission from the complainant to share evidence.
Ms. Telford did not respond to a request for comment made to the PMO on Friday. A spokesperson for Mr. Trudeau, Alex Wellstead, said the office takes all allegations seriously and ensures they are followed up on by appropriate independent authorities.
“That is exactly what happened in this situation,” Mr. Wellstead said.
After Mr. Walbourne received a complaint, Mr. Sajjan directed him to officials who could investigate and the PCO received no further information and was unable to investigate, Mr. Wellstead added.
Mr. Wernick said Friday he believes political staff should be expected to appear before the committee if their actions and communications on behalf of a minister are directly relevant.
For his part, Mr. Trudeau maintains he did not have direct knowledge of the matter involving Mr. Vance in 2018. Mr. Marques said he did not brief the Prime Minister on this issue and he was not aware of any briefings of Mr. Trudeau on the matter.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said it is simply not believable that Mr. Trudeau was not aware of allegations.
“It is outrageous to believe that everyone around Justin Trudeau was aware of these allegations but the Prime Minister didn’t know,” he said.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said Friday’s testimony leaves very little doubt about how widespread knowledge of Mr. Vance’s misconduct was.
“It is very difficult for Canadians to believe the Prime Minister’s chief of staff kept this crucial information from him and he had no knowledge of the allegations,” he said.
It is time for the Prime Minister and Mr. Sajjan to take responsibility for “this failure,” Mr. Garrison added, noting survivors and all women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces are owed an apology from the government for leaving Mr. Vance in his role.
Mr. Trudeau, who has promised the creation of an independent mechanism for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct in the military, told reporters on Friday that his government is working closely with various organizations to move forward in the right way and that it will have more to say shortly.
On Thursday evening, Major Kellie Brennan told members of the House of Commons status of women committee that Mr. Vance ordered her to lie about their relationship and told her otherwise, there would be “consequences.”
Maj. Brennan alleges that they were in a relationship while she was a subordinate, which she said began in 2001 and continued after he was named defence chief in 2015. Maj. Brennan said she disclosed this information to the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service (CFNIS).
Maj. Brennan said the CFNIS interviewed her twice, for six hours on each occasion, as part of its investigation into Mr. Vance and she provided evidence. She also said she asked the CFNIS officials whether they had the mandate to investigate and the power to lay charges, adding they would not answer her.
She also said Mr. Vance is the father of two of her children. “He’s not responsible to pay or to have those children under his responsibility. It’s all up to me.”
Mr. Vance has denied any wrongdoing in an interview with Global News but otherwise has not commented on Maj. Brennan’s allegations.
With a report from Marieke Walsh
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