Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his top aide, Katie Telford, on Tuesday and said no one in his office was aware that former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance was facing a “Me Too complaint” in early 2018.
Elder Marques, a former senior adviser inside the Prime Minister’s Office, testified before the House of Commons defence committee on Friday that he spoke with Ms. Telford about a concern related to Mr. Vance three years ago. Since his appearance, opposition parties have asked Mr. Trudeau to take personal responsibility for the way the situation was handled and raised questions about what and when the Prime Minister knew about the allegations against the country’s top soldier.
Tuesday marked the first time Mr. Trudeau has sought to clarify the nature of what the PMO knew back in 2018. Mr. Trudeau says he did not personally know about the matter until he learned of it in news reports.
During a news conference in Ottawa, Mr. Trudeau said a concern about Mr. Vance was brought to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in March, 2018, by then military watchdog Gary Walbourne. The minister forwarded it to appropriate authorities at the Privy Council Office (PCO), the department that supports the Prime Minister in cabinet, for follow-up, Mr. Trudeau said.
“The minister, my office, knew there was a complaint against General Vance,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Nobody knew that it was a Me Too complaint. We did not have information on what was the nature of that complaint.”
Later in Question Period, Mr. Trudeau said in French there was no one in his office or in Mr. Sajjan’s office who knew the nature of the complaint.
Mr. Walbourne told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Tuesday he was surprised by the Prime Minister’s comments, adding that he told Mr. Sajjan that he had “an allegation of inappropriate sexual behaviour against the chief of defence staff.”
“I did tell him what type of complaint I had received,” Mr. Walbourne said. “The minister clearly, clearly knew what I was holding.”
For his part, Mr. Vance has denied any wrongdoing in an interview with Global News, but otherwise has not commented.
The Globe first reported on March 5 that the PMO was aware of the allegation about Mr. Vance in 2018.
Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday that Ms. Telford’s leadership is why the Liberal government calls itself a feminist government. He also said that when the PCO was alerted to the matter, the office was unable to obtain further facts necessary on the details because Mr. Walbourne didn’t have permission to share it.
“This highlights the situation that unfortunately is far too real for far too many people facing this, in that they don’t feel like there is a process that supports them and protects them,” Mr. Trudeau said.
During Question Period on Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole asked whether Mr. Trudeau would be “honest” with the House of Commons and with women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) that he was aware of the allegations involving Mr. Vance and that the Prime Minister “failed them for three years.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan also said Mr. Trudeau is misleading Canadians. He pointed to e-mails from PCO’s Janine Sherman that refer to Mr. Walbourne’s concerns about allegations of sexual harassment.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said several witnesses who have appeared before the House of Commons national defence committee affirmed that many people knew the allegations related to sexual misconduct. The committee is set to meet again Friday.
Mr. Garrison also questioned how the Liberal government could leave Mr. Vance in charge of the program to root out sexual misconduct for three years after there were allegations against him.
In 2015, the military established Operation Honour to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the Forces. It was established after former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued a report on sexual misconduct within the military.
“If this is a feminist government, then someone must take responsibility for the failure to investigate and remove Vance,” Mr. Garrison said. “It is either the Prime Minister or the Minister of Defence and it’s time for them to decide which one is going to take the responsibility.”
During testimony last month, Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, the acting head of the CAF, told the status of women committee that Operation Honour had “culminated” and the Forces must look at moving forward with a plan that includes military members and public-servant colleagues.
Mr. Walbourne said Tuesday the federal government must urgently set up an independent body outside of the chain of command that can report to Parliament to confront the issue of sexual misconduct in the military.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.