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Katie Telford, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appears on a screen as she attends a House of Commons defence committee meeting on sexual misconduct in the armed forces on May 7, 2021.

PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff told MPs Friday that she never informed the Prime Minister in 2018 about an allegation of sexual misconduct against then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance.

Testifying before the House of Commons defence committee, Katie Telford said she followed the advice of then-clerk of the privy council Michael Wernick to allow his office to investigate.

“We were clearly told that this matter should be handled by PCO, and that it would have been inappropriate for political staff or politicians to be directly involved,” she said. “The last thing I wanted to do was … compromise an independent process that was supposed to be there to get at the truth.”

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Mr. Trudeau has denied he was aware of the allegation against Mr. Vance until media reports this year. Opposition MPs have expressed skepticism after it was revealed that Ms. Telford had been informed three years ago.

Although Ms. Telford did not explain why Mr. Trudeau was not informed, she told MPs she regrets not taking a more active role in getting to the bottom of the allegation.

“I have wondered if I should have further questioned the general when he told me about his commitment to MeToo … when he told me how frustrated he was that orders were not enough to bring about change – when he told me it was personal for him,” she said.

The controversy has sparked a national conversation on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces with women soldiers coming forward with complaints, ranging from verbal harassment to sexual assault and rape.

The opposition have been demanding an accounting from Ms. Telford since Elder Marques, a former senior adviser to Mr. Trudeau, told MPs that he informed her in 2018 about an allegation of personal misconduct against Mr. Vance that he assumed was of a sexual nature.

Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne said he raised an allegation of sexual harassment the day before with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, involving an e-mail that Mr. Vance sent to a female subordinate in 2012. He reportedly suggested the two of them could go to a clothing optional resort.

Mr. Vance denied any wrongdoing in an interview with Global News earlier this year, but otherwise has not commented.

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“My office and the minister were not given the substance or the details of the allegations,” Ms. Telford said. “We did not know what the complaint was about.”

However, Mr. Walbourne was clear that the allegation involved sexual harassment. In a March 2, 2018, e-mail to Mr. Walbourne, senior PCO official Janine Sherman wrote that she wanted to talk to him about the “allegations of sexual harassment that were brought to your attention.”

Mr. Walbourne said in an interview Friday that he found it hard to believe that Ms. Telford did not inform the Prime Minister.

“Oh come on, that is a real stretch in my opinion. If I had a chief of staff who worked for me and they didn’t tell me, they would be looking for new work. That’s just the natural flow of how things happen,” he said. “They knew they screwed up and now they are just trying to cover it up.”

Mr. Walbourne said he attempted to show the e-mail to the minister, but Mr. Sajjan refused to review it. He has testified before the committee that he wanted the Defence Minister to get back to him on how to proceed.

Mr. Sajjan has said he felt it would have been inappropriate for him to review such a complaint.

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Mr. Sajjan informed his chief of staff, who alerted Mr. Marques. The PMO senior adviser then told Ms. Telford and they agreed to refer the matter to Mr. Wernick, who asked an official in his office to investigate. No further action was taken after Mr. Walbourne emphasized that the complainant had come to him in confidence.

Mr. Wernick later testified that he regretted how the matter was handled by the government.

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Trudeau said his office couldn’t act because they had no idea of the nature or the details of the allegation, but acknowledged that the way the matter was dealt with let down women members of the military.

“I think it was obvious though that the fact that the ombudsman didn’t have permission to move forward with that allegation to the appropriate authorities, that survivors of harassment, assault, intimidation don’t feel properly supported by the system,” he said.

Professor Meagan MacKenzie, who holds the Simon Fraser University chair in International Law and Human Rights, said the government gave Mr. Vance a pay raise and bonus in July, 2018, despite the allegation.

“If the Minister for Defence and the Prime Minister truly had a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault, more would have been done to make sure that there was follow-up on these allegations,” she said.

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Last week, the government appointed former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour to lead an independent review of the Armed Forces handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct.

The appointment took place six years after another former Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, tabled a report that urged Ottawa to create an independent body to receive such complaints.

With a report from Leila El Shennawy


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