Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Katie Telford appears on a television before appearing as a witness before the House of Commons Defence committee in Ottawa on May 7, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

One had to wonder if the cognitive dissonance in Katie Telford’s testimony would cause her some subconscious anxiety.

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff is a fiercely partisan political operative to be sure, but she is also passionately committed to gender equity and combating sexual harassment.

Yet the odd thing about her testimony wasn’t so much her efforts to bridge her commitment to both, but that she didn’t seem to hear the clang of the conflicts between some of the things she said.

Her opening statement made it clear that she thinks it’s unacceptable that men and women in uniform don’t have confidence in their institutions, and “that’s because the system for far too long has allowed perpetrators to hide in HR processes while denying survivors the support they need.”

Who is really to blame for the Jonathan Vance misconduct scandal?

In two hours of testimony, she somehow never conceded that that is precisely what happened inside the Liberal government. That’s what happened with the allegation against Jonathan Vance.

And yet, Ms. Telford argued that there was nothing more that could have been done, because the HR processes were followed.

That wasn’t the issue that was really at play in the politics of Friday’s committee hearing, of course. Ms. Telford was summoned there because Conservatives, especially, wanted to press her on why no one ever told Justin Trudeau that there was an allegation against Mr. Vance back in 2018, when the latter was in command of Canada’s military.

Ms. Telford, being the experienced Liberal operative she is, never really answered, and let the record show that was made easier because opposition MPs weren’t any good at asking the question.

The MPs kept asking who decided not to tell the Prime Minister – and she kept saying they didn’t know as much about the allegation back in 2018 as they know now. Which is mostly true. But that’s because the allegation got lost in HR processes.

Let’s recall who the allegation was about: the chief of the defence staff, the commander atop the entire chain of command, including the military police. A member of the Canadian forces who wanted to complain of sexual harassment could only report it in the chain, because the government did not act on a 2015 recommendation to create an independent reporting system.

In 2018, a more junior member of the forces did take a complaint to the Defence Department’s ombudsman at the time, Gary Walbourne. Mr. Vance, she alleged, closed an e-mail to her by suggesting they might visit a clothing optional resort. The woman authorized Mr. Walbourne to show the e-mail to the Defence Minister, but not to investigate. We now know, from an interview the woman gave, that she wasn’t looking to launch a formal process; she just wanted the general’s superiors to know.

But Harjit Sajjan refused to look at the e-mail.

His aide called the PM’s aides, who took it to top bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office, who asked Mr. Walbourne to provide more information, but he said he was not authorized to do so. So nothing happened. Mr. Vance stayed in the job three more years.

On Friday, Ms. Telford defended that with now-familiar talking points that are ridiculously flawed. The Liberals have argued that Mr. Sajjan was right not to look at the e-mail because politicians should not be involved in investigating such things – but of course you can read an e-mail and then forward it to bureaucrats. Ms. Telford said the bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office had said they would handle it – but they got nowhere, and even after that, no one asked Mr. Sajjan to peek at the e-mail.

To this day, that remains the nub of the story. It is far less important than the failure to create an independent reporting system for sexual misconduct, but it is not nothing. Mr. Vance was the general responsible for handling sexual misconduct in the military, so you’d think it’s important to know what kind of allegation it was. Instead it was lost in the HR processes.

There’s been testimony from senior bureaucrats that the follow-up was lost in a busy time. Ms. Telford said she didn’t know then what she knows now. But the Liberals still won’t see that Mr. Sajjan made a mistake – that they made a mistake – though admitting that would have been a lot easier than sticking to these rationalizations.

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.