Skip to main content
opinion

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves a press conference during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on March 30, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was first asked whether he knew that an allegation of sexual misconduct against the military’s top officer was made in 2018, any answer he gave was going to look bad.

If he knew, it would mean that he, like Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, had known there was an allegation but didn’t follow up while then-general Jonathan Vance stayed on as Chief of the Defence Staff for nearly three more years.

If he didn’t know, it would mean that his aides in the Prime Minister’s Office and senior civil servants in the Privy Council Office knew that some unspecified allegation about the chief of the military was out there, but no one said a word to the Prime Minister.

Maybe that’s why it took weeks to hear Mr. Trudeau say one word: “No.” That’s all he said at a press conference Tuesday when he finally answered the question about whether he personally knew.

It didn’t prove to be a satisfying answer. The Conservative defence critic, James Bezan, asserted that it didn’t make sense, so he suspects a cover-up.

“You don’t have the highest security-cleared military officer in the country being potentially compromised without telling the Prime Minister about it,” Mr. Bezan said. He noted it would be very strange if PCO officials did not try to brief the Prime Minister.

The thing is, taking Mr. Trudeau at his word doesn’t lead to reassuring conclusions, either. Was there a surprising lapse by the experienced senior bureaucrats at the centre of government? Or did the Prime Minister’s aides decide that it was best he didn’t know. After all, his Defence Minister, Mr. Sajjan, had chosen not to see any evidence.

One thing is certain: The Prime Minister didn’t make it easy to find out what he didn’t know.

In February, when sexual misconduct allegations regarding Mr. Vance were reported by Global News, Mr. Trudeau’s office said he learned about it from the news. Mr. Sajjan said he was shocked.

But in March, it emerged that Mr. Sajjan had been told of an allegation almost three years earlier. It was raised in a confidential complaint to Gary Walbourne, the ombudsman at the Department of National Defence. Mr. Walbourne brought it to Mr. Sajjan – he said he was seeking advice on how to proceed – and even offered to show evidence to the minister. Mr. Sajjan refused to look.

Mr. Sajjan’s aide, Zita Astravas, had called the PCO to say there was an unspecified allegation against Mr. Vance, and a senior PCO official, Janine Sherman, asked Mr. Walbourne for details – but he said he could not reveal confidential information.

And Ms. Astravas also told an aide in the PMO, Elder Marques, that there was an allegation. But curiously, Mr. Trudeau kept emphasizing that he and his PMO aides didn’t know the nature of the allegation – and waffled around the question of whether he personally had known.

What the Prime Minister didn’t know was kept muddy. So muddy that on March 12, Mr. Sajjan told a parliamentary committee, incorrectly, that Mr. Trudeau had already stated he had known about the allegation. Ms. Sherman testified March 26 that after receiving no new information, she briefed the top civil servants and PMO staffers she would not name – and it was up to them to decide what to do next.

As far as we know, nothing happened. There was, apparently, no further investigation. The Prime Minister’s national security adviser wasn’t asked to look it. And, as Mr. Trudeau told us Tuesday, the Prime Minister himself did not know.

The Prime Minister didn’t know in 2018, when the allegation came up. Perhaps officials and aides decided, unwisely, there wasn’t enough information about the allegation to bring to the Prime Minister. Still, you’d think he’d want to know that his Defence Minister had turned down the chance to see that kind of information.

But it is also a little striking that Ms. Sherman didn’t mention it in 2019, before a cabinet order approving a pay raise for Mr. Vance. You would think it might have come up in 2020, when Mr. Vance was hoping to be appointed to head NATO’s military committee in Brussels; Mr. Trudeau, for whatever reason, chose not to put Mr. Vance up for the job.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau now tells us that for nearly three years, as Mr. Vance’s tenure as chief was extended for an unusually long time, nobody told the Prime Minister.