OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he “absolutely” has confidence in the judgment of his defence minister while fallout continues over sexual misconduct allegations levied against Canada’s former top soldier, Gen. Jonathan Vance.
Testimony from the military’s former ombudsman Gary Walbourne to the House of Commons’ defence committee this week described a “hostile” 2018 meeting with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the allegations. The ex-watchdog appeared to contradict Sajjan’s own earlier testimony that he was as “surprised” as anyone by when misconduct allegations were first reported last month by Global News.
Trudeau told reporters Friday that he supports Sajjan, who has served in the role since Liberals came to power in 2015.
Watch: Prime minister says chief’s leave shows misconduct claims heeded. Story continues below video.
Asked to respond to military survivors of workplace harassment and sexual misconduct, the prime minister said his government has taken “significant steps” to enable people to come forward.
“We understand that there have been challenges and incidents and problems around sexual harassment and sexual assault and intimidation and inappropriate behaviour in our military, like in so many institutions and organizations around this country,” he said.
“We will continue to work with survivors, to respect their wishes, to hear them, and to improve the systems that both support them when things happen but even more importantly, create cultures where incidents of the sort don’t happen from the very beginning.”
Global News first reported allegations that Vance had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate that continued after he was named chief of defence staff in 2015. Global also reported that Vance sent an email to a younger female officer in 2012 suggesting they go to a clothing-optional vacation resort. Vance has denied wrongdoing, according to Global.
The allegations triggered the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service (NIS) to launch an investigation. Trudeau’s government has been repeatedly asked to explain the appropriateness of the military investigating itself on the matter.
The controversy expanded after Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, voluntarily stepped aside from his role last month after being informed by the NIS he was under investigation for unspecified misconduct allegations.
“I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding. He pushed back from the table and said, ‘No.’”
Walbourne told the committee that no formal complaint was filed. He said the collection of “irrefutable, concrete evidence” merited a direct meeting with the minister on March 1, 2018.
“I did tell the minister what the allegation was,” Walbourne told the committee Wednesday. “I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding. He pushed back from the table and said, ‘No.’”
Sajjan told the Commons defence committee on Feb. 19 that he was “shocked” by the allegations against Vance.
The defence minister released a written statement following Walbourne’s testimony. He said he disagreed “with parts of the testimony that occurred in committee” but did not provide additional explanation for which points he had an issue with.
According to two unnamed sources cited by The Globe and Mail, an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office was briefed about the allegations against Vance days after Sajjan’s meeting with Walbourne in 2018.
Trudeau has previously said he learned about the allegations after reading reporting by Global News.
“As I have said, I only became aware of specific allegations against Gen. Vance through the work done by Global investigative reporters over the past weeks and months,” he said again Friday.
Maj. Kellie Brennan came forward to Global News as one of the women accusing Vance of inappropriate behaviour. Brennan said she had a sexual relationship with Vance, which started before he was named chief of the defence staff in 2015 and continued after his promotion.
When she brought information about her relationship with Vance to superiors, Brennan said the situation was handled like a “hot potato.” Walbourne used the same language to describe his own experience witnessing a lack of accountability when the topic was raised at the time.
“This was tossed like a hot potato,” he said.
The allegations throw the integrity of the Canadian Armed Forces’ top brass into question after Vance himself issued the order to initiate Operation Honour shortly after his appointment as chief of defence staff.
It was the mission’s objective was to eliminate “harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour” in the military.
With files from The Canadian Press