Skip to content

Opposition blasts Liberals after debate to call PM's top aide on Vance cancelled

OTTAWA — Opposition parties are up in arms after a parliamentary committee meeting in which members were planning to continue debating whether to call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, to testify was cancelled without not

OTTAWA — Opposition parties are up in arms after a parliamentary committee meeting in which members were planning to continue debating whether to call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, to testify was cancelled without notice.

The news from the House of Commons defence committee came shortly after Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole demanded Trudeau fire Telford over how the Prime Minister's Office handled an allegation of sexual misconduct against general Jonathan Vance.

"Ms. Telford, it appears, set up a system to hide this from the prime minister and to make sure nothing was done," O'Toole said Monday in reference to Trudeau's past assertion that he did not know a complaint had been raised against Vance three years ago.

"That is completely unacceptable."

Telford has been in the limelight since one of Trudeau's former advisers, Elder Marques, suggested to the committee last month that Trudeau's top aide was previously aware of the allegation against Vance.

Marques' testimony was the first hint that Telford knew of the allegation immediately after then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne raised it with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan three years ago.

Trudeau, who has denied personal knowledge of the allegation until Global News reported on it in February, defended Telford last week even as he told reporters and MPs that no one in his office or Sajjan's office knew the allegation against Vance was of a sexual nature. 

Yet Walbourne has testified he first flagged the allegation to Sajjan in March 2018, when Vance was chief of the defence staff, and the Conservatives have highlighted internal government documents suggesting officials in both offices did know. 

The specifics of the complaint against Vance have not been publicly confirmed, but Global News has reported that it involved a lewd email he allegedly sent to a service member he significantly outranked in 2012, before he became defence chief.

Vance has not responded to requests for comment, but Global says that he has denied any inappropriate conduct. He is now being investigated by military police.

The Liberals have argued that they followed all proper steps after Walbourne raised the allegation, but could not do more because the ombudsman would not provide information about the specifics to senior civil servants charged with looking into the complaint.

Opposition parties and experts, however, have said the government could and should have done more to investigate, particularly as Vance at the time was leading the military's fight against sexual misconduct in the ranks.

The defence committee first started debating on Friday whether to call Telford to answer questions about the government's handling of the allegation, but the meeting was suspended without a resolution after Liberal members talked out the clock.

Opposition members had planned to resume that debate on Monday morning, but were sent a notice shortly before the meeting was due to start that it had been cancelled.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan accused Liberal committee chair Karen McCrimmon of single-handedly cancelling the meeting to protect Telford and the government.

"The Liberals have shown how far they will go to continue this coverup and stop Canadians from learning the truth," Bezan said in a statement.

"It's clear that the Liberals are more interested in protecting Katie Telford than the women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces."

McCrimmon offered no explanation for her decision to cancel the meeting, saying in a statement only that "the committee will be meeting again later this week."

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison described the decision to cancel the meeting as "unprecedented."

"All that we got was a last-minute notice that the meeting was cancelled with no explanation," he said, adding that the official website still says Friday's meeting is suspended.

McCrimmon later said in the House of Commons that Friday's meeting will take place as usual.

O'Toole, meanwhile, said his party will ask the House of Commons on Tuesday to support a motion calling on Trudeau to fire Telford over the Vance affair.

While opposition parties have more seats in the House than the Liberals, meaning it could pass, such motions are symbolic and are not binding on the government.

Even so, Garrison said the NDP will not support the Conservative motion, saying: "It's the prime minister and the minister who need to be held responsible here, not one of the only women who was involved."

Telford has served as Trudeau's most senior staffer since forming government in 2015. The prime minister lost another trusted adviser, Gerald Butts, after the latter resigned during the SNC-Lavalin affair in February 2019.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, meanwhile, has been asked to rule on whether Trudeau misled parliamentarians by asserting in the chamber that no one in his or Sajjan's offices knew the "MeToo" nature of the complaint raised by Walbourne in March 2018.

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez on Monday launched a 50-minute defence of the prime minister, citing numerous emails and witness statements to counter the Conservative claims.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press