OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his staff knew about the existence of an allegation of sexual misconduct by then-defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance in 2018, but that they only learned the specific details following a media report last month.
The prime minister made the comments in the House of Commons on Wednesday following weeks of questions and opposition criticism over the Liberal government’s handling of the allegations against the former Canadian Armed Forces commander.
It was the first time Trudeau has confirmed that his own office was brought into the loop after then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne first flagged an allegation against Vance in a meeting with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan three years ago.
Sajjan previously declined to confirm the discussion with Walbourne, citing confidentiality.
“When the ombudsman came forward to the minister to say he had heard allegations, the minister directed him to those independent authorities who could follow up on an investigation,” Trudeau said.
“My office was aware of the minister's direction to the ombudsman, but my office and I learned of the details of the allegation through news reporting over the past months.”
Global News first reported last month an allegation that Vance had an ongoing relationship with a subordinate that started more than a decade ago and continued after he became Canada’s chief of the defence staff in 2015.
Global has also reported that Vance allegedly sent a lewd email to a much younger soldier in 2012, before he became defence chief, suggesting they go on a clothing-optional vacation. Global has reported this is the allegation Walbourne raised with Sajjan.
Vance has declined to respond to repeated requests for comment from The Canadian Press, and the allegations have not been independently verified. However, Global has reported that Vance denies any wrongdoing.
Walbourne told the House of Commons defence committee last week that he brought the allegation to Sajjan in confidence looking for advice on how to proceed, and that the minister referred the matter to the Privy Council Office against his wishes.
Trudeau argued referring the matter to the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic operation that supports the Prime Minister’s Office, was the right call, saying: “Those are the people who need to do the independent, rigorous investigations.”
“In this case, there was not enough information to continue with the independent investigation.”
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole demanded to know why the government opted to keep Vance on as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces despite knowing of an allegation of sexual misconduct against him.
“Everyone around this prime minister was aware of the sexual harassment allegations in 2018,” O’Toole said. “Why in 2019 did the prime minister extend the contract of the chief of defence staff and give them a promotion?”
Military police have confirmed they launched an investigation in 2015 into Vance’s conduct during a posting in Italy the previous year, but that there was not enough evidence to lay any charges.
O'Toole was a cabinet minister in the Conservative government that appointed Vance as chief of defence staff in 2015, but said Tuesday he wasn't involved in that decision.
Vance announced his plan to step down as chief of the defence staff last July after more than five years in the top job, during which time he oversaw the military’s efforts to eliminate sexual misconduct from the ranks.
He formally handed command over to Admiral Art McDonald in January, weeks before Global reported on the allegations against him.
Military police have since launched investigations against both Vance and McDonald, who temporarily stepped aside last month following an unspecified allegation of misconduct against him.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press