OTTAWA — A senior civil servant wouldn't disclose to a parliamentary committee Friday whom she communicated with in the Prime Minister's Office about a sexual-misconduct allegation against Canada's top military commander.
Janine Sherman, a deputy secretary to the cabinet in the Privy Council Office, said she exchanged emails with "people in the Prime Minister's Office" in March 2018 about an accusation against then-defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance, but declined to name them, citing non-disclosure rules around staff who are not public servants.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his office knew at the time concerns about Vance had been raised, but that he only became aware of the specifics through recent reporting by Global News.
The emails related in part to Sherman's sit-down with former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne about the allegation. Sherman said the case contained too little information to act on, as Walbourne sought to respect the complainant's confidentiality and refused to name her.
"There was no information provided that would have enabled us to take further action," Sherman told MPs in committee, reiterating her testimony from last month.
"He would not proceed with any actions unless he had written consent from the complainant."
Walbourne maintains his only option was to bring the allegation to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, but the minister, concerned about political interference, referred the matter to the Privy Council Office, the department that supports the prime minister and cabinet.
Current military ombudsman Greg Lick has issued a strong rebuke of the defence minister after Sajjan suggested Walbourne could have done more with the allegation. Lick told the House of Commons committee on the status of women Thursday he would have followed the exact same steps.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is now investigating Vance following a Global News report last month alleging the former chief of the defence staff had an ongoing relationship with a subordinate starting in 2001 and continuing after he was named to the top post in 2015.
He is also alleged to have sent a lewd email to a much more junior service member in 2012.
The allegations against Vance have not been independently verified and he has declined repeated requests from The Canadian Press for comment. However, Global has reported that he denies any wrongdoing.
The accusations have turned up the heat on a long-simmering crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces, which continues to struggle with allegations of a toxic, sexualized culture six years after the Deschamps report shed light on the issue.
Military investigators are also probing Vance's successor, Admiral Art McDonald, who temporarily stepped aside last month after only a few weeks as commander of the Armed Forces following an unspecified allegation of misconduct. McDonald has not commented on the allegation.
Sherman, asked Friday by Conservative defence critic James Bezan whom she spoke with at the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office aside from Michael Wernick — Canada's top public servant at the time — said the information was "personal."
"I am not able to comment on who those people are. I worked with the clerk — my boss — in terms of our next steps that we would take," Sherman said.
Bezan took issue with idea that discussions around Vance and Walbourne were personal and should thus remain off-limits.
"Those discussions should be made available for public record, and that’s why we asked for the production of public records, so we can get to the bottom of who knew what," Bezan said.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison accused Sherman of rationalizing the lack of investigative action on the grounds of minimal information.
“You’re doing the same thing that the minister did. You had evidence that there was a well-founded complaint of sexual misconduct against the chief of defence staff," he said.
Sherman countered that she "did not have information of a well-founded, investigated complaint" from Walbourne, but qualified that does not imply any disrespect for the ombudsman's office.
The Tories also said Sherman contradicted the defence minister regarding his role in a pay hike awarded to Vance in May 2019, a little more than a year after Sajjan learned of the allegation.
The upper limit on Vance's salary rose to $306,500 — a $45,000 raise, according to the Tories — on the recommendation of the prime minister. Sajjan has stated in committee and during parliamentary debates over the past few weeks that such increases are determined based on recommendations from the public service and that he has not played "any part in his performance pay."
On Friday, however, Sherman said the defence minister "is consulted in the annual performance management program" regarding order-in-council appointees within his portfolio such as Vance.
In an email, Bezan called the alleged contradiction "highly concerning" and "more evidence of a Liberal coverup."
"The minister does not determine performance pay," said Sajjan spokesman Todd Lane.
Questions about complaint procedures within the Defence Department, as opposed to the Armed Forces, also came to the fore Friday.
Testifying before the defence committee, Lt.-Col. Bernie Boland, now retired, accused the department of failing to respect "procedural fairness" around whistleblowers.
The accusation stems partly from the fallout after Boland alerted the department to "wrongdoing and misconduct" when an employee requested he report harassment and human rights violations by a senior engineering manager, he said.
“Once I reported, everything in the workplace changed. I faced reprisal and retaliation. I was silenced, denied due process," Boland said.
The department declined to comment on the specific file, citing privacy concerns and noting Boland has taken his case to Federal Court.
"As an institution that respects due process and the rule of law, we always ensure procedural fairness, while taking a strong stance on acts of reprisal," spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press