Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan refused to say whether he told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or his cabinet of allegations of inappropriate behaviour levelled at former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance after he was alerted to the military chief’s alleged behaviour in 2018.
During an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, Sajjan said he was unable to discuss what was said between him and an ombudsman in 2018 for confidentiality reasons, adding that he didn’t want to “undermine” the trust of the women who had already come forward with allegations.
When asked whether he told the prime minister or members of the federal cabinet then, Sajjan said “I can assure you that anything that was forwarded was immediately passed on to the appropriate authorities.”
Exclusive reporting by Global News earlier this week revealed allegations that Vance had engaged in inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, of which one alleged she was in a relationship with him while he significantly outranked her.
A senior government official told Global News on Friday that the prime minister did not know about the allegations until it was first made public on Tuesday. Trudeau, however, won’t say whether he considers it a failure that he wasn’t informed of the allegations after Sajjan’s office passed on the concerns to the Privy Council Office.
“Do you consider it a failure that you were not informed of these allegations given they involved someone so senior?” Trudeau was asked by a reporter at a press conference at Rideau Cottage on Friday.
“Obviously, we take all of these allegations or any allegations around misconduct or harassment extremely seriously, which is why we strengthened the processes in place in government, and every step of the way we follow those processes to the letter,” Trudeau said.
The former military chief has denied all allegations of any such behaviour against him, and said that the relationship with the female subordinate was never sexual, describing himself as a “supporter” and “friend” to her.
The other subordinate claimed that Vance sent a 2012 email in which he appeared to suggest that the two go on a clothing-optional vacation.
Vance has offered to apologize and said that he has no recollection of the email, but claimed that it was a joke and not a solicitation if he ever did send it.
Global News’ reporting has since triggered a military investigation into Vance’s alleged misconduct, as a military spokesperson confirmed that the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) was opening a probe into the allegations. Global News has also confirmed that the female subordinate who said she had an intimate relationship with Vance while he was chief of defence staff had asked to meet with military police on Thursday.
Sajjan said during his interview on The West Block that the federal government was launching a separate, independent investigation that will also seek to find out “who was complicit throughout any of these allegations.”
According to him, the investigation — which hasn’t been finalized yet — will be very deep and will take recommendations to make the necessary changes for women to finally feel confident that there would not be any retribution should they come forward.
Such allegations have shone a spotlight on what has been previously described by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps as a “hostile” and “sexualized” environment in the military, according to a report released in 2015.
“I can only imagine the shock and the confidence that has been broken with all the women who are serving in the armed forces and for the women that felt they could not come forward,” Sajjan said, adding rooting out the culture of fear that exists in the military for women coming forward in the future was a “top priority” for the federal government.
“The top priority when we came to government is a top priority now: Making sure that root out this behaviour of systemic racism, making sure that we have an environment inside the Canadian Armed Forces that allows everybody to succeed.”
“Unfortunately, it all sounds like buzzwords. This does not give solace to the women for what they’re feeling right now. But one thing I can assure you is that we’re going to be doubling down. We’re going to be making changes, but we are going to be launching an investigation to get to the bottom of this.”
— With files from Mercedes Stephenson, Amanda Connolly and Marc-André Cossette.