Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan repeatedly said he was “surprised” by the allegations made against former Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance but would not disclose when he learned of allegations, stating that his hands were tied when it came to providing any such details.
Sajjan made the comments during a Friday meeting of the House of Commons defence committee, where he appeared as a witness for the committee’s study into allegations made against Vance first reported by Global News.
“I was as shocked as everyone else was at the allegations that were made public two weeks ago,” Sajjan said in his opening statement – and repeated multiple times throughout the committee.
He later added that “we all want answers.”
Two government sources have told Global News the Canadian Forces Ombudsman shared concerns about alleged inappropriate behaviour by Vance in 2018. A senior government source also said that Sajjan’s office referred those concerns to the Privy Council Office.
When pressed repeatedly on this reporting, Sajjan said he could not confirm that he had this conversation with the Ombudsman, nor when he may have had it.
“Any information that was brought forward was taken to the appropriate authorities,” Sajjan said multiple times throughout the meeting.
“Two weeks ago, I was just as surprised as everyone else,” he added once again, referring to when the news of the allegations against Vance first broke.
Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates.
One regards an alleged relationship with a woman he significantly outranked while he was chief of defence staff. The other is in relation to a 2012 email in which Vance appeared to suggest to a much younger female corporal that the two go to a clothing-optional vacation destination.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
He says the relationship with the female subordinate while he was chief of defence staff was never sexual, describing himself as a “supporter” and “friend” as she considered joining a class action lawsuit for military victims of sexual misconduct.
He says he has no recollection of the 2012 email. He says if he ever did send it, it was intended as a joke and not as a solicitation.
He says he is willing to “apologize.”
Global News has also learned the woman who says she had an intimate relationship with Vance while he was chief of defence staff has requested a meeting with military police.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) has since opened an investigation into the allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Vance.
During Friday’s committee meeting, Sajjan said that he’d be undermining that CFNIS investigation as well as the integrity of the ombudsman’s office if he answered committee questioning about when he learned of the allegations.
“We need to protect the investigations that are currently in place. I know this is extremely difficult, it’s difficult for me,” Sajjan said.
“But we have to right now protect the institutions that we have, we have to protect the investigations, most importantly, we have to protect the women that have come forward, giving them the confidence that they’re going to have a fair chance in this process
He added that protecting the ombudsman’s office is “extremely important.”
“Life would be so much easier for me, to be able to just come out and say things. But no, you need to protect the institutions that we have put into place.”
Things grew heated towards the end of the meeting when Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant asked Sajjan whether he believes he has lived up to the goals of Operation Honour – the Canadian Armed Forces mission to prevent and address sexual misconduct within its ranks.
“I have taken my job very seriously looking after our people,” Sajjan said. “I can assure you that, as I stated, no rank, no position comes into play when it comes to any type of allegations that have come forward. And I was just as surprised—”
“Okay—” interrupted Gallant.
“No, I’m trying to answer your question,” Sajjan fired back. “I was just as surprised as anyone else two weeks ago.”
Investigations into Vance’s conduct are ongoing. He is the longest-serving chief of defence staff and announced his plans to retire in July 2020.
He formally handed over command on Jan. 14, 2021.
–With files from Amanda Connolly