The House of Commons committee probing allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Gen. Jonathan Vance agreed on Monday to summon the former military ombudsman to appear.
In a unanimous decision, members of the defence committee passed a motion put forward by Conservative defence critic James Bezan to summon Gary Walbourne, who two government sources have told Global News shared concerns about alleged inappropriate behaviour by Vance in 2018.
According to those sources, Walbourne brought concerns to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan‘s office about alleged inappropriate behaviour by Vance that left the minister feeling “concerned.”
A senior government source said Sajjan’s office referred those concerns to the Privy Council Office.
However, nothing appears to have happened after that.
A spokesperson for the Privy Council Office said nothing that was shared with them enabled them to review the matter further, and questioning by the committee during an appearance by Sajjan on Friday focused intensely on the circumstances of that reporting.
Opposition MPs pressed the minister for an explanation as to why nothing appears to have happened following those concerns being shared, and repeatedly asked him to confirm that such a meeting with Walbourne took place.
Sajjan did not answer repeated questions and would not confirm whether he ever met with Walbourne or whether Walbourne ever raised specific concerns about Vance to him at that time, citing the ongoing investigation.
He said during his testimony that he was “surprised” by the allegations detailed on Feb. 2 by Global News.
“Any information that was brought forward was taken to the appropriate authorities,” he said repeatedly when pressed for details on his handling of the allegations during the Friday meeting.
Sajjan’s handling of the matter came under criticism again on Monday, when the defence committee heard from a number of witnesses, including retired military lawyer Col. Michel Drapeau.
Drapeau disputed Sajjan’s claims that he has always handled allegations appropriately, arguing that the minister had “absolutely not” done so, and that Sajjan had the authority under Section 45 of the National Defence Act to launch a board of inquiry to probe any matters that came to his attention.
“He had, in fact, a duty and a facility if he wanted to have the matter investigated,” Drapeau said.
Section 45 of the National Defence Act gives the defence minister the power to convene a board of inquiry if the minister “or any such other authority should be informed on any matter connected with the government, discipline, administration or functions of the Canadian Forces or affecting any officer or non-commissioned member.”
Drapeau suggested that Sajjan and Vance’s time in military service together could have played a role in the minister’s handling of the matter.
“They worked together, they served together. They are comrades in arms,” said Drapeau. “Maybe they had an open conversation and responded to the questions by the minister. Maybe he was satisfied with the answers he received, that’s the only reason I want to believe no action was taken at the time.”
A spokesperson for Sajjan said Drapeau’s suggestion is not true.
“As the Minister has said, any allegations that were brought forward were aggressively and very quickly put forward to the proper authorities,” said Todd Lane, director of communications for Sajjan.
“Any insinuation that the Minister did anything otherwise is false. As he has said, all of the proper processes were followed. Each and every allegation of sexual misconduct and harassment needs to be investigated, no matter the rank or position of those involved.”
Lane continued: “The Ministerial Directive regarding the Ombudsman requires that conversations with the Ombudsman are kept confidential. This is so that people can feel comfortable to come forward to the Ombudsman to lodge any sort of complaint.”
Military police are investigating allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Vance, and Chief of Defence Staff Adm. Art McDonald has promised an independent examination as well, though the details of that remain unclear.
Global News first reported on Feb. 2 that Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, including an alleged intimate relationship that lasted while he was chief of the defence staff.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
One of the women behind the allegations shared her story in an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Sunday.
Maj. Kellie Brennan said sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour continue to permeate the ranks of the Canadian Forces, despite the launch of Operation Honour in 2015.
That effort came after the scathing review into misconduct in the military by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps that shone the spotlight on what she described as an “underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members.”
“Cultural change is therefore key,” she said at the time.
Deschamps was one of the witnesses appearing before the defence committee on Monday and said that the reporting so far suggests military members seeking support for such experiences still are not getting the support that she emphasized was needed in her landmark report.
“I have the impression that very little has changed,” she said.
Deschamps added that the allegations demonstrate the need for the military to demonstrate it is willing and able to take the need for cultural change seriously.
“I think the Canadian Armed Forces should double their efforts to build up or rebuild its credibility. I don’t think they should drop the ball now. That would be the worst thing that could happen,” she said.
“In my opinion, a totally independent investigation would be necessary.”