The federal Conservatives are calling on Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to detail whether he acted on allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Gen. Jonathan Vance when sources say he first learned of them years ago, accusing the minister of “hiding the truth.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, Tory MPs James Bezan and Pierre Paul-Hus said Sajjan has not answered questions or confirmed details reported by Global News of when he first became aware of the allegations against Vance, and whether he moved to investigate and report on them.
“With every non-answer from Minister Sajjan, the more it looks like the Liberals are trying to cover up their mishandling of serious allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces,” said Bezan and Paul-Hus, who serve as the shadow ministers for national defence and public services and procurement, respectively.
Two government sources have told Global News that former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne shared concerns about alleged inappropriate behaviour by Vance in 2018, when Vance was serving as chief of defence staff.
According to those sources, Walbourne brought the concerns to Sajjan‘s office, which left the minister feeling “concerned.” A senior government source also said that Sajjan’s office referred those concerns to the Privy Council Office, yet nothing appears to have happened after that.
But Sajjan repeatedly told the House of Commons defence committee Friday that he was “surprised” by the allegations when they were first reported by Global News in early February.
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. He cited the ongoing investigations by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service and protecting the integrity of the ombudsman’s office in not answering the questions.
“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.”
In their Tuesday statement, Bezan and Paul-Hus said Sajjan’s failure to answer those questions “calls into question his ability to continue serving as the Minister of National Defence.”
“Minister Sajjan must stop hiding the truth and answer when he became aware of these allegations and what actions he took,” they said.
The committee agreed on Monday to summon Walbourne to testify as part of their probe into Vance’s alleged behaviour.
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.
Sajjan’s handling of the matter came under criticism 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 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. “He could have appointed (a) military judge as a board of inquiry and get to the bottom of it and act on it.”
Sources told Global News Monday that a promised external probe into Vance is being expanded to what they described as “unprecedented” levels — not only to investigate Vance’s alleged inappropriate behaviour, but to also root out those who were complicit.
— With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson, Marc-André Cossette and Rachel Gilmore