EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that the woman initially identified as a corporal was a private at the time of the alleged incident and was promoted to corporal shortly thereafter.
Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne says he did raise an allegation of inappropriate behaviour by Gen. Jonathan Vance with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in a 2018 meeting — but said Sajjan refused to see evidence Walbourne offered in support of the allegation.
Walbourne appeared before the defence committee as part of a study launched in the wake of exclusive reporting by Global News that Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates.
He said he brought evidence of the allegation he was raising, but that Sajjan refused to look at it.
“Yes, I did directly tell him about an allegation of inappropriate behaviour against the chief of defence staff,” said Walbourne to the committee.
“I did tell the minister what the allegation was. I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding. He pushed back from the table and said, ‘No.'”
“The minister didn’t want to see the evidence.”
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Sajjan has refused to disclose what Walbourne told him during that meeting on March 1, 2018, citing confidentiality. However, Global News has previously reported that sources said Walbourne raised specific allegations of sexual misconduct by Vance at that time.
The minister instead told the committee during his own testimony almost two weeks ago he was surprised when allegations against Vance were reported by Global News in early February, and insisted he has followed all proper procedures when reports of military sexual misconduct are brought to him.
Sajjan has refused to provide specifics on what those procedures were, including whether he asked Vance about the allegations or notified Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and cabinet.
Walbourne says Sajjan’s characterization was not accurate.
“There were actions available,” he said. “Yes, I believe he had other levers at his disposal.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said on Twitter that the testimony by Walbourne showed Sajjan “failed to take action for three years” on the allegations.
“Justin Trudeau must answer if this is acceptable conduct by a minister of his cabinet.”
But both the Prime Minister’s Office and Sajjan’s office doubled down following the testimony on Wednesday, defending the handling of the matter.
“Of course the Prime Minister has confidence in the Minister,” said Alex Wellstead, spokesperson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in an email. “And on specifics with Committee, I’ll refer you to Minister Sajjan’s office to respond.”
Sajjan said he disagrees with some of the testimony.
“I disagree with parts of the testimony that occurred in Committee today. As I have stated, I was as shocked as everyone else at the allegations that were made public last month,” said Sajjan in an emailed statement.
“I can assure the Committee, and all Canadians, that any allegations that were brought forward were very quickly put forward to the proper authorities, while respecting the need to protect the privacy of any individuals involved. Any suggestion that I have done otherwise is wrong.”
He offered no evidence to disprove any of the allegations made in committee.
At the heart of the testimony was the issue of formal versus informal allegations, and what options were available to Walbourne as a result of the complaint being an informal one.
Liberal MPs on the committee repeatedly pressed Walbourne on whether he opened an investigation into the complaint brought to him, and suggested he did not take appropriate steps to follow up.
Walbourne said the complainant specifically asked him to protect their identity, and did not authorize him to conduct a formal investigation into the allegation brought forward.
Walbourne said the individual provided him with evidence of the allegation that he said “would’ve proved beyond a doubt that the allegation had merit,” if Sajjan had been willing to look at it.
Walbourne would not say what evidence he had but Global News first reported on Feb. 2 that one of the allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Vance relates to a sexual comment toward a second, much younger junior soldier prior to becoming chief of defence, which a source described as unwanted.
That comment, contained in documents obtained by Global News, appeared to have been sent from Vance’s military email account to a female private in 2012, when Vance was a major general and leading the Strategic Joint Staff.
A source with direct knowledge of the situation says the female private had reached out to Vance for career advice after meeting him at a professional event and he offered to provide some advice.
A response that appeared to have been sent from Vance’s email account raised the prospect of going to a clothing-optional vacation destination with her.
Vance has said that he has no recollection of the exchange and suggested that if it did occur, he would have intended it as a joke rather than a solicitation. He also says he would be willing to “apologize” if he did make the comment.
Walbourne would not confirm whether he had a copy of that document with him when he met with Sajjan. When asked how he could have protected the complainant’s identity while providing evidence to the minister, he said: “If it was a written document, names could be redacted, dates could be redacted.”
He provided the committee with a calendar of that March 1, 2018, meeting.
That calendar also noted Sajjan cancelled seven scheduled meetings with Walbourne after that meeting.
Walbourne was asked whether he believed those meetings were cancelled because Sajjan may not have wanted to discuss the allegation against Vance again.
“That’s a distinct possibility that I suspect would’ve been in the back of his mind,” said Walbourne.
Walbourne also noted that in previous testimony, retired Col. Michel Drapeau — who specializes in military law — noted Sajjan had the power under Section 45 of the National Defence Act to launch a board of inquiry into any concerns or matters brought before him.
Walbourne said if the minister had come back to him with any intent to do so, he would have gone back to the complainant to ask for permission to share their identity for that, and said he suspects that permission might have been granted if there was a demonstration of high-level concern.
Global News has also reported that Vance allegedly had an ongoing relationship with a woman he significantly outranked.
Vance turned over command of the military last month after more than five years in the job.
Military police are now investigating the allegations against Vance. They have also launched an investigation of Vance’s successor as defence chief, Adm. Art McDonald, who temporarily stepped aside last week in response to unspecified allegations of misconduct.
Walbourne was military ombudsman from April 2014 to October 2018 and repeatedly railed against his office’s lack of independence before resigning before the end of his five-year term.
The former ombudsman initially declined an invitation from the committee to testify on the allegations against Vance and what he told the minister, before members decided to issue a formal summons.
Walbourne has parliamentary privilege during his committee appearance.