Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is again defending how his defence minister handled an allegation the ex-military ombudsman brought to him in 2018 about Gen. Jonathan Vance, despite the former watchdog testifying that Sajjan refused to look at evidence.
In a press conference on Friday, Trudeau was asked about his government’s handling of allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the former chief of defence staff first reported by Global News. He was also asked about testimony from Gary Walbourne that he brought one of those allegations to Sajjan in 2018.
Trudeau insisted everything was handled properly, and that it was the ombudsman who did not provide enough information for the Privy Council Office to open a probe — despite Walbourne saying repeatedly that he did not have the complainant’s permission to share her personal information.
“It is the responsibility of elected officials upon learning of allegations to ensure they are followed up on by responsible, independent investigators. That’s exactly what we did in this situation,” Trudeau said.
“The minister directed the appropriate independent officials to follow up on those allegations. The ombudsperson did not provide sufficient information to the officials in place to be able to follow up.”
Former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps noted in her landmark 2015 report on sexual misconduct in the military that fear of retaliation from being identified is a key deterrent to survivors coming forward, along with fears that their experiences will not be taken seriously.
Trudeau is facing fresh criticism and scrutiny about his government’s handling of the matter.
While Trudeau and the Prime Minister’s Office previously said they knew nothing of any allegations against Vance prior to the exclusive Global News report on Feb. 2, a new report from The Globe and Mail cited sources who said Sajjan’s chief of staff in 2018 told a senior Trudeau advisor about concerns.
That reportedly came after then-military ombudsman Walbourne says he told Sajjan of an allegation of inappropriate behaviour against Vance that had been shared informally with his office.
Walbourne said in explosive testimony before the House of Commons defence committee studying the matter that he brought evidence that he says proved the allegation had merit, and tried to show it to Sajjan at a March 1, 2018, meeting.
“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,’” Walbourne told the committee.
“The minister didn’t want to see the evidence.”
Conservative members of that committee are now pushing to expand the scope of the study and have called for an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss calling more witnesses.
A source with knowledge of the request told Global News the Tories want Sajjan back.
Sajjan testified during his own appearance at the committee two weeks ago that he was “surprised” to hear of the allegations against Vance in early February. He has repeatedly insisted any concerns shared with him have always been brought to the appropriate authorities.
But he has refused to answer questions over why he appears not to have used the powers granted to him under the National Defence Act to launch a board of inquiry once he became aware of allegations against the most country’s top soldier and the architect of Operation Honour.
Sajjan said on Wednesday that he disagrees with Walbourne’s testimony but did not provide any evidence to disprove it and also did not specify which parts he disagreed with.
Trudeau said he continues to have confidence in Sajjan, despite growing calls for him to resign.
In a statement issued Friday, Conservative defence critic James Bezan and two other Tory MPs said the government’s handling of serious allegations brought against the then-chief of defence staff looks like a “cover-up.”
“Justin Trudeau stated that he learned of allegations of sexual misconduct against Gen. Vance recently, but we now know that is false,” said Bezan with Tory MPs Leona Alleslev and Pierre Paul-Hus.
“For three years, Justin Trudeau hid this information from Canadians and when asked about it, made the decision to mislead Canadians. This is clearly a cover-up.”
They continued: “Both Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Sajjan have a history with this sort of deception. Conservatives believe that government should be open and transparent with Canadians at all times, especially when it comes to something as serious as sexual misconduct allegations.
“Canadians deserve the truth.”