NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says the Liberal government’s handling of allegations against former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance has eroded Canadians’ trust, calling for further measures to ensure victims of sexual misconduct can safely come forward.
Speaking with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Sunday, Singh said he has “serious concerns” about how Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan allegedly ignored the first reports of accusations against Vance. Yet he added that responsibility for the growing crisis in the military ultimately lies with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has so far stood by Sajjan.
“What we’re seeing is really an erosion of the trust that Canadians have — but particularly that the armed forces, the people that serve our country … they need to be safe,” he said.
“I have serious concerns, and this doesn’t stop at the minister. This goes all the way to Justin Trudeau.”
Vance has denied allegations, first detailed through exclusive reporting by Global News, that he acted inappropriately toward two women whom he outranked.
Singh said it appears the allegations against Vance have been treated as a “hot potato,” echoing language used by former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne during his explosive testimony in front of the defence committee last week.
Walbourne told the committee that he raised an allegation against Vance during a private meeting with Sajjan in March 2018.
Yet when he tried to present physical evidence of the allegation, Walbourne said Sajjan “pushed back from the table and said, ‘No.’”
“No one wanted to look at the evidence when that’s what everyone should be doing: trying to get to the bottom of this, making sure that people are safe, making sure allegations are pursued or investigated,” Singh said, calling Walbourne’s testimony “astounding” and “shocking.”
“That is the job — to hold the safety of the people who serve to the highest importance and make sure any allegations are investigated and taken seriously. That does not look like either the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, or the defense minister did that.”
Sajjan has told the defence committee he only learned of the allegations against Vance from Global News’ reporting. He has also disagreed with some of Walbourne’s testimony about their 2018 meeting, but has not provided any evidence that could counter what Walbourne alleged.
Trudeau on Friday doubled down both on his support for Sajjan and his insistence that the allegations were handled properly, saying it was Walbourne who did not provide enough information to the Privy Council Office to open an official investigation. Walbourne has said he did not have the complainant’s permission to share her personal information.
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.
Singh said an independent inspector general’s office with civilian oversight of the military, similar to those in the United States and Australia, could help victims feel more comfortable with coming forward.
“We’ve got to have the best mechanism in place that allows workers to be safe, our armed forces to be safe, that they should be able to bring up concerns,” he said.
“Any allegations of harassment or misconduct should be taken seriously and people should be listened to. We need to look at whatever the best way to do that is.”
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.
Singh said Trudeau should have taken it upon himself to “get to the bottom of this” and ensure the allegations were properly followed up on.
“There has been a series of failures here, but really, at the end of the day, the responsibility lies at the top,” he said.
Yet Singh said he does not have a desire to hold Trudeau accountable at the ballot box this year — at least not until a majority of Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I don’t believe it’s the right thing for Justin Trudeau to be angling for or strategizing around an election,” he said.
“The sole focus we have to be giving all of our attention to is getting everyone vaccinated. And that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
— With files from Amanda Connolly