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.
Just one day after the ex-military ombudsman brought an allegation of inappropriate behaviour by Gen. Jonathan Vance to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, someone emailed the Privy Council Office about the need to “put some things in writing.”
Documents obtained by Global News under access to information laws show that someone emailed Janine Sherman, a senior personnel official at the Privy Council Office, at 2:14 PM on March 2, 2018, with the subject line “investigation.”
“I just tried but you are well-guarded,” the person wrote in a chain about lining up a time to speak.
“We will need to put some things in writing today.”
The documents come after a month of questions and committee hearings delving into allegations first reported exclusively by Global News on Feb. 2 that Vance behaved inappropriately towards two female subordinates, one of whom shared their complaint informally with the military ombudsman in 2018.
While it is not clear from the document who sent the March 2 email, minister’s offices and the Prime Minister’s Office are exempt from ATIP laws. As a consequence, the names of staffers in those offices are frequently — but sometimes inconsistently — redacted in ATIP releases.
The individual also references needing to “lock up my phone” in their emails, something typically done by government staff participating in high-level or security-restricted meetings, including cabinet or caucus meetings.
Within hours, staff from Sajjan’s office had drafted a letter to Gary Walbourne emphasizing that Sajjan knew nothing about the detail of the allegations — which Walbourne said in explosive testimony before the House of Commons defence committee on Wednesday that Sajjan refused to look at.
“On behalf of the Minister, I am writing further to your discussion concerning allegations of sexual harassment that had been brought to your attention,” reads a letter sent at 7:40 PM on March 2 from a redacted account on letterhead with Sajjan’s signature.
PCO officials asked Walbourne on March 5 and 6 for information about the complainant, which he warned them he could not provide without her okay.
“As with all cases given to the Ombudsman’s office we only move forward with the complainant’s written consent to do so,” Walbourne said in one of his responses on March 6.
“Options have been proposed I now await directions as to their wishes on how to move forward. Once they have made a decision, and with their permission, I will engage as directed.”
On March 8, PCO officials said they had not heard back from Walbourne with any more information and on March 12, Walbourne’s office reached out asking to set up a meeting with Sherman.
Walbourne has said the complainant did not give that permission but expects it would have been granted had she felt officials were taking the matter seriously.
All the while, PCO officials were preparing a briefing note acknowledging that the ombudsman was not responsible for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct.
The documents come after a week that saw Sajjan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau facing accusations of a “cover-up” from Conservatives over their handling of the allegations.
In the wake of Global News’ Feb. 2 reporting, military police opened an investigation into Vance and the House of Commons defence committee launched its own probe of the matter as well.
Sajjan testified to the committee two weeks ago that he was “surprised” to learn of the allegations against Vance in the Global News report, and insisted he has always followed proper procedures when any complaints are brought to his office.
But Walbourne offered a starkly different picture of events in his testimony on Wednesday.
The ex-military watchdog confirmed that he raised an allegation with Sajjan during a March 1, 2018, meeting and then tried to show Sajjan evidence he had brought that he said would have proved the merit of the allegation.
“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 said.
“The minister didn’t want to see the evidence.”
The records obtained by Global News now appear to raise questions about why Sajjan might have refused to look at the evidence offered by Walbourne.
Walbourne would not tell the defence committee what evidence he brought but he said that if it was a document, names and identifying information could be redacted to leave only the material of the allegation.
Global News has previously reported that one of the allegations against Vance involves an email that appears to have been sent from his military account in 2018 suggesting he and a young female private head to a clothing-optional vacation destination.
A source with direct knowledge has told Global News the female private met Vance at a professional event, and he invited her to reach out for career advice.
During Walbourne’s testimony on Wednesday, Liberal MPs repeatedly tried to suggest he failed in his duties as ombudsman by not launching a formal investigation — despite the fact Walbourne has repeatedly said the complainant asked him for anonymity.
The records obtained by Global News appear to show officials at the Privy Council Office recognized that back in 2018, too.
The office prepared a briefing note ahead of what appears to have been a scheduled meeting between someone from their team and Walbourne for March 16, 2018.
In it, officials say it was not Walbourne’s role to investigate this kind of matter.
“Complaints of sexual misconduct are not typically matters that the Ombudsperson would investigate,” reads the note, advising that complaints could proceed instead through the Canadian Forces’ harassment policy, the military grievance process, or to military police.
“The directive suggests this would prevent the Ombudsperson from investigating,” the memo added.
“Typically, the Ombudsperson would investigate a complaint to the effect that one of those processes failed a complainant.”
The memo also suggests that PCO officials tell Walbourne they are not seeking confidential information but wanted to understand “the general nature” of the complaint.
None of the notes mention the fact that Sajjan had the authority under the National Defence Act to launch a board of inquiry into any matter brought to his attention.
There is no indication he did so.
Sajjan has said he disagrees with Walbourne’s testimony but did not specify which parts he felt were inaccurate or provide any evidence to disprove the accusations.
Trudeau defended Sajjan on Wednesday and on Friday, he doubled down in defending his government’s handling of the allegations.