But Trudeau says he only learned the details through recent news reports.
“In 2018 my office was aware of the minister’s direction to the ombudsman,” Trudeau said during a heated opening exchange in question period that saw him face repeated questions on the matter.
“But my office and I learned of the details of the allegation through news reports in recent months.”
He repeated the admission in response to another question shortly after.
“After the defence ombudsman received a complaint, the minister directed him to independent officials who could investigate. My office was aware of the minister’s direction to the ombudsman,” he said.
Both Trudeau and his office have maintained in recent weeks that they only learned of the allegations against Vance from the exclusive reporting by Global News on Feb. 2 that brought the issue to light.
Trudeau was asked directly late last month whether he was ever briefed by Sajjan on the allegations in 2018, when then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne says he brought them to Sajjan.
“Was the prime minister briefed by the defence minister on the allegations against Gen. Vance when he first received them in 2018?” Conservative defence critic James Bezan asked Trudeau two weeks ago.
“I first learned of allegations against Gen. Vance in Global News reporting,” Trudeau responded, adding: “We have launched an independent investigation.”
However, the details of that still have not been revealed.
Trudeau and Sajjan are both under fire over their handling of the allegations.
Walbourne testified before the House of Commons defence committee last week that he brought evidence 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.”
Sajjan has said he was “surprised” to learn of the allegations against Vance in Global News reporting.
He says any reports that were brought to his office have always been referred to the proper authorities.
He has also said he disagrees with Walbourne’s testimony but provided no evidence to refute it.
The Canadian military is facing what experts call an institutional crisis amid twin military police probes into allegations against both the current and former chiefs of the defence staff.
Conservative and NDP critics say the government’s handling amounts to a “cover up,” and repeated those criticisms following Trudeau’s admission that his office was aware an allegation was made in 2018.
The admission comes as the number of reported sexual misconducts among members of the Canadian Forces appears to have jumped by 39 per cent in the latest collection of published data, according to the departmental planning report published late last month.
But the military is not saying what actions it took in response to those reports.
According to the numbers in the Department of National Defence’s planning report, the annual number of reported incidents of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces rose from 256 in 2018/2019 to 356 in 2019/2020, representing an increase of 39 per cent.
While the number of actions taken in response to the incidents reported in 218/2019 was listed though, the response to the incidents in 2019/2020 is unclear, with officials saying only, “results not available.”
Retired Col. Michel Drapeau, who specializes in military law, says the system for reporting and handling sexual misconduct in the military is broken.
“It’s broken because complainants have got no sense of confidence,” he told Global News.
“All of them feel a sense of despair, a sense of of abandonment, a sense of not caring,” he continued.
“In many cases, fear of having an impact upon their career.“
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said they would look into why the department’s report did not include the number of actions taken in response to misconduct allegations.
The department said it recognizes there is more work to do.
“Reporting for sexual misconduct is a complex issue, particularly in a military organization. Although considerable foundational work has been done to establish structures and support services, much work remains to be done, at individual, organizational and cultural levels,” said a spokesperson.
“All options to improve our systems and make them better and safer for people to come forward are being explored.”
Global News first reported on Feb. 2 that former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, one of which involved an alleged sexual relationship that is said to have continued while he was in the top post.
Military police are investigating and Vance denies all allegations of improper conduct.
Adm. Art McDonald, his successor, stepped back from the position on Feb. 24 after the news that military police are also investigating an allegation against him. Global News reported on Sunday that the senior naval officer who reported a sexual misconduct allegation against McDonald is facing threats.