But still, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Liberal MPs on the House of Commons defence committee probing misconduct allegations argued that it was the ombudsman, not the minister, who failed to act on a 2018 allegation against Gen. Jonathan Vance.
Public records from the ombudsman’s office and testimony from witnesses previously called to the committee show the ombudsman’s office was limited in its ability to investigate complaints, and was not well-placed to probe sexual misconduct.
“What role, if any, do you think the ombudsman should have in relation to sexual misconduct complaints that may go into his office?” asked Liberal MP Joyce Murray in a May 25, 2015, defence committee meeting with former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, following her landmark report detailing “endemic” sexual misconduct throughout the Canadian Forces.
“In my report, I say that he should not be referred to as an element of the solution for the victims,” said Deschamps in response to the question. “That’s clear enough.”
“Okay, so people should know that’s not where they go,” said Murray, now a Liberal cabinet minister, about the ombudsman’s office.
The House of Commons defence committee is currently probing allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian military that were first brought to light by Global News on Feb. 2, 2021, and have sparked what experts call an institutional “crisis” for the military.
As part of that study, Sajjan has come under fire for his handling of an allegation against Vance that he confirmed last week was brought to him in March 2018 by then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
Sajjan says he refused to hear details because he wanted to avoid “political interference.”
Instead, he says he shared the complaint with his chief of staff, who passed it on to both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, which asked Walbourne to share details.
He repeatedly said he could not do so without the complainant’s permission.
The matter appears to have been dropped, and Sajjan told the committee he never followed up. He also would not say when asked whether he flagged his cabinet colleagues that there had been a complaint against Vance when the cabinet approved a pay increase for Vance in 2019.
Deschamps had concluded in her report that “the Office of the Ombudsman is not a resource that is designed to help victims with either legal or emotional support, and should not be referred to as a resource for victims who need help before, during, or after a complaint of sexual harassment or assault.”
Global News has previously detailed that officials in the Privy Council Office brought up similar warnings in 2018 just days after Sajjan’s office referred the complaint shared by Walbourne to top bureaucrats.
Walbourne told the committee that he had gone to Sajjan looking for advice because he was unclear how to proceed given the rank of the former chief of defence staff, and was concerned that any investigative process involving military police or members would not be independent.
Walbourne had said during that appearance that he brought an informal complaint shared with his office about Vance to Sajjan in a March 1, 2018, meeting along with evidence he said would have proved the complaint had merit.
He said he sought advice from the minister on how to proceed given that the complaint had been made informally, it involved the top general in the military, and Walbourne did not have the permission of the complainant to share her information with authorities for a formal investigation, including those in the Privy Council Office.
Sajjan said on Friday that he “did not allow” Walbourne to give him any details, arguing an investigation was underway as soon as a complaint was made to that office.
Sajjan said he advised Walbourne that it was up to him to either do the investigation or to take the complaint to the judge advocate general, the provost marshal, or the Military Police Complaints Commission.
Walbourne said he did not have permission from the complainant to share her information anywhere, and that he had gone to Sajjan in the hopes he would be able to tell the complainant there was high-level concern about the allegation, and give her the peace of mind to agree to share her information with authorities to launch a formal probe.
Ombudsman had previously flagged inability to investigate sexual misconduct
Walbourne had previously outlined those concerns to Deschamps in July 2014 and November 2014, according to a letter posted on the website of the defence ombudsman.
In it, Walbourne stressed that complainants must be assured that if they come to the office seeking referrals or advice, their information will remain confidential unless they authorize the office to share it with investigators.
“Any matter of this nature brought to the attention of this Office is referred to the proper authorities, i.e. the Military Police in the case of an assault or the Military Police Complaints Commission in the case of a complaint regarding how the Military Police handled a file,” the letter stated.
“While this Office has no authority to address matters of a criminal nature, we do receive complaints of harassment, including sexual harassment. In these cases, our primary role is to act as a source of information and referral to assist individuals in accessing existing channels of assistance and redress within the DND and CAF.
“Furthermore, this Office cannot share the particulars of any complaint without the express consent of the individual complainant. Our mandate is clear with respect to the confidentiality with which this Office must treat the personal information of our constituents.”
Walbourne had also raised concerns repeatedly about the lack of independent avenues outside the military chain of command for those coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations.
The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre was one such venue that Walbourne said in a 2016 letter to Vance and John Forster, the deputy minister of national defence, could play an important role if given the authority to do so.
Without changes to the mandate of his office, Walbourne said in that 2016 letter that he would not be able to probe any matters of a potentially criminal nature, though that it could handle harassment complaints and help direct victims to proper authorities like military police resources.
Vance faces allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates, which he denies.