In a press conference on Tuesday, Trudeau was asked to clarify comments that have been made by his office over the past month and a half regarding who knew what when about the 2018 allegation shared with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan by the then-military ombudsman.
When asked directly whether he personally knew of any allegation against Vance in 2018, Trudeau gave a one-word answer: “No.”
After initially receiving the allegation, Sajjan’s chief of staff then shared the allegation with a senior advisor to Trudeau, according to testimony given before the House of Commons defence committee probing military misconduct allegations.
That has raised questions over whether political staff paid to advise the prime minister failed to do their jobs by not telling him of such an allegation.
Sajjan said during testimony before the House of Commons defence committee on March 12 that Trudeau was informed that Sajjan’s office had passed concerns on to bureaucrats.
“In addition to contacting the Privy Council Office, did you or chief of staff inform the Prime Minister’s Office about these allegations?” NDP MP Randall Garrison asked at the time.
“As the prime minister has stated, he was informed that I had raised those concerns with the Privy Council Office, but he learned of those complaints through the media.”
Trudeau admitted earlier in March that his office knew that Sajjan had passed an allegation about Vance to the Privy Council Office in 2018. He did not indicate that he himself knew of it.
“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.”
A spokesperson for Sajjan said that was what the minister meant.
“What the Minister meant is what the Prime Minister has said, that his office was made aware of the fact the Minister directed the Ombudsman to the appropriate authorities,” said Todd Lane in an email.
Trudeau was also asked directly late last month whether he was ever briefed by Sajjan on the allegations.
“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, close to two months after the independent probe was initially promised in the wake of the original Global News report.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Trudeau’s office has given shifting answers when Global News has asked repeatedly whether they knew of any allegations against Vance. Following the Global News report into the allegations against Vance on Feb. 2, the Prime Minister’s Office said no one there knew anything until the article came out.
However, that later changed, with officials saying no one in the office knew the details of any allegation against Vance until Global News reported on them.
The government has also faced criticism over insistences that it could not have launched any kind of investigation and that asking for either an update on the decision by Privy Council Office to abandon a probe or asking for a review of the matter by another body would be “political interference.”
The commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service rebuked that claim last week, telling the House of Commons defence committee that asking for a probe would not be interference.
Both he and the current military ombudsman rejected claims by Sajjan that the former ombudsman could have investigated the allegation shared with Sajjan in 2018, despite the complainant in that case saying she wanted the complaint to remain confidential.
Gregory Lick, who replaced Gary Walbourne as the military ombudsman in November 2018, rejected Sajjan’s assertions about what powers the office had to probe the complaint. Lick went on to say that faced with the same situation, he would have handled the matter exactly as Walbourne did by bringing it directly to Sajjan.
“I would like to provide clarity on this matter today. First, my office does not have authority to investigate criminal offences of sexual assault, neither does it have authority to investigate sexual misconduct matters that would result in charges under the code of service discipline,” said Lick.
“Second, I must stress that my office cannot and will not investigate matters without the consent of the complainant, no matter what the nature of the complaint.”
Lick cited the testimony previously given by Walbourne to the national defence committee probing the matter of military sexual misconduct allegations, in which Walbourne said the complainant would not let him share the details of her complaint, and wanted assurances it would be taken seriously.
“Third, the current reporting structure of the ombudsman is directly to the minister of national defence – not to the Privy Council Office or any other body. This is a critical point that needs to be made in order to correct the record,” Lick said.
“Had I been faced with the same facts, I would have done exactly as my predecessor did. I would’ve reported the facts within my direct reporting structure. There was no other body to which the complaint could have been referred.”
Lt.-Col. Eric Leblanc, commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, told the committee that while military police have worked with the ombudsman’s office before on misconduct allegations, they have done so “only when there is a desire” by the complainant to investigate.
“Asking me to examine and look at would not be interference,” said Leblanc.
“Interference would be improper conduct during an investigation, as it relates to CFNIS.”
Records obtained by Global News and first reported on by the Globe and Mail show Lick’s office had internally flagged Sajjan’s assertion at committee as “incorrect.”
“The Privy Council Office does not have the investigatory power that would be needed to address this issue,” the documents show officials warned in response to Sajjan’s arguments.
“The PCO is not truly independent. It supports the PM and Cabinet in implementing their goals and decisions.”
Those officials also broke down repeated concerns citing the relevant laws over their office that appeared to contradict multiple claims made by Sajjan in defending his course of action.
“An investigation or outcome would only be ‘prejudiced’ if the Minister became involved in such a way that it would negatively impact the rights of the parties,” the officials noted.
“Simply directing that an investigation take place would not prejudice the outcome.”
Sajjan just last week directed the acting chief of the defence staff, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, to open a review into the decision by Royal Canadian Navy investigators to shut down a probe into a misconduct allegation involving comments about a member’s “red room.”
In announcing that decision, Sajjan faced questions on why he felt he could direct a review of this decision but could not do so when he learned of the allegation against Vance, or when the Privy Council Office abandoned a probe of the Vance allegation.
He did not give a clear answer.