Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he had “a number of conversations” with his then-chief of staff Zita Astravas after she shared a misconduct allegation against Gen. Jonathan Vance with the Privy Council Office — which later abandoned the probe — in 2018.
The testimony by Sajjan at the House of Commons defence committee — which is probing allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the military first reported by Global News — follows previous testimony that he never followed up after the 2018 allegation against Vance was shared with bureaucrats.
“We’re not exactly sure the number of times,” Sajjan said when asked how many times Astravas discussed the allegation with the Prime Minister’s Office in 2018.
“I do know that I had a number of conversations with my chief of staff to making sure, to inquire if there was any progress on the allegations, if the former ombudsman had provided the necessary information.”
Sajjan had previously testified during an appearance at the committee on March 12 that he did not follow up after passing the allegation on to his then-chief of staff, and has repeatedly said he could not do so because it would amount to “political interference.”
“To answer your question directly about followup, absolutely not,” Sajjan said in the previous testimony when asked if he followed up with military officials to see if they had received details of the complaint. “That’s called interference in an investigation by involving myself. If you’re asking me to interfere in an investigation, I will tell you straight, absolutely not.”
Sajjan was asked more broadly a second time during that March 12 committee: “Did you follow up with anyone to ensure that the investigation was completed?”
Sajjan responded at the time by saying, “With all due respect, I cannot interfere.”
“Minister, whom did you follow up with to ensure that the investigation of the chief of the defence staff was underway, so that you could take appropriate disciplinary action, if required?” he was asked again at the time.
“As the minister of national defence, I do not follow up because that would be interfering in an investigation,” Sajjan responded during that March 12 testimony.
Global News asked Sajjan’s office about the testimonies.
“The Minister, as stated, asked his Chief of Staff at the time for updates. He did not interfere in any investigation,” said Sajjan’s director of communications, Todd Lane.
The commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service has said Sajjan’s assertions that following up would amount to “political interference” are not accurate.
“Asking me to examine and look at would not be interference,” said Lt.-Col. Eric Leblanc during testimony before the committee in March.
“Interference would be improper conduct during an investigation, as it relates to CFNIS.”
Sajjan is facing continued fierce scrutiny over his handling of the allegations against Vance, who is alleged to have behaved inappropriately with two female subordinates.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Sajjan has repeatedly defended his handling of the matter. But more than two months after Global News first reported on the allegations, he has yet to announce any details of a promised independent probe into sexual misconduct in the military or details on a promised independent reporting mechanism for people in the military who experience sexual misconduct.
Sajjan appeared in the place of his former chief of staff, who was ordered to appear by the House of Commons. The Liberals have instructed political staff in that order to ignore the summons — a decision that Conservative defence critic James Bezan described as “contemptuous” on Tuesday.
Following Sajjan’s testimony, the committee also heard from Michael Wernick, who was clerk of the Privy Council when the office abandoned early efforts at a probe following a 2018 allegation against Vance.
Wernick recounted how his office was first asked to probe the matter by Elder Marques, a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, and the “impasse” he says was reached when the then-ombudsman would not share the details of the complaint, which the complainant wanted to keep confidential.
“On Friday March the 2, Elder Marques came upstairs from the second floor, popped in and asked to see me, and raised the issue for the first time,” Wernick said.
“He said that there was an issue the minister was concerned about and wanted us to look into regarding the chief of defence staff.”
Wernick pointed to emails from an individual whose name was redacted on March 2, 2018, to Janine Sherman, a senior official in charge of personnel at the Privy Council Office, which emphasized the need to “put some things in writing” about the matter.
He said that email was from Marques to Sherman.
Wernick told the committee that without more information about the complaint, bureaucrats in the office quickly realized they were at an “impasse” in trying to probe the matter. But he says they were willing to return to it if new information emerged.
He also said there was a lot going on with the military at the time, with a shakeup of senior staff on March 2, 2018, as well as the laying of a criminal charge against the then-vice chief of the defence staff several days later on March 9, 2018.
The breach of trust charge against now-retired Vice-Adm. Mark Norman was stayed in 2019.
“The cumulative picture is an organization that’s very unsettled at the top,” he said of the broader circumstances around the time of the 2018 allegation, adding he wanted to apologize to the members of the military who have lost trust in the institution over the handling of the matter.
“I think collectively, the system failed and I deeply regret that,” Wernick said.
“In fact, I would like to apologize.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he did not know of any allegations against Vance in 2018, and only learned of them through exclusive Global News reporting on Feb. 2, 2021.
But he has confirmed his office was aware of the 2018 allegation, as well as of the fact that Sajjan’s staff had referred the matter to the Privy Council Office.
That knowledge has raised questions of whether Trudeau’s staff failed to do their jobs and make him aware of a serious allegation against the former chief of the defence staff.
Sajjan told the committee he never informed Trudeau of the allegation.
“I did not raise these with the prime minister,” he said.
Trudeau’s government extended Vance’s term and gave him a pay raise.