Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is apologizing to ‘any woman’ who experienced harassment while serving in the military — though she says she never knew about the allegations against former chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance.
An investigation is currently underway into the allegations of misconduct levied against Vance, as well as into a separate allegation against his successor, Adm. Art McDonald.
In the weeks since Maj. Kellie Brennan — one of the women at the heart of the allegations against Vance — first came forward, multiple other women have sounded the alarm about the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct in the military’s ranks.
Many of those women have expressed frustration at the lack of accountability in the military and urged the government to act to fix the system that allows sexual misconduct to continue within the ranks.
No one from the government has apologized for not acting sooner to fix the problem.
Freeland said she wanted to do so.
“I actually think that no woman should be sexually harassed in her workplace,” Freeland told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson in an interview.
“No woman serving Canada should be sexually harassed while doing that, and I’m happy right now today to apologize to any woman who was sexually harassed while serving her country.”
Freeland’s comments come amid growing demands for accountability, as parliamentary committees have heard testimony that multiple political staff knew of the allegations against Vance years before Global News first reported them on Feb. 2
An allegation of inappropriate behaviour by Vance was reported to the military ombudsman in 2018. At the time, the prime minister’s office, the defence minister’s office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan were all made aware of the claim.
Sajjan says he refused to hear the details and had his staff refer the matter to bureaucrats, who promptly abandoned a probe when the then-military ombudsman refused to share information the complainant had asked to be kept confidential.
Vance remained in his post for another two years.
Freeland says she was not among those who knew about the allegations against Vance.
Stephenson pressed Freeland whether she knew anything about them.
“No, I didn’t,” said Freeland.
“Since this is my first chance to speak about this, I’d like to take a moment to just say a couple of things about the women who have come forward,” Freeland said.
“I would like to say to them, what you have done is incredibly brave and courageous. It’s so hard to do. I think pretty much every woman knows that if you have been in any of these kinds of situations, there is a fear of coming forward. And to have done that is a really, really brave thing — and I admire your courage very much.”
The woman who shared the complaint in 2018 says she received a message that appeared to come from Vance’s military email account in 2012, suggesting the two take a trip to a clothing-optional vacation destination.
Global News agreed to protect the identity of the woman because she fears career reprisals.
Global News has viewed evidence of that 2012 exchange, which she says took place after she met Vance at a professional event and he — then with the rank of major-general — invited her to reach out for career advice. She did so, after which she says she received the email suggesting a clothing-optional vacation in response. She said she “took it as a joke,” albeit an “inappropriate” one.
“But, you know, people don’t say those things unless they’re testing waters,” she told Global News.
Vance denies any inappropriate behaviour and has told Global News that if he did make that suggestion, he would have meant it as a joke and would be willing to apologize. Operation Honour includes under its definition of sexual misconduct “jokes of a sexual nature.”
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dodged repeated questions about why he has opted to keep Sajjan in the role — and about who is ultimately accountable for failing to fully investigate the 2018 allegation.
“First of all, that was extraordinarily moving testimony last night from a woman who demonstrated both her strength and her commitment to bringing about change,” said Trudeau.
“We know that the Canadian Armed Forces need to change, we know that the culture of tolerance around unacceptable actions or harassment needs to end — not just for those who chose to serve but anywhere, any workplace across this country.”
Sajjan has repeatedly said he referred the complaint to his chief of staff at the time, who shared it with both bureaucrats at the Privy Council Office as well as senior staff in Trudeau’s office. He has also said multiple times that he could not have looked at the details of the complaint or pushed for any kind of investigation into the matter, even after bureaucrats abandoned a probe, because doing so would amount to “political interference.”
The commander of military police has rejected that claim, saying clearly that it would not have been political interference for Sajjan to request any kind of a probe.
The woman who brought that complaint forward told Global News said she did so through the military ombudsman specifically because she wanted to remain anonymous — and because she knew the complaint would be shared with Sajjan, who she said she hoped would act.
Despite the questions surrounding Sajjan’s handling of the situation, Freeland said she still has confidence in the defence minister.
“I’ve worked closely with Minister Sajjan, and I can tell you he is deeply, deeply committed to serving Canada. He is deeply committed to diversity and fairness for everyone,” Freeland said.
“He is very supportive of women and I have a great deal of confidence in him.”
She added that these kinds of incidents are “challenging,” especially when there are “issues of confidentiality” and “issues of due process.”
Freeland was equally supportive of the other individuals who were made aware of the complaint in 2018, including Telford.
“(Telford) is a really committed feminist and she walks the walk. She has put in place measures inside our government, inside our caucus, inside our party to root out sexual harassment, to ensure we have safe workplaces. And I know that’s something she’s deeply committed to,” Freeland said.
And as the shockwaves of the allegations continue to be felt throughout the Canadian Armed Forces, Trudeau reiterated Friday that the government takes the issue “extraordinarily seriously.” He said they’d have more to say in “coming weeks.”
Freeland added that she supports a “deep and thorough and independent investigation” of the whole problem, noting that Sajjan “has committed to that.”
The government has yet to announce any details of that promised probe nearly three months after first committing to it.
She also pointed to the millions of additional dollars announced in Monday’s budget, which are aimed at stamping out sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“The budget is a further not just indication, but concrete step showing our government’s commitment to set things right and to really transform the Canadian Armed Forces in its treatment of women, in its treatment of sexual harassment,” Freeland said.
“It’s got to stop.”
— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly