Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s chief of staff Katie Telford repeatedly did not answer multiple questions from members of the defence committee Friday about who made the decision not to tell the prime minister about a 2018 allegation against Gen. Jonathan Vance.
Telford was asked roughly 10 times by Conservative members of the committee to clarify why Trudeau appears not to have been informed about the allegation. He has said he was not “personally aware” of the allegation in 2018 and that while his office knew of an allegation, they did not know the details.
She responded to those questions by saying only that her office was contacted by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office asking for advice on how to handle an allegation.
“All we knew was that the ombudsperson at the end of the meeting pulled the minister aside and suggested he had a complaint and an envelope as I understand it,” she said.
Telford later noted when pressed once more that “the answer is that there wasn’t an allegation in terms of something – we didn’t know the nature of the allegation.”
Towards the end of the meeting, she was asked by Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld if it was fair to say that the reason she did not tell Trudeau was because both she and former senior advisor Elder Marques had been told that bureaucrats were best-placed to probe the allegation.
“I think that is a fair interpretation,” Telford said.
At the end of the meeting, she told members: “I don’t know what else could have been done.”
At several points during the committee, Conservative members who had asked Telford about who decided to keep the allegation from Trudeau interrupted her when she instead described the timeline of receiving the request from Sajjan’s office.
The interruptions led to the Liberal chair of the committee to intervene several times to tell members to allow the witness to continue speaking without interruption, which prompted Conservative members to argue that she was not answering the questions.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said in a statement that Telford should have been able to tell them who made the decision not to tell Trudeau.
“Conservatives asked a very simple question to Justin Trudeau’s top aide over a dozen times: who made the decision not to tell the prime minister about the allegation of sexual misconduct against General Vance? Katie Telford refused to answer,” he said.
“The simple fact is that if there was nothing to hide, then Katie Telford would have answered the question.”
Trudeau had said earlier in the day that he would let Telford speak for herself.
“Katie Telford has been leading on these issues for many years now,” he told reporters on Friday.
“I will let Katie speak for herself this afternoon but I know this was important for her to be able to share her perspective on these issues at committee.”
He has said he did not personally know of the 2018 allegation.
Telford’s appearance comes as the government faces intense scrutiny over its handling of a 2018 allegation shared with Sajjan, and the Prime Minister’s Office, by the then-military ombudsman.
Officials at the PMO say they referred the matter to bureaucrats at the Privy Council Office, who quickly launched and then abandoned a probe.
Telford is Trudeau’s close confidante and most senior adviser.
Marques, a former senior adviser to Trudeau, testified two weeks ago that Telford was aware of what he described as a “personal misconduct” allegation against Vance.
Trudeau has claimed “no one knew it was a Me Too complaint,” yet bureaucrats were characterizing the allegation as one related to “sexual harassment” within hours of being informed.
Telford also appeared to contradict testimony given by Marques, who said he first learned of the allegation against Vance on March 2, 2018, from either Telford or her assistant.
She said that she first learned of the matter from Marques on that date.
“Yes, that’s correct,” she said in French when asked to verify that she was testifying she first learned of the allegation from Marques, before adding that she couldn’t remember the details of whether Sajjan’s chief of staff might have also spoke with her earlier.
“I don’t recall whether the chief of staff and I directly spoke in the first instance or she spoke with my office, or whether a voicemail was left and it was passed on to Mr. Marques,” Telford said.
She reiterated that the “details and the nature of the complaint” were not known.
Telford also addressed the criticisms facing the government that it has built its political brand around feminism yet failed to fully investigate an allegation made against the country’s top soldier.
She said hearing the full details of the allegation, which Global News has reported was an email that appeared to have been sent from Vance’s work account in 2012, led her to question whether she could have done more to try to address the problem of sexual misconduct in the military.
IN HER WORDS: The woman behind 2018 Vance allegation tells her story
“As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” she said.
“I have wondered if I could have pushed harder on the advice on implementation of the Deschamps report … I have wondered if I should have further questioned the general on his commitment to Me Too.”
The Deschamps report was issued by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in 2015 and documented that sexual misconduct is an “endemic” problem through the Canadian Forces.
One of its key recommendations was the need for an independent reporting structure where members of the military could report allegations of sexual misconduct outside of the chain of command.
That recommendation was not implemented.
Sajjan last week announced the appointment of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to lead an independent external review tasked with crafting recommendations for how to implement an independent reporting structure, and for more broadly studying what else can be done to fix the culture.