Conservatives heard 'rumours' of Vance's alleged inappropriate relationships in 2015

A former top official in the Conservative government has testified that it looked into two rumours of alleged inappropriate conduct involving Gen. Jonathan Vance prior to appointing him. Ray Novak spoke to the House of Commons defence committee which is investigating what both Liberal and Conservative governments knew about Vance's personal life.

House committee investigating what governments knew about former top general's personal life

Then-Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance sits in the front row during a news conference on Friday, June 26, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the weeks prior to appointing Gen. Jonathan Vance as chief of the defence staff, the former Conservative government looked into a "rumour" that he'd had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate in 2001 and had even tried to advance her career.

A former top official in the prime minister's office of the day, Ray Novak, told a parliamentary committee on Monday that in the weeks before Vance assumed command of the Canadian military, the government was grappling with whether to go ahead with the appointment.

The Conservative pick for defence chief had been investigated prior to being selected over allegations that while serving with NATO in Naples he'd had an inappropriate relationship with a U.S. Army colonel who later became his wife.

The matter was put to rest when former National Security Advisor (NSA) Richard Fadden reported that the Department of National Defence and the military had investigated it and found no Code of Service Discipline violations, said Novak, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2015.

Harper spoke directly with Vance

In a private meeting, Harper even raised the issue directly with Vance and "asked if there was anything else he should know," Novak told the House of Commons defence committee, which is investigating what the former Conservative government — and the current Liberal government — knew about the top general's personal life.

CBC News, quoting confidential sources, reported on many aspects of Novak's testimony back in early and mid-February. 

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper talks to his chief of staff Ray Novak as he makes a campaign stop at the shipyards in North Vancouver, B.C. on Wednesday, August 12, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In later testimony Monday, Novak said he believed Vance may have misled Harper.

"Clearly, when six years later we have these very serious allegations brought forward by Maj. Brennan, if they are true — and as I said earlier I have no reason to doubt her — that means the general was not truthful when he met with the prime minister in March of 2015," he said.

Satisfied with Vance's answers in the spring of 2015, the Conservatives proceeded with the appointment only to receive two further separate tips on the eve of the change of command that summer.

The first came from the chief of staff to the veteran affairs minister of the day, who telephoned Novak with information and an expression of concern.

"The call relayed a rumour that General Vance had an inappropriate relationship and/or had improperly sought to further an officer's career during his time at CFB Gagetown, which I believe was in 2001," said Novak.

"I advised the National Security Advisor about the call; he indicated he would investigate further."

That is potentially significant because one of the allegations at the centre of the crisis that has roiled the Canadian military involves the claim that Vance had had a long-standing inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, Maj. Kellie Brennan, which began in 2001 in Gagetown, N.B.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (NIS) is now investigating whether there were any military regulations or laws broken.

The second tip, which was anonymously emailed to a senior defence department official and made its way to the prime minister's office in July 2015, involved a restating of the allegation of an inappropriate relationship in Naples.

PMO briefed on investigations into tips

"In subsequent conversations between the PMO, the PCO and the Minister's Office, it was agreed that the Change of Command Ceremony would be delayed if needed to allow sufficient time for further review," Novak said.

"In the course of the next week or so, the National Security Advisor briefed the Prime Minister and PMO that the NIS had found nothing further with respect to the General's time at NATO, and that their review of the matter was closed. As for the Gagetown rumour, the NSA briefed the Prime Minister and PMO that there was nothing in DND's files, no record of a complaint, and no current or former investigation."

Fadden, in fact, asked Vance directly about the Gagetown rumour and the general "responded he had been in a public relationship with the named individual at the time, that this person did not report to him, and he denied ever improperly acting to further her career."

Liberal members sitting on the defence committee Monday attempted to shift any blame on to the Conservatives for making the appointment in the first place.

"I guess it's safe to say, for the appointment to go forward, you didn't have any concerns based on the investigations that happened," said Liberal MP Chris Bittle, who insisted on 'yes' or 'no' answers to his questions. 

Novak defended the decision, saying the government of the day allowed the appointment to go forward based on the information they had.

"These appointments proceed on the basis of facts," he said.

"When a rumour is reported to Privy Council and no information is returned, when an anonymous email is sent in and we're briefed that there no new information, there's no investigation, the matter is closed; those were the facts that were available. Had there been other facts, another decision may have been made."

NDP defence critic Randal Garrison asked whether the Conservatives stopped and asked themselves at any point whether they were making the right choice — given that allegations had been raised and investigated in 2015 and that the independent report on sexual misconduct was released at the same time as Vance's appointment.

Novak essentially shifted the blame to Vance.

"Obviously, looking back on this six years later, we have a range of very disturbing allegations that have been made and when one makes an appointment to a position as senior as the chief of the defence staff, the head of the Canadian Armed Forces, one of the most historic and storied military institutions in the world, one is expecting that individual to uphold the proud record of that institution and leave it in a better place than he or she found it," Novak said.

"And unfortunately, clearly, that has not been the case."

Vance went on to serve five years as defence chief before retiring in January of this year. His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, stepped aside from the post two weeks after being sworn-in following separate allegations of misconduct against him.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.