Politics

Defence committee launches parliamentary probe into Vance misconduct allegations

Federal Conservatives led the charge Tuesday for a House of Commons committee investigation into what the Liberal government did — and did not do — after being confronted almost three years ago with informal allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the country's former top military commander.
Gen. Jonathan Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 4, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Federal Conservatives led the charge Tuesday for a House of Commons committee investigation into what the Liberal government did — and did not do — after being confronted almost three years ago with informal allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the country's former top military commander.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and other senior government officials will be called before the defence committee for three planned hearings about the growing controversy involving Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff.

The military's National Investigation Service is looking into allegations raised last week in a Global News story. That story claimed Vance had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate while he was defence chief and that he sent an inappropriate email to a second woman of junior rank in 2012, before he took over the military's top post.

'Spectres of concern'

Last week, CBC News reported that informal allegations and "spectres of concern" about possible inappropriate conduct by Vance were brought before the current Liberal government and the former Conservative government.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the 2015 defence chief selection process said a possible inappropriate relationship between Vance and a junior officer serving with NATO in Naples was investigated prior to his appointment as Canada's top commander. The relationship with the woman, who is now his wife, was cleared by Canadian military investigators.

CBC News also reported that the former military ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, took a separate informal complaint of misconduct involving Vance to the defence minister in March 2018. A disagreement over what to do about the complaint led to Walbourne's early departure from his watchdog position.

Sajjan said he directed the information to the "appropriate authorities" — meaning the Privy Council Office (PCO), which is responsible for major appointments such as that of the defence chief.

Neither Sajjan nor PCO will say what happened with the informal complaint.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for PCO, Paul Duchesne, said last week that "no information was provided to PCO which would have enabled further action to have been taken."

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said that what did or didn't happen with the complaint needs to be investigated.

"The news reports we have heard over the last number of weeks are disturbing to say the least," he said.

Bezan added that the committee doesn't want to get in the way of the ongoing military police investigation, "but these allegations are serious and they need to be looked at."

Determining how the allegation — raised by the former military ombudsman — was handled is of the utmost importance, he said.

It's unclear "whether the victims had been approached and talked to," he said. "We don't know what evidence was turned over to the Privy Council Office."

He proposed calling a short list of senior defence and privy council officials, serving and retired, to testify in addition to Sajjan.

New Democrat defence critic Randall Garrison said he wants to hear from former Conservative defence minister Jason Kenney about the concerns raised prior to Vance's appointment.

The Canadian military recently updated its campaign to stamp out sexual harassment within the ranks. Garrison cited a quote from the campaign document which was attributed to Vance:

"To achieve our goal, we must cultivate a command climate, across the institution, where sexual misconduct is never minimized, ignored, or excused."

For that reason, Garrison said, the committee needs to hear from Sajjan how the department dealt with the accusations — but it's also important to know "if we've had a failure of two successive governments" to deal with sexual assault and sexual misconduct within the military.

The Liberal parliamentary secretary of defence, Anita Vandenbeld, said she believes it's "appropriate to look at the vetting process" that led to the general's appointment in 2015.

A substantial portion of the committee meeting on Tuesday was taken up with arguments over whether the names of witnesses other than Sajjan should be included in the motion.

In the end, MPs opted to keep it vague and draw up wish lists of possible witnesses.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

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.

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