Politics

PMO aware of ombudsman's misconduct allegation against Vance in 2018, but not the details: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his office was made aware of allegations of misconduct against Gen. Jonathan Vance in 2018 — but wasn't informed of their substance because a Privy Council Office investigation had not been conclusive.

Trudeau says he wasn't personally aware of the allegations until media reports emerged

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, stands with Defence Minister Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, centre, and then-Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday his office was made aware three years ago of misconduct allegations against the country's former top military commander that were raised by then-ombudsman Gary Walbourne.

Trudeau also told the House of Commons he was not personally aware of them until they were raised in the media last month.

The storm of controversy over what the Liberal government knew and when regarding Gen. Jonathan Vance's personal life has dominated the political agenda since Walbourne — who claims he was driven from office in a political vendetta — told a Commons committee that he warned Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in a private meeting in March 2018 about possible misconduct involving Vance.

"After the defence ombudsman received a complaint, the minister directed him to independent officials who could investigate," Trudeau said. "My office was aware of the minister's direction to the ombudsman. Those officials never received further information and so were unable to move forward with an investigation."

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole accused Trudeau of turning a blind eye, saying that after having condemned sexual harassment in the military before he entered government in 2015, the prime minister ignored it when the allegations emerged three years later.

"That is simply not true," Trudeau replied.

WATCH: O'Toole presses Trudeau on Vance allegations

Conservative leader challenges Trudeau on Vance allegations

8 months ago
2:58
Erin O'Toole started question period on Wednesday by suggesting to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that he knew about allegations involving Gen. Jonathan Vance before they were published in media reports earlier this year 2:58

In a sign the government may be feeling the political heat, Trudeau attempted earlier today to shift the blame to the former Conservative government, which had Vance investigated for possible Code of Service Discipline violations in 2015 prior to appointing him as defence chief.

"The previous Conservative government knew that there were certain allegations, they followed up and they decided to choose him anyway," Trudeau said in French during an interview on a Montreal private radio station, FM 98.5.

Although he has cited the actions of the former Conservative government previously in relation to the scandal, the comments today were his strongest yet.

Trudeau said he doesn't know what the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper knew about Vance but believes there is a need for a full investigation.

CBC News reported on Feb. 4, 2021 that the former Conservative government conducted a National Investigation Service probe into concerns that the top general had an inappropriate relationship with a female U.S. officer while stationed in Italy — a subordinate who later became his wife.

The concerns were investigated at the time by both the Canadian and U.S. militaries. Sources told CBC News that the Canadian military cleared the relationship. There is no indication of what position the Pentagon took.

In a follow-up story on Feb. 12, 2021, CBC News reported the investigation into Vance lasted nearly six months and formally ended only days before he took over the top command.

The investigation was initiated during the process for selecting a new defence chief in the winter of 2015 and the former government was reassured enough by it to announce Vance's appointment in the spring of that year.

A subsequent anonymous complainant forced the Conservatives and senior public servants to go back and look at the matter again just prior to the 2015 change of command, when a written investigation report was presented to the government.

A statement from the Department of National Defence confirmed the investigation "did not meet the elements of an offence to lay charges under the Code of Service Discipline or the Criminal Code of Canada."

Meanwhile, the deputy minister of defence today gave an indication of how the series of bombshell investigations is weighing on the department.

"Who we are, what we are and what we do is impacted by all of this," Jody Thomas told the annual Conference of Defence Associations Institute's annual forum.

She said she would not discuss the allegations or ongoing misconduct investigations of both Vance and his successor, Admiral Art McDonald.

"The culture, attitudes and behaviours have the change, or we fail. And we cannot afford to fail. And we have failed members, individual members of this institution and we have failed this institution as a whole," she said.

Thomas has said previously she was unaware of the allegations against Vance, which Walbourne had placed before the minister three years ago.

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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