Liberals short-circuit opposition bid for more committee hearings on military misconduct

For the second time in a week, an attempt by opposition parties to reopen public hearings on military sexual misconduct has been short-circuited by the governing Liberals. The Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebecois have all signalled they want to call a former senior adviser to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Conservatives, NDP, Bloc want to call former top adviser to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. Opposition MPs want to question one of his former senior advisers about Jonathan Vance. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A so-far unsuccessful attempt by opposition parties to reopen House of Commons committee hearings on sexual misconduct in the military appears to be headed for a sequel.

The Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois have all signalled they are in favour of a motion that would summon a former top adviser to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to testify on what she knows about the handling of an informal allegation of inappropriate conduct against former general Jonathan Vance.

The governing Liberals have, for the second time in a week, prevented the Conservative motion from coming to a vote before the Commons defence defence committee.

The motion also attempts to recall Sajjan and former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne — who warned Sajjan in a private meeting in 2018 of possible inappropriate behaviour on the part of Vance in an alleged email exchange with a junior non-commissioned officer.

'The missing link'

It was Sajjan's former chief of staff, Zita Astravas, who flagged the concern to the Prime Minister's Office. Opposition parties want to question her about the specifics of the warning.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan described Astravas as the "missing link" in the matter of finding out who in the Liberal government knew what and when about the allegation against Vance.

The Bloc signalled today that it was prepared to support the motion, with a minor amendment.

"We are all looking for the truth," said Bloc MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval, adding that with each new witness, the committee seems to learn something new and significant.

The committee agreed weeks ago to begin winding down public hearings to focus on writing a report before Parliament's summer recess and before an anticipated federal election — which could come as soon as this fall.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff said she opposed the motion because she believes the opposition is not putting survivors of sexual assault in the military at the centre of the debate.

Liberals run out the clock

The governing Liberals filibustered Friday's hearing — a tactic they used earlier this week and before — until the clock ran out and the meeting was suspended without resolution.

New Democrat defence critic Randall Garrison said no single party speaks for survivors and that finding out how the government handled the allegation is fundamental to restoring confidence in the military and its leadership.

"We are finger-pointing," Garrison said. "We are looking for the people responsible and in a parliamentary system, there must be a minister responsible for this failure to act in ways that have been effective over the past six years."

NDP MP Randall Garrison: 'We are finger-pointing.' (CBC)

He said MPs must find out "who ordered there be no investigation into General Vance" or whether "no one ordered this and simply the ball was dropped at the most senior level" of government.

Without that information, he said, it's not clear that recent promises of change can be taken seriously.


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.