Sajjan grilled by Commons committee over allegations against Gen. Vance

A Parliamentary committee’s investigation into what the Liberal government knew about allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the country's former chief of the defence staff ran into a brick wall of half-denials and confidentiality claims on Friday.

MPs press minister to reveal what he knew about misconduct claims, and when

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan faced tough questions about misconduct allegations against the former head of Canada's military during a Commons committee hearing today. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

A parliamentary committee's investigation into what the Liberal government knew about allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the country's former chief of the defence staff ran into a brick wall of half-denials and confidentiality claims on Friday.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told the House of Commons defence committee today that he was "shocked" by the allegations against Gen. Jonathan Vance, which emerged two weeks ago in a report by Global News.

The former defence chief is alleged to have had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate while serving as the country's top military commander, and is separately alleged to have sent a racy email to another woman of junior rank in 2012.

Sajjan also told MPs today that any such allegations brought to his attention have been raised with the "appropriate authorities."

He declined to comment on the specifics of the case, pointing out that it is being investigated by the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service.

Then-chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in May, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"I was just as surprised as everyone else, but any time during my tenure as minister of National Defence, if anything was brought to me, I always made sure it was quickly sent to the appropriate agency for a thorough investigation," Sajjan told the committee.

An 'obvious contradiction'

Opposition MPs said they were puzzled by Sajjan's testimony.

"There seems to be an obvious contradiction in what you're saying today," said NDP defence critic Randal Garrison. "In your opening statement, you said you were shocked as everyone else to hear of these allegations, but yet you imply you knew about these allegations.

"So, these can't both be true at the same time."

Sajjan denied having implied anything. A visibly frustrated Garrison put him on the spot. "I am asking you to confirm to me," he said, "whether you knew or did not know about these allegations before they became public."

Sajjan did not answer directly but cited the need to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

CBC News has reported that military ombudsman Gary Walbourne brought an allegation regarding Vance to Sajjan's attention on March 1, 2018, in a private meeting.

The minister refused today to disclose what was said in that meeting, citing confidentiality.

After the committee hearing, Conservative MP James Bezan accused the minister of being evasive.

"Minister Harjit Sajjan has repeatedly stated that he has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct but refuses to answer the simplest questions on when he first learned about the serious allegations against Gen. Vance," Bezan said. 

"This is looking more and more like a cover-up with every non-answer. Minister Sajjan must stop hiding the truth from Canadians and answer when he became aware of these allegations and what actions he took."

Sajjan pushed back against the accusation. "I'm not fudging anything," he told the committee.

It became apparent today that much of the government's defence seemed to hang on the slender distinction between formal and informal allegations.

Multiple sources have told CBC News that the Privy Council Office (PCO), which oversees appointments such as the chief of the defence staff, attempted to investigate the concerns raised with the minister by Walbourne, but were stymied by a lack of cooperation and documentation.

Senior PCO officials testified Friday that the department did not "have information to take further action" but refused to discuss specifics, citing privacy concerns and the ongoing military investigation.

But Janine Sherman, the deputy secretary to the cabinet, pointed out there's a difference between a formal complaint and rumours.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman walks with his lawyers Marie Henein (right) and Christine Mainville as they leave court in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Both New Democrat and Conservative MPs noted that former vice-admiral Mark Norman was suspended from his position several years ago on the basis of allegations that he had leaked cabinet secrets. An RCMP investigation did result in charges in that case, but they eventually were set aside by prosecutors.

The opposition MPs said Sajjan should have removed Vance immediately upon hearing allegations of inappropriate conduct. Garrison pointed out that the military continues to struggle to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks.

"You knew there were allegations of a very serious nature against the person in charge of the program for rooting out sexual misconduct in the military," Garrison told Sajjan.

Apart from responding to the original Global News story, Vance has declined to comment.

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.