Politics·Updated

MPs shoot down Conservative motion to fire PM's adviser over military misconduct scandal

A Conservative motion aimed at unseating the prime minister’s top adviser over how the Liberal government has handled the sexual misconduct crisis in the military was defeated easily in the House of Commons today.

Bloc sides with Liberals while one Liberal MP votes with Conservatives

Left: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Right: Trudeau's Chief of Staff Katie Telford. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A Conservative motion aimed at unseating the prime minister's top adviser over how the Liberal government has handled the sexual misconduct crisis in the military was defeated easily in the House of Commons today.

The Bloc Québécois sided with most government MPs in voting down the non-binding motion that called for the dismissal of Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff. The final vote tally was 209 to 122.

One Liberal MP — Bob Bratina of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek — sided with the Conservatives on the vote, which followed a day-long debate on Tuesday. 

Later, Bratina said he pushed the wrong button.

"I am pretty sure that I am not able to ask the House at this point to change it, but I do want to publicly state that I have the highest respect for the chief of staff of the prime minister," he said. "My intention was not to vote with the Conservatives, and I apologize for that."

The outcome, however, was a foregone conclusion because the Bloc released a statement saying they would stand with the Liberal government on this matter.

The political manoeuvring is the latest episode in a military leadership crisis that erupted three months ago when allegations of inappropriate behaviour involving the country's former top military commander — now-retired general Jonathan Vance — were published in the media.

In a media statement, Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen expressed deep disappointment over the motion's defeat.

Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen leaves a press conference with party leader Erin O'Toole on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

An informal allegation of misconduct against Vance was flagged to both the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO) in early 2018.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged his staff were aware of the 2018 allegation but has insisted he was not privy to the details until the reports surfaced publicly. More recently, he said that Telford was not aware that it was a "#MeToo" allegation.

Bergen said she doesn't believe Trudeau himself was unaware of the substance of the claim.

The political fight over Telford is not over. Another Conservative motion before the Commons defence committee calls on her to testify there; it has not been resolved.

It was introduced last Friday and prompted a filibuster by Liberal MPs. The committee meeting was suspended without a vote taking place and a follow-up meeting was cancelled earlier this week.

The Liberals balked at the notion of calling another witness when the committee had decided already to move on to the report-writing stage.

Telford's testimony, however, is considered significant by both the Conservatives and New Democrats, who want to know how an informal allegation of misconduct involving Vance — which was raised by former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in 2018 — was handled.

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner federal politics is also rife with sexual misconduct. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Sajjan handed off the allegation to both the PCO and the PMO, but a review by federal officials went nowhere because the complainant refused to step forward and had asked to not be involved.

The debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday over whether the prime minister should fire Telford was at times heated and bitter.

Several Liberal MPs argued points of process and said that Sajjan and PMO staff followed the proper procedures with the information they had before them. That argument drew an exasperated response from the NDP defence critic.

"Does she believe these procedural arguments excuse the failure to investigate and remove [Vance] from office?" asked New Democrat Randall Garrison.

Former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner took all the parties to task, saying sexual harassment and misconduct is not confined to the military and that politics is rife with it as well.

"Silence gives cover to the sins of powerful men," said Rempel Garner.

"And I have heard a lot of sanctimony here today. A lot of sanctimony. Every political party who has participated in debates here today has members who have been silent and given cover for the sins of powerful men. So let's not kid ourselves about that."

She said she does not believe the prime minister's office was unaware of the full nature of the allegation against Vance.

As part of their arguments, the Liberals noted that concerns about Vance's personal conduct were raised when the former Conservative government appointed him in 2015.

The national security adviser at the time, Richard Fadden, testified before the House of Commons Canada-China committee on Wednesday, but was asked about the controversy involving in the former general.

He painted the concerns as minor when they were raised.

"I would like to point out also that appointments by the Governor in Council at that level don't involve investigation into individuals' private lives, because at the time we had no indication that there was a problem with Gen. Vance's life except in one instance where I did a bit of an inquiry into what was happening with a lady who subsequently became his wife when he was stationed at NATO headquarters in Naples, not NATO but Naples," said Fadden.

"That was the extent of the involvement."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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