Politics

Public service had 'no path' to investigate misconduct claim against Vance, says former top bureaucrat

The country’s former top civil servant told MPs today there was “no path forward” to launch a full investigation into an allegation of inappropriate conduct by Gen. Jonathan Vance when the matter was first raised three years ago.

'Our judgment in mid-March [2018] was that we had reached an impasse.' - Michael Wernick

Former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick told MPs today his office had 'reached an impasse' over an allegation of sexual misconduct against Gen. Jonathan Vance in 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The country's former top civil servant told MPs today there was "no path forward" to launch a full investigation into an allegation of inappropriate conduct by Gen. Jonathan Vance when the matter was first raised three years ago.

Testifying before a parliamentary committee today, retired clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick defended the way the informal allegation against the then-chief of the defence staff — raised by former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne — was handled by his office.

He said an allegation of "sexual harassment" made against Vance was brought to his attention on March 2, 2018, the day after it was put before Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

WATCH: Michael Wernick discusses how the allegation against Vance was handled

Former Clerk of the Privy Council discusses how the allegation against Gen. Vance was handled

13 days ago
3:31
Michael Wernick, the former top federal civil servant, spoke with Ontario Conservative MP Leona Alleslev on the Commons defence committee on Tuesday. 3:31

Wernick said Elder Marques, a former top adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, told him about it and he subsequently ordered a senior Privy Council official to look into it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insisted he was not aware of specific allegations against Vance until they appeared in the media last winter. Today, Wernick backed the prime minister up.

"I have no reason to think that the prime minister was aware of any of this at the time," the former clerk testified.

"The only person I know who would have been aware would be Elder. I don't know who he would have spoken to in PMO at the time, but I think effectively both Minister Sajjan and PMO had given carriage of the file to us at PCO."

Wernick also said he wasn't made aware of the specifics of the allegation.

I say enough. Enough of the self-protectionism and deflecting. Enough political foot-dragging.- Armed Forces ombudsman Gregory Lick

The PCO review of the allegation against Vance stalled less than two weeks later when Walbourne refused to provide details or to the name of the alleged victim, Wernick said.

"He took the stand that it was none of PCO's business," he said.

"Our judgment in mid-March [2018] was that we had reached an impasse. There was no complainant to interview, no witnesses to interview and it would have been inappropriate to confront Gen. Vance. There was no path forward."

Wernick also defended the fact that his office did not notify the country's national security adviser about the allegation against Vance.

At the time, Wernick said, the government "had other preoccupations about the senior ranks of the military and I concede in hindsight they probably caused us to lose focus around the issue of sexual misconduct."

Wernick was referring to the criminal case that was launched around the same time against former vice-admiral Mark Norman, who was charged by the RCMP on March 8, 2018 with a single count of breach trust — a case that eventually would be dropped.

The House of Commons defence committee is looking to learn who in the Liberal government knew of the allegation against Vance and when, and what they did about it.

WATCH: Military ombudsman calls out "political and institutional posturing" over misconduct complaints

Military ombudsman calls out "political and institutional posturing" over misconduct complaints

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Gregory Lick spoke with MPs on the Commons defence committee Tuesday. 1:16

The current military ombudsman, Gregory Lick, also testified on Monday. He delivered an impassioned plea to MPs for them to remember the plight of victims of sexual misconduct.

"I will make the observation that we are watching the issue of sexual misconduct in the military unfold in the media and in committee testimony with more concern over political and institutional posturing than with fixing the problem," he said.

"And yet, the issue continues to play out in the real lives of survivors and witnesses who find themselves falling between the cracks of a broken system and fearful of coming forward because of possible reprisal or career-ending moves.

"This issue has played out so far with conflicting and sometimes incorrect information. Testimony has changed about who knew what when, who had authority to act, what should have been done and who is accountable.

"I say enough. Enough of the self-protectionism and deflecting. Enough political foot-dragging."

The country's acting chief of the defence staff, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, also testified earlier that measures to address the misconduct crisis will have to come "from a victim's perspective."

One major change being planned by the military involves one of the most controversial aspects of Operation Honour, the now-discontinued campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct.

Under existing rules, any member of the military who witnesses or hears of an act of sexual misconduct is required to report it. Bystanders in the military who do not take action when witnessing an act of sexual misconduct can face discipline.

WATCH: Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre and the 'duty to respond'

Military's acting chief says members should uphold a 'duty to respond' to wrongdoing

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Lt.-Gen Wayne Eyre spoke to the Commons defence committee on Tuesday. 1:37

"You talked about the duty to report. The more I hear, the more I am convinced that we need to change the duty to report to a duty to respond," Eyre told the committee.

"It is important that we expect our military members to report wrongdoing when they see it, but we also have to give the victims agency. We have to give the victims a say in how their case is followed through. And changing duty to report to duty to respond is going to be a very key aspect of that."

Eyre said confidence in the senior military leadership has been badly shaken. He said the problem may be addressed only through the establishment of an independent inspector general office, as some experts have proposed.

"The overarching effect we need here is trust and confidence from the perspective of the victims in the system," said Eyre.

"You'll note a quarter of a century ago, in the Somalia report, an independent inspector general was one of the recommendations and we pushed back against that. Well, I think the time for pushing back is over. And the imperative of re-establishing that trust and confidence has got to take primacy here."

Military police are conducting separate investigations into allegations of inappropriate behaviour involving Vance and his successor, Admiral Art McDonald.

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