Sajjan had a duty to pursue misconduct claim against Vance, say former military members

Women who experienced sexual assault in the military say they're disappointed and dismayed by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's alleged refusal to look at evidence of possible misconduct involving the former chief of the defence staff.

'[Sajjan's] first duty was to be informed,' says military law expert

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is under fire over how he handled an allegation of sexual misconduct against Gen. Jonathan Vance. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Women who experienced sexual assault in the military say they're disappointed and dismayed by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's alleged refusal to look at evidence of possible misconduct involving the former chief of the defence staff.

Retired master corporal Stéphanie Raymond — who alleged she was raped by a superior and then drummed out of the army in 2013 for reporting it — is calling for Sajjan's resignation.

Marie-Claude Gagnon — a former naval reservist and founder of It's Just 700, the group that fronted the class action lawsuit against the federal government over sexual misconduct in the military — said Sajjan needs to provide a clear, coherent explanation for his actions.

If he can't, Gagnon said, he should resign or be fired.

In his testimony Wednesday before the House of Commons defence committee, former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne said he warned Sajjan in a March 1, 2018 meeting that he had received an informal complaint of sexual misconduct involving Gen. Jonathan Vance.

Gen. Jonathan Vance at the National War Memorial on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

He said he brought along evidence but the minister refused to look at it.

"I'm just trying to think, why would a person do that?" said Gagnon.

"You can redirect it to another authority ... I don't see why a person wouldn't look at an anonymous email. You know? If it was provided to him with no names."

No 'confidence'

The minister, she said, had a "duty to inform" himself "to ensure the safety" of others.

"So if you're made aware of something, there is a minimum that needs to be done."

Speaking to Radio-Canada on Thursday, Raymond said she has no "confidence" in Sajjan's leadership.

"The minister, basically, I think he should perhaps leave his functions," she said in French.

"He has missed too many opportunities to act. Unfortunately, he too is part of the problem [if] he continues to camouflage, or to be complicit by omission."

Raymond said she has no faith in Sajjan's ability to manage "the problem of sexual misconduct, which [has been] a scandal for several years."

Sajjan insists he did nothing wrong

The minister briefly rebutted Walbourne's testimony, saying he disagreed "with parts" of Walbourne's version of events without citing the aspects of the testimony he took issue with.

Sajjan has continued to insist that he was shocked by the allegations against Vance, which were revealed last month in a Global News story. The minister has said that he has notified the proper authorities of cases of potential misconduct and "any suggestion that I have done otherwise is wrong."

Gagnon said that such non-specific statements from the minister are simply not acceptable.

The Conservative opposition also was not reassured; late Thursday, it proposed to expand parliamentary hearings into military sexual misconduct to examine recent allegations made against Vance's successor, Admiral Art McDonald.

Admiral Art McDonald in Halifax on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

McDonald is also under investigation by the military's National Investigative Service (NIS) for possible violations of the Code of Service Discipline.

Liberal government officials, speaking on background, defended Sajjan's refusal to look at Walbourne's documents, saying "that would have meant he was part of the chain of evidence."

They also insisted that they followed up with the former ombudsman "multiple times" about the allegation against Vance raised in the private meeting three years ago.

After that meeting with Walbourne, Sajjan notified the Privy Council Office (PCO), which is responsible for governor in council appointments such as the chief of the defence staff.

Walbourne told the committee he was shocked that PCO got involved, especially since he had told the minister the woman in question had spoken to him informally, did not want to file a complaint and had asked for confidentiality.

Five days after that meeting between Sajjan and Walbourne, the former ombudsman went out on medical leave. An email, obtained by CBC News, shows the defence minister's former chief of staff had been brought into the loop.

"In your conversation with Ms. Sherman [a senior PCO official], I trust you raised the allegations relating to the (Governor-in-Council) appointment that you raised with the Minister," wrote Sajjan's former chief of staff Zita Astravas to Walbourne on March 5, 2018.

'Give me a break'

One military law expert said the minister had the authority and the tools at his disposal to look into the allegations himself. Retired colonel Michel Drapeau scoffed at the notion the minister would have inserted himself into the "chain of evidence" by looking at Walbourne's material.

"Give me a break," he said.

"It's not a criminal matter, as far as I know. It's obfuscation. He had a duty to be informed. He had a duty to take action."

Under Section 45 of the National Defence Act, the minister has the power to order a board of inquiry investigation. Separately, the Queen's Regulations and Orders, which govern military conduct, allow the minister to appoint a military judge to head an investigation.

Even if Sajjan didn't want to go that far, Drapeau said, he could have taken the anonymous complaint to Vance and taken a statement.

The top general should have been afforded an opportunity three years ago to defend himself, he added.

"[Sajjan's] first duty was to be informed so that the target of these allegations could choose to refute or remain silent or whatever," he said, adding that the minister should have tried to "clear the air so that this person can continue to serve without any slight or blight on his reputation and his capability."

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