OTTAWA — Canada’s former top civil servant has suggested more might have been done in 2018 to investigate an allegation of sexual misconduct involving Gen. Jonathan Vance, but that officials at the time were focused on a number of other problems facing the military.
Testifying to the House of Commons defence committee Tuesday, former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick said attempts to look into the allegation reached an “impasse” after the military ombudsman refused to provide information about the complaint.
“Our judgment in mid-March was that we had reached an impasse,” Wernick said. “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.”
Yet the former clerk also acknowledged that the government was distracted by other events within the military in March 2018. This included significant turnover at the top of the Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP charges against vice-admiral Mark Norman.
“I do concede that it dropped off the radar in the spring of 2018,” Wernick said. “And it didn't have a sense of urgency at the time. There were other issues going on in the senior ranks of the military that did.”
Wernick’s testimony offered the clearest picture yet of the hours and days after then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne flagged the allegation against Vance to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on March 1, 2018.
It also followed Sajjan’s former chief of staff, Zita Astravas, becoming the third senior Liberal aide in three weeks to avoid a House of Commons order that she testify before a parliamentary committee. Sajjan appeared instead on her behalf.
The defence minister confirmed Astravas was the one who contacted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s senior adviser at the time, Elder Marques, after Walbourne raised the allegation with him.
While the nature of the allegation raised by Walbourne has not been publicly confirmed, Global News has reported that it involved an email Vance allegedly sent to a much more junior military member in 2012, before he became chief of the defence staff in 2015.
Vance has declined to respond to The Canadian Press’s requests for comment, but Global has reported that he denies any wrongdoing.
Wernick, who retired in 2019, said it was Marques who told him about the allegation, which was promptly left with the non-partisan public servants in the Privy Council Office to deal with.
Yet Walbourne refused to provide any information to the bureaucrat heading the investigation, Wernick said.
Walbourne has maintained that he did not have permission from the complainant to speak to anyone other than Sajjan, and that the minister forwarded the allegation to the Privy Council Office without his permission.
“The impasse was created in good faith by Mr. Walbourne’s unwillingness to share any information with us,” Wernick said. “Mr. Walbourne was acting in good faith, the minister was acting in good faith and we were acting in good faith. But it created an impasse.”
Wernick said that he didn’t see any other way forward at the time. Yet he also acknowledged on more than one occasion Tuesday, without going into specifics, that other options might have been available to the government and officials if they hadn’t been otherwise distracted.
“We had other preoccupations about the senior ranks of the military at the time,” he said. “And I concede in hindsight that they probably caused us to lose focus on the issue around sexual misconduct.”
The former clerk went on to say that collectively the system failed and let down the complainant and other members of the military.
“I would like to apologize to them if my decisions or decisions not to do something prolonged this,” he said.
“But on the on the other side of the ledger. If the committee wants to argue that suspending or firing general Vance in the summer of 2018 would have made everything right, I don’t think Canadians would believe that either.”
Sajjan has defended his decision to refer the allegation to the PCO, saying that was the appropriate organization for launching an independent investigation. But some experts have said he could have launched an inquiry or referred the matter to military police.
The Liberal government has also come under fire from opposition parties for approving a pay increase for Vance in 2019 despite the allegation against the military’s top commander, who served as defence chief from July 2015 to January 2021.
Wernick indicated the raise was largely a retroactive cost-of-living increase for the more than 1,100 cabinet-approved positions across government. But he also indicated some performance pay was approved despite an “open bracket” around the unresolved allegation.
During his own testimony ahead of Wernick, Sajjan sidestepped questions about his assessment of Vance’s performance in 2018 as Conservative MPs grilled him over that pay increase the following year.
“Obviously, for privacy reasons, I cannot get into the details of that conversation,” Sajjan said during his appearance on behalf of Astravas.
Wernick said the two did not discuss conduct issues when it came to Vance, but instead focused on turnover at the military’s senior ranks and whether the defence chief had a chance of becoming NATO’s top commander.
The former clerk also said he had no knowledge in 2018 that Vance had been previously investigated by military police for his conduct while posted in Italy before becoming defence chief. Military police did not lay any charges.
Members of the committee had been expecting Astravas, who is now Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s chief of staff, after a majority of members of Parliament approved a Conservative-sponsored motion last month ordering her to testify.
But with the Liberal government having said it will not let non-elected ministerial staff appear before committees, Astravas was nowhere to be seen when the panel convened. Members instead agreed to three hours of testimony from Sajjan on her behalf.
Sajjan walked back earlier testimony that Trudeau himself knew about an allegation involving Vance, after the prime minister said last week that he did not know about any allegation against the former defence chief until a Global News report in February.
“I meant the Prime Minister’s Office,” Sajjan said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press