Former military ombudsman says he brought Vance allegations to Sajjan in 2018

Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne says he tried to address allegations of sexual misconduct against former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in 2018 with the minister of defence but was dismissed abruptly.

Walbourne told the House of Commons national defence committee Wednesday that on March 1 that year, he met with Minister Harjit Sajjan privately to discuss the matter and when he attempted to present evidence, Sajjan refused to look at it.

“The meeting kind of abruptly ended around that point in time. I did tell the minister what the allegation was, I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding and he pushed back from the table, and said ‘no’ and I don’t think we exchanged another word,” Walbourne said.

“I did offer to shake his hand at the end of the meeting and he said ‘please do get back to me with some advice to tell me what I should do.’”

In early February, following Vance’s retirement, military police launched an investigation into his alleged inappropriate conduct while in uniform that CTV News has not independently verified. Vance has denied wrongdoing.

In a written statement, Sajjan said he disagrees with some of the testimony from Wednesday’s meeting.

“As I have stated, I was as shocked as everyone else at the allegations that were made public last month. I can assure the committee, and all Canadians, that any allegations that were brought forward were very quickly put forward to the proper authorities, while respecting the need to protect the privacy of any individuals involved,” Sajjan said in the statement. “Any suggestion that I have done otherwise is wrong.”

Sajjan told CTV’s Question Period with Evan Solomon last Sunday that he was “surprised” to hear the news of the allegations. When Conservative defence critic James Bezan asked Sajjan at the national defence committee on Feb. 19 whether he had met Walbourne on March 1, 2018, Sajjan dodged the question.

“Madam Chair, I have had many meetings with the former ombudsman to discuss important issues,” Sajjan replied. When asked then if he was denying the meeting, Sajjan said, “Madam Chair, as I stated, I have met with the ombudsman on many occasions. Obviously, our conversations are confidential.”

He later repeated that all allegations brought forward are taken to the “appropriate authorities” for action.

Walbourne testified on Wednesday that he was “completely floored” when approached by the Privy Council Office following his March 2018 meeting with Sajjan, asking for details about the allegations he demanded be kept private.

“I had specifically told the minister that I did not have the complainant’s permission to investigate and it was to be held in confidence.”

Liberal MPs around the committee table made the argument that bringing the allegations forward to Sajjan first, before alerting military police, was the wrong approach.

Walbourne refuted this, saying that avenue would have been suited for allegations of sexual assault, not misconduct, and that the minister of defence has “many powers” he could have exercised in this specific case.

“The minister has levers he can pull far, far above my pay grade. I went to the minister as his direct report, looking for advice and guidance on what to do next. I felt that this was a very major, major issue when we’re talking about the chief of the defence staff. Who else should I speak to other than the minister? He has the power under the National Defence Act to take many actions,” said Walbourne.

“I wanted to go back to this complainant and say ‘you have been heard.’”

He added that the steps being taken to address allegations against Admiral Art McDonald, who Sajjan announced last Wednesday was “voluntarily” stepping aside as Canada’s chief of defence staff while a military police investigation against him is ongoing, could have been applied three years ago with Vance.

“If this is what we’ve done for the current situation, I don’t see much difference.”

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is currently leading both investigations – a process Sajjan has repeated is fiercely “independent” because while the military police does report to the vice chief of the defence staff, the CFNIS does not.

"They’re actually independent of the chain of command when it comes to investigations. Having said this, I will be reviewing all the independence of things to see what the process is," he said on CTV’s Question Period in last Sunday’s episode.

As for the pathway of reporting misconduct, Wabourne says it’s flawed.

“There is no construct, which allows for independence, where both financial and staffing delegations are controlled by the very entity you are reporting. I liken it to sending young adults off to university, they live independently, while their parents pay their rent,” he told the committee.