Sajjan says nature of Vance complaint 'does not matter,' the steps taken afterward do

The federal defence minister says what was known in March 2018 about the nature of the complaint levied against former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance “does not matter.”

In an interview on CTV’s Question Period airing Sunday, Harjit Sajjan says what’s of more value is the steps that were taken after the report was brought to light by former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.

“It does not matter what the complaint actually was, a complaint was brought forward about the chief of defence staff, and at that time what we needed to do was take immediate action so that could be looked into properly, and that was done,” said Sajjan.

His comments come after a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons’ defence committee that he and chief of staff Katie Telford were aware of a complaint but didn’t have certainty it was a sexual misconduct allegation.

"The important, sensitive and unusual nature of this matter was immediately obvious to me, even in the absence of any details regarding the allegation," Elder Marques told committee members.

Trudeau reaffirmed this when he told reporters last week his team was unaware the allegation was a “Me Too complaint.”

“The minister, my office, knew there was a complaint against General Vance, nobody knew it was a Me Too complaint. We did not have information on what was the nature of that complaint, of that allegation,” he said Tuesday.

Contradicting Walbourne’s testimony, Sajjan echoed the same sentiment to Question Period host Evan Solomon, saying that the then-ombudsman didn’t reveal the substance of the report against Vance in their private meeting.

“He didn't provide any details of the complaint, as stated in my testimony. He provided me indeed the concerns, and I took that forward. What we wanted to do is make sure that the complaint, regardless of what it was, that it was going to be taken forward immediately and looked into,” he said.

In a separate interview on CTV’s Question Period, Walbourne repeated what he said he relayed to the defence minister in 2018 -- that he had “received a complaint of inappropriate sexual behavior against the chief of defence.”

“Those were my exact words.”

The Liberals are facing ongoing criticism for their handling of the allegation, but they remain adamant they took the necessary steps and redirected it to the appropriate authorities, which in this case was the Privy Council Office (PCO) given it dealt with a governor-in-council appointment.

“We have to, when someone comes forward with a complaint, give it to outside of the political realm so it can be looked at, and that's exactly what took place here, hoping that an investigation would come forward. That's what I was hoping to occur,” said Sajjan.

When Walbourne was contacted by the PCO, he said he didn’t feel comfortable providing more details as he didn’t have the consent of the victim.

Military police launched an investigation into Vance in February of this year and weeks later his successor Admiral Art McDonald also stepped aside “voluntarily” as an investigation was ongoing into unspecified allegations against him.

Last Thursday, the federal government, alongside top military officials, announced they were initiating an independent review into military misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, led by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, and launching a new internal organization to make more immediate reporting and support changes.

A similar review was conducted six years ago by another former Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, which laid out extensive recommendations to better the culture within the Forces and improve the reporting process, namely to make it external from the chain of command.

Asked why the Liberals felt it was necessary to undergo the same process as was done in 2015, Sajjan said Deschamps’ report highlighted the problems but more work needs to be done.

“We clearly have not gone far enough and the last few months have actually showed that and this is not just a review, what this is, is looking at exactly what an external process would look like that would give confidence,” he said, adding that the recommendations they have moved on “haven’t worked.”

Sajjan also noted that Arbour will have the ability to make suggestions during the review process where she sees fit, instead of waiting on an eventual report to be released at least 12 months from now.

Walbourne weighed in on the announcement, stating the government would rather “lather, rinse, repeat” than take action.

“No one has listened, no one listened to Madame Deschamps, for sure they didn't listen to me, and now we're going to go through this again… we need to fix this by changing our approach, not by shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.”