Committee hearings into military sexual misconduct cut short by Liberal government

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A House of Commons investigation into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces is being cut short before it can get to the bottom of serious allegations against top military officers.

The move to wrap up the defence committee probe by Friday shuts down efforts to hear from top Liberal staffers on what they might have told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about sexual misconduct allegations against Gen. Jon Vance, the former chief of the defence staff. The motion, put forward by a Liberal MP on Monday, passed with support from Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois on the committee.

The NDP and Conservatives voted against the motion, warning that many questions are still unresolved.

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said no one has taken responsibility for the situation that saw Vance continue to serve despite allegations of sexual misconduct. “Until we get to the bottom of who knew what when, we have not concluded this study,” he said.

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“The testimony is quite crucial to finding out what the prime minister was told,” he added of the need to hear from Liberal staffers.

The committee started looking into sexual misconduct after serious allegations were made against top military leaders. Chief of the Defence Staff Adm. Art McDonald voluntary stepped aside Feb. 24 from that job after being put under military police investigation. The admiral had only been in the job since Jan. 14. McDonald has declined to comment.

Former defence chief Vance is also under military police investigation over allegations of sexual misconduct. He has said he did nothing wrong.

The committee heard that in March 2018, Canadian Forces Ombudsman Gary Walbourne had brought Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan details about allegations of sexual misconduct involving Vance. Sajjan declined to accept the evidence. The Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office were also informed there were allegations.

In addition, the committee heard testimony that the previous government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper also examined allegations against Vance. Harper meet personally with the general in 2015 and received assurances from senior defence officials and bureaucrats that the allegations were unfounded. Vance is now under investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, the same police organization that had cleared the general in 2015.

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Critics have pointed out that the testimony emerging from the committee is undercutting Trudeau’s claims that he heads a “feminist” government. Though they were privately aware of the sexual misconduct allegations, both Trudeau and Sajjan continued to publicly commend Vance.

Trudeau had praised Vance for his military service, pointing out the general served with distinction as the longest-serving chief of the defence staff. In December 2019, Sajjan said that “Canada has been very fortunate to have somebody like Gen. Vance in this role at a very important time. “I’m very happy with the service that Gen. Vance has given,” the defence minister added.

Conservative MP Leona Alleslev, a former Canadian Forces member, pointed out the committee has not gotten to the bottom of why Vance was allowed to continue to serve even after Sajjan was informed about the allegations. “We still have no accountability from the minister or anyone else that it was in fact their responsibility to ensure a chief of defence staff or anyone else was allowed to continue with unresolved allegations,” she said.

But It’s Just 700, a group of survivors of Canadian military sexual trauma, has warned that the committee was becoming a means for political parties to score points against each other.

Christine Wood, the group’s chief of strategic engagement, said the focus instead should be changing the system to prevent sexual misconduct and providing support to victims. She believes this time around the government is serious and changes will be made. “I’m optimistic,” Wood added. “There is a lot of talk happening now that hasn’t happened in a long time. I think there is enough public pressure and awareness that there will be change.”

The Canadian Forces has faced previous sex scandals in 1998 and 2014. But the military leadership successfully fought against attempts to impose independent oversight on the military justice and police system which critics say punishes the victims and protects sexual predators.

The defence committee will now present a report with recommendations about what to do about the sexual misconduct crisis in the military. That will be tabled in the Commons on June 10.

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