Committee on military sexual misconduct hits a wall as MPs clash over questioning PM's adviser

·3 min read
Right: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Left: Trudeau's Chief of Staff Katie Telford. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Right: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Left: Trudeau's Chief of Staff Katie Telford. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

For the second time in as many weeks, the House of Commons defence committee descended into chaos and confusion today as Liberal government members tried to avoid an opposition demand to call a senior member of the prime minister's staff to testify on sexual misconduct in the military.

The Conservatives put forward a motion calling on Katie Telford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, to appear before them to answer questions about how an informal allegation of misconduct against retired general Jonathan Vance was dealt with after it surfaced in the spring of 2018.

The committee was suspended late Friday without voting on the proposition.

Two weeks ago, Liberal members of the committee staged a multi-day filibuster to prevent another former prime ministerial adviser, Elder Marques, from testifying.

The defence committee is looking into who knew what and when about an informal claim of misconduct against Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, which was brought to the attention of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan by the former military ombudsman.

When he eventually testified, Marques said he was brought into the loop by Telford and was told the claim was related to a possible claim of "personal misconduct" against Vance, which he assumed was sexual in nature.

Prime Minister Trudeau went further in defending Telford this week, saying his staff did not know it was a "#MeToo" complaint.

The opposition parties say they aren't buying that claim and have demanded to hear from the chief of staff herself. The Liberals on the defence committee argued today that survivors of sexual misconduct want MPs to get on with making recommendations to stem the tide of abuse.

"Let's prioritize the work and get on with making the changes that are so urgently needed," said Liberal MP Sven Spengemann.

Another parliamentary body — the Status of Women committee — is studying the sexual misconduct crisis in the military, focusing on its effect on women. It also will be issuing recommendations.

The Conservatives said the defence committee's aim is accountability for what has already transpired.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan.(Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It is very much germane to our study to find out what Katie Telford was told, how much did she direct this investigation and ultimately a coverup, because we know an investigation never took place," said James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic.

The allegation of misconduct raised by the former military ombudsman went nowhere because a Privy Council Office official tasked with reviewing the claim could not get access to the complainant, who wished to remain anonymous.

Plenty of blame to go around: NDP critic

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison, meanwhile, said he was getting tired of the sniping between Liberals and Conservatives over "who failed survivors first, or who failed survivors more."

It doesn't serve the interest of victims, he said, and there's an "equal" amount of blame to go around.

"We have failed the survivors of sexual assault in the Canadian military. All of us," Garrison said.

He said that since the committee heard earlier in its investigation from former prime minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Ray Novak, about what the previous government knew about Vance's personal life, it's only fitting for it to hear from the current prime minister's top adviser.

"If it is in fact true that the information was not correctly conveyed to the Prime Minister's Office, that this was in fact an allegation of sexual misconduct, the evidence we have heard in committee seems to point very clearly to the fact that if they did not know, they should have known," he said.