Defence committee summons former military watchdog in Vance investigation

·4 min read
Then-Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa on March 4, 2020.
Then-Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa on March 4, 2020.

(Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The House of Commons defence committee agreed Monday to summon Canada's former military ombudsman to further its investigation into what the Liberal government did and didn't know about allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the country's former chief of the defence staff before they became public.

The committee took the unusual step after former ombudsman Gary Walbourne declined an earlier, friendlier and less formal invitation to testify on the advice of his lawyer.

The motion to issue the summons was introduced by the opposition Conservatives, who maintain the former watchdog's evidence is vital to their work of probing allegations against Gen. Jonathan Vance.

"We do need to hear from him," said Conservative defence critic James Bezan. "There are a number of questions surrounding what he knows."

Bezan said the committee needs to hear from Walbourne to "get to the bottom" of reports that Walbourne warned Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about possible inappropriate conduct by Gen. Vance at a private meeting between the two on March 1, 2018.

Appearing before the committee last week, Sajjan would not reveal what transpired in that meeting — citing the cloak of confidentiality that is wrapped around all communication with the ombudsman.

Bezan accused Sajjan of obfuscation.

Former Canadian military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
Former Canadian military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.

NDP defence critic Randal Garrison went further and said the committee has to call Walbourne because of the minister's non-answers.

"It is necessary for us to take this step," Garrison said. "This could have been precluded by the minister being more forthcoming."

He suggested Sajjan might want to write to the committee to amend his testimony.

"No one was asking him to talk about the specific allegations, but we are asking if he had knowledge of allegations," said Garrison.

Following a Global News report almost three weeks ago that alleged Vance had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, the military's National Investigation Service began an investigation into whether the former top military commander had violated the Code of Service Discipline and whether any laws were broken.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan listen to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on March 30, 2020.
Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan listen to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on March 30, 2020.

In his testimony, Sajjan repeatedly deflected the committee's questions by citing the need to protect the integrity of the investigation and to be fair to witnesses who have spoken to military police.

But the woman at the centre of the allegations, Maj. Kellie Brennan, spoke at length in an interview on Sunday with Global News — shedding important light on allegations of a long-standing affair with Vance, her interaction with military police and a new bombshell claim that the former defence chief wanted her to lie to investigators.

Brennan needed permission from her superiors before doing the interview - something the minister's office should have known about ahead of time.

'A spectre of concern'

CBC News reported on Feb. 4, 2021 that Walbourne had a falling-out with Sajjan after raising concerns about the allegations of inappropriate conduct by Vance — a disagreement that ultimately led to his resignation as ombudsman.

At the time, a senior government source acknowledged that "a spectre of concern related to the former chief of the defence staff" was raised at the March 2018 meeting, but the minister insisted the issue be directed to the "proper authorities" for investigation — which includes the Privy Council Office (PCO), which oversees appointments such as the chief of the defence staff.

At the time, PCO, which supports the prime minister's office, said that when it came to the informal allegations nearly three years ago, "no information was provided to PCO which would have enabled further action to have been taken."

Sajjan could have ordered a probe, says expert

The defence committee heard Monday from retired colonel and military law expert Michel Drapeau, who said Sajjan had the option under the National Defence Act to call a board of inquiry or appoint a military judge to investigate allegations or even concerns about the chief of the defence staff.

Drapeau said that might have helped to further any investigation PCO might have been prepared to undertake.

Multiple sources have told CBC News the Privy Council review of the concerns about Vance was hamstrung by Walbourne's refusal to hand over documentation and the name of a complainant who approached his office.

Drapeau said the independence of the ombudsman's office and the privacy it grants to complainants made cooperation with the PCO out of the question.

The committee also heard today from retired Supreme Court justice Marie Dechamps, whose groundbreaking 2014 investigation prompted the military's crackdown on sexual misconduct.

She told MPs that Operation Honour — the formal campaign to rid the Armed Forces of harassment and assault — is still worth pursuing despite the credibility hit it has taken because of the allegations against Vance.

Deschamps said that, if anything, the scandal has reinforced her belief that there should be an independent body outside of the military to handle reports of sexual misconduct.

"When I read that Maj. Brennan didn't know where to turn to, I find that unbelievable," Deschamps said, adding separately that it has been six years since her report and recommendations were released.