Ombudsman rebuts Sajjan's assertions on predecessor's handling of Vance allegation

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Military ombudsman Greg Lick issued a strong rebuke of Canada’s defence minister on Thursday, after Harjit Sajjan suggested Lick’s predecessor could have done more with an allegation of sexual misconduct against Gen. Jonathan Vance.

Testifying before the House of Commons committee on the status of women, Lick said former ombudsman Gary Walbourne had no other avenue but to bring the allegation directly to Sajjan in March 2018 — and that he would have followed the exact same steps.

That includes refusing to speak to senior officials in the Privy Council Office after Sajjan referred the allegation to them, which Walbourne has previously said was against his wishes and those of the complainant.

“The current reporting structure of the ombudsman is directly to the minister of national defence, not to the Privy Council Office or any other body,” Lick told committee members in his opening statement.

“Had I been faced with the same facts, I would have done exactly as my predecessor did: I would have reported the facts within my direct reporting structure. There is no other body to which the matter could have been referred.”

Sajjan suggested to the same committee earlier this week that Walbourne had numerous avenues available to him, including reporting the matter to the military’s civilian-run sexual misconduct response centre or military police.

Lick, like Walbourne, was adamant: Without the complainant’s permission, the only place to go was the minister.

“My office cannot go to any external body without the consent of the complainant,” Lick said. “That's the most important part in this whole discussion.”

Even as Lick was insisting that Walbourne could not have taken the allegation anywhere else but the minister, the commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service indicated to the committee that Sajjan himself could have referred the matter to his unit.

Lt.-Col. Eric Leblanc told committee members that anyone can ask his unit to look into an allegation, including those dealing with sexual misconduct, and that the defence minister’s doing so would not constitute interference or otherwise be inappropriate.

But Leblanc, who repeatedly defended the independence and professionalism of his officers, said only the provost marshal — the military’s top police officer — can actually order him to launch an investigation.

“Nobody outside of the provost marshal can direct me to conduct an investigation,” he said. “Folks can report an allegation to us and then we'll decide whether or not we proceed with an investigation or not.”

The CFNIS investigates criminal cases as well as serious offences under the military’s disciplinary code.

It is currently investigating Vance following a Global News report last month alleging the former chief of the defence staff had an ongoing relationship with a subordinate starting in 2001 and which continued after he was named defence chief in 2015.

He is also alleged to have sent a lewd email to a much more junior service member in 2012.

The allegations against Vance have not been independently verified and he has declined repeated requests from The Canadian Press for comment. However, Global has reported that he denies any wrongdoing.

The CFNIS is also investigating Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, who temporarily stepped aside last month after only a few weeks as commander of the Canadian Armed Forces following an unspecified allegation of misconduct. McDonald has not commented on the allegation.

Leblanc would not comment on any specific investigations, though he did confirm that his unit was not asked to investigate what a former member of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government described as a “rumour” about Vance before he was named defence chief in 2015.

Ray Novak, who served as Harper’s chief of staff at that time, said the rumour related to a relationship that Vance was alleged to have had with a subordinate in CFB Gagetown starting in 2001. He said the matter was investigated by the Privy Council Office.

The Conservatives have in opposition been attacking Sajjan for referring the allegation flagged by Walbourne to the PCO, the department that supports the Prime Minister’s Office.

Leblanc also acknowledged having heard Sajjan’s order that the military revisit a Navy-led investigation into an alleged incident involving a comment that was made about a female naval officer’s “red room” during a group video call that some interpreted as a sexual reference.

However, he added, “nothing has been referred to my unit for investigation at this time.”

Lick used his appearance before the committee to again bang the drum on the need for real independent oversight over the military, echoing statements made to The Canadian Press last month about how his office does not fit that bill.

“We have been making the argument for full independence since our creation, but there has been no political will to act,” he said.

“The issue of sexual misconduct is an unfortunate illustration of how constituents fall between the cracks of a closed system with no fully independent recourse mechanisms.”

The committee also heard from retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, whose explosive report on sexual misconduct in the ranks in 2015 launched the military’s current efforts to address the problem.

Underscoring the importance of strong leadership in eliminating sexual misconduct, Deschamps said: “The years that passed only made it more difficult to restore the trust in the leadership. I can only hope the new leaders will have understood the situation and will rise to the challenge.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press