Senior bureaucrat avoids naming names in PMO over Vance allegations

·3 min read

OTTAWA — A senior civil servant wouldn't disclose to a parliamentary committee Friday whom she communicated with in the Prime Minister's Office about a sexual-misconduct allegation against Canada's top military commander.

Janine Sherman, a deputy secretary to the cabinet in the Privy Council Office, said she exchanged emails with "people in the Prime Minister's Office" in March 2018 about an accusation against then-defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance, but opted not to name them, citing non-disclosure rules around staff who are not public servants.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his office knew concerns about Vance had been raised, but that he only became aware of the specifics through recent reporting by Global News.

The emails related in part to Sherman's sit-down with former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne about the allegation. Sherman said the case contained too little information to act on, as Walbourne sought to protect the confidentiality of the complainant.

"There was no information provided that would have enabled us to take further action," Sherman told MPs in committee, reiterating her testimony from last month.

"He would not proceed with any actions unless he had written consent from the complainant."

Walbourne maintains his only option was to bring the allegation to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan but the minister, concerned about political interference, referred the matter to the Privy Council Office, the department that supports the prime minister and cabinet.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service is now 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 continuing after he was named to the top post 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.

Military investigators are also probing 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.

Sherman, asked Friday by Conservative defence critic James Bezan whom she spoke with at the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office aside from Michael Wernick — the top public servant at the time — said the information was "personal."

"I am not able to comment on who those people are. I worked with the clerk — my boss — in terms of our next steps that we would take," she said.

Bezan took issue with idea that discussions around Vance and Walbourne are "personal" and can thus remain off-limits.

"Those discussions should be made available for public record, and that’s why we asked for the production of public records, so we can get to the bottom of who knew what," Bezan said.

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison accused Sherman of justifying the lack of investigative action on the grounds of a dearth of information.

“You’re doing the same thing that the minister did. You had evidence that there was a well-founded complaint of sexual misconduct against the chief of defence staff," he said.

Sherman countered that she "did not have information of a well-founded, investigated complaint," but qualified that does not imply any disrespect for the ombudsman's office.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press