Trudeau's chief of staff knew of allegation against Vance, ex-PMO adviser suggests

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OTTAWA — A former senior adviser to the prime minister gave testimony before a House of Commons committee Friday suggesting Justin Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford knew about a misconduct allegation against Canada's then-top military commander three years ago.

Elder Marques, who worked in the Prime Minister's Office, says Telford or her assistant contacted him on March 1 or March 2, 2018, to ask him to speak with the defence minister's top staffer "on an issue related to the CDS," referring to chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance.

"I think very quickly everyone had the same information, which was very limited, and we quickly moved to asking the Privy Council to now take carriage of that matter and do what it could with that information to have an investigation ultimately take place," Marques told a defence committee hearing Friday.

The testimony appears to contradict the sequence of events laid out by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan earlier this month and raises new questions about what Trudeau knew about the allegations before a Global News report came out in February.

Trudeau and his office initially said they only learned about the allegations from the Global News story, but the prime minister confirmed in the House on March 10 that his office had been aware of concerns raised by military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, who sat down with Sajjan about the topic on March 1, 2018.

But Trudeau has denied personally knowing about the allegations until the news broke on Feb. 2.

"As we have stated, after the defence ombudsman received a complaint, the minister directed him to independent officials who could investigate. Additionally, as the Privy Council Office has confirmed and stated at committee, they never received further information, so were unable to move forward with an investigation," Trudeau spokesman Alex Wellstead said in an email Friday.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan derided Trudeau's assertion that he was in the dark on the details until this year, calling that narrative a "cover-up" and accusing the Liberals of "misleading Canadians."

"Justin Trudeau's claim that he was not aware of allegations of sexual misconduct by General Vance is clearly false. It is outrageous to believe that everyone around Justin Trudeau was aware of these allegations but the prime minister didn't know," Bezan said in a statement.

Sajjan told the defence committee on April 6 that his then-chief of staff Zita Astravas communicated first with the Privy Council Office and then with Marques in the Prime Minister's Office. But Marques said Telford, his former boss, asked him to contact Astravas, and only after that did he inform then-Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick.

Wernick gave no hint during testimony earlier this month that Telford or other staffers in Trudeau's office knew about allegation.

"The only person I know who would have been aware would be Elder. I don't know who he would have spoken to in PMO at the time, but I think effectively both Minister Sajjan and PMO had given carriage of the file to us at PCO," he told the committee on April 6.

Sajjan told the committee on March 12 that drawing an elected official into a probe would be "wrong and dangerous, politicizing any investigation that threatens a just outcome for those who come forward."

Several senior civil servants and now a high-up former political adviser have testified to their knowledge of a misconduct allegation against Vance.

Marques said he departed the PMO in December 2019 and left government last year.

Allegations of misconduct against senior officers have rocked the Canadian Armed Forces in recent months, prompting a renewed examination of military culture and the degree of independence in investigatory processes as military police probe the complaints.

Earlier on Friday, Trudeau said the culture of tolerance for sexual harassment and "unacceptable actions" in the military needs to end.

He also reiterated that Sajjan properly handled the allegations against Vance, but that better support systems must be established for whistleblowers and survivors.

The prime minister also said testimony from Maj. Kellie Brennan on Thursday was "extraordinarily moving" and commended the woman at the heart of sexual misconduct allegations against Vance for her "strength and commitment" to spurring change.

Brennan had told a House of Commons committee that the now-retired chief of defence staff fathered two children with her but has taken no responsibility for them during a relationship that allegedly began in 2001 and continued after Vance accepted the top job in 2015.

She also told MPs that Vance instructed her to lie about their relationship and threatened consequences if she didn't.

Vance, who stepped down in January, has not responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but Global News has reported that he denies any wrongdoing and says the relationship with Brennan did not continue when she was under his command.

Vance is also being investigated for allegedly sending a lewd email to a junior officer before becoming defence chief.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press