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Vance sexual misconduct allegations fell off Privy Council's radar, ex-clerk Michael Wernick says

Former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick testified that his office dropped the ball when it came to looking into sexual misconduct allegations against then chief of defence staff Gen. Jon Vance.
Former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick testified that his office dropped the ball when it came to looking into sexual misconduct allegations against then chief of defence staff Gen. Jon Vance.

The former clerk of the Privy Council Office admitted his office dropped the ball on following up on serious misconduct allegations made against Canada’s top soldier.

There were multiple issues going on when Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne warned Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in March 2018 about the allegations made against Gen. Jon Vance, Michael Wernick testified before the Commons defence committee Tuesday.

Those included the RCMP charge laid against Vice Adm. Mark Norman for allegedly leaking information about shipbuilding, concerns about how U.S. President Donald Trump was affecting defence issues, attempts to purchase new fighter jets, and significant turnover and upheaval in the senior military leadership.

“We did not close the file,” Wernick said of the Vance allegations. “I do concede it dropped off the radar in 2018. I did lose sight of the conduct issue.”

Sajjan’s critics say the minister did the minimum in addressing the Vance allegations. Instead of ordering an investigation or a review, Sajjan passed along information to the Privy Council Office, the main bureaucratic organization that supports cabinet and the prime minister. But PCO says the information forwarded in 2018 wasn’t enough to take any action.


Wernick also testified he had no knowledge of previous misconduct allegations made in 2015 against Vance. The Commons defence committee has heard that the previous Conservative government was warned about allegations about Vance, but was assured by the Canadian Forces, top bureaucrats and the general himself that there was no need for concern. At the time, the Privy Council Office was also involved in looking into those allegations.

The Commons defence committee is holding hearings into the issue of sexual misconduct by top military leaders. Chief of the Defence Staff Adm. Art McDonald voluntary stepped down Feb. 24 from that job after being put under military police investigation. The admiral had only been in the job since Jan. 14. McDonald has declined to comment.

Vance is also under military police investigation. The same military police force that exonerated him in 2015 is conducting the latest investigation. Vance has said he did nothing wrong.

The Canadian Forces has faced previous sex scandals in 1998 and 2014. But the military leadership successfully fought against attempts to impose independent oversight on the military justice and police system, which critics say punishes the victims and protects sexual predators.

Opposition MPs tried repeatedly during the Tuesday hearing to link Sajjan to the lack of government action on sexual misconduct allegations against Vance. Sajjan, however, repeated previous statements that when allegations were made they were sent to appropriate authorities to be investigated.

Sajjan also claimed he never refused to sit down with Walbourne, even though documents show all his meetings with the watchdog were cancelled after concerns were raised about Vance in 2018.

The committee had previously heard that in March 2018, Walbourne had brought Sajjan details about allegations of sexual misconduct but the minister refused to accept the evidence. That information involved the allegation that Vance made a sexual suggestion to a young female officer in 2012.

Walbourne testified that he found himself totally cut off after he informed Sajjan about the allegations.

However, Sajjan claimed otherwise. “I did not refuse to meet with the ombudsman,” Sajjan told the committee.

But Walbourne’s calendar showed that in the aftermath of the March 2018 discussion about the Vance allegations, Sajjan cancelled all seven previously scheduled meetings with the ombudsman.

In addition, defence sources have told this newspaper that Sajjan’s staff asked the minister to reconsider his refusal to meet with Walbourne but to no avail.

Sajjan also told the committee that he was not friends with the general, although the committee has heard otherwise.

In December 2019, Sajjan said that “Canada has been very fortunate to have somebody like Gen. Vance in this role at a very important time.

“I’m very happy with the service that Gen. Vance has given,” the defence minister added.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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