Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a virtual speaker during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a virtual speaker during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Opposition MPs press for PM’s chief of staff to testify on military sexual misconduct

OTTAWA — Lawmakers from all three main opposition parties are pressing for the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, to testify before the House of Commons defence committee.

Committee members kicked off a hearing Friday by debating a motion that calls on Telford to appear before the panel of MPs to clarify what she knew about allegations of sexual misconduct against then-defence chief general Jonathan Vance.

“We need to find out if Katie Telford briefed the prime minister,” said Conservative MP James Bezan, who put forward the motion.

Questions have emerged about what Telford and the Prime Minister’s Office knew of the situation after recent statements a former Trudeau aide made to the committee, which is looking into sexual misconduct in the military.

Elder Marques testified last week that Telford contacted him in early March 2018 to speak with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s chief of staff after then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne raised a complaint against Vance with the defence minister.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended Telford and his office by saying that while it knew there was a complaint against the now-retired general, his office didn’t know the nature of it or that it was a “Me Too” complaint.

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison questioned that position.

“The evidence we have heard in committee seems to point very clearly to the fact that if they did not know, they should have known,” he said Friday.

“This is not dragging out the hearings. This is getting a final witness who the prime minister himself has said has the answer to the question that we need to answer in order to restore trust.”

Marques had told the committee that he believes he was informed the issue was one of “personal misconduct,” and that while he presumed “it could have been of a sexual nature,” he did not think he was told that specifically.

Liberal MP Yvan Baker pushed back, accusing the previous Conservative government of shirking its duty when former prime minister Stephen Harper appointed Vance as top commander in July 2015 while he was under investigation by military police.

“Just days after the former government appointed him, the investigation was suddenly dropped,” Baker said, citing a recent Global News report.

“This raises substantial questions as to who was behind the pressure, if the Conservative government pushed the investigation to be ended on the very day Vance was appointed and if the investigation was done appropriately.”

Earlier Friday, Trudeau said an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual misconduct is an attempt to correct what he deems a “failure of the entire system.”

The Liberal government announced Thursday it is tapping former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to examine sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian Armed Forces and provide recommendations on an external reporting system for victims.

The defence minister announced Arbour’s appointment nearly three months after the government and Armed Forces were rocked by allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the military’s very top commanders.

Opposition leaders said Thursday the government largely failed to act on a 2015 report by former justice Marie Deschamps that also called for an independent reporting process and a reformed military culture, and that action rather than another review is what’s needed.

Trudeau acknowledged on Friday that measures brought in by the Liberal government have been “inadequate” and that survivors continue to lack proper support.

He said that is why Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, one of the military’s highest-ranking female officers, has been tapped to lead a new internal organization that will oversee professional conduct and culture and follow up on any allegations before the Arbour report comes out next year.

Global News first reported allegations against Vance in February. He has not responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but Global has reported he denies any wrongdoing. Vance had stepped down as defence chief in January and retired from the military in April.

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