Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance sits in the front row during a news conference in Ottawa on June 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Parliamentary committee votes to investigate allegations against ex-defence chief

OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee has agreed to hold formal hearings into the Liberal government’s handling of allegations of inappropriate conduct by former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance, which are already the subject of a military police investigation.

Members of the House of Commons defence committee voted unanimously on Tuesday in favour of an investigation following a Global News report last week that Vance allegedly engaged in an ongoing relationship with a woman he significantly outranked.

The Global report also alleged the former chief of the defence staff made a sexual comment to a second, much younger, soldier in 2012, before he was appointed commander of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Vance has not responded to requests for comment by The Canadian Press and the allegations against him have not been independently verified.

Global says Vance, whose tenure as defence chief included a substantial focus on eliminating sexual misconduct from the ranks, has acknowledged that he dated the first woman nearly 20 years ago, but said the relationship had evolved over the years and was not sexual.

Global also reported that Vance said he had no recollection of making a sexual comment to the other junior member, adding if he had made the comment it would have been intended as a joke and that he was prepared to apologize.

The allegations come only weeks after Vance turned over command of the Canadian Armed Forces following five years in the top job, during which he led the military’s efforts to eliminate sexual misconduct from the ranks.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan headlines the list of witnesses who will be called to testify, with Conservatives on the committee indicating they want to hear what the minister knew of the allegations and how he responded to them.

“The thing that is of great concern is that these allegations were presented to the minister of defence, Minister Sajjan,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan told other committee members.

“And we have not gotten any clear answers from the media reporting today on how that information was handled, and whether or not the victims had been talked to and approached and counselling services offered.”

Multiple sources have told The Canadian Press that the allegations against Vance were shared with Sajjan in March 2018 by then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, who resigned from his position a short time later. Those sources are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Sajjan has not directly addressed the allegations against Vance, but insisted all proper steps are followed when he receives reports of inappropriate conduct. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also sidestepped questions.

Committee members spent much of the rest of Tuesday’s meeting wrangling over what other witnesses to call, with NDP defence critic Randall Garrison wanting Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to appear. Kenney was defence minister when Vance was named defence chief in 2015.

Committee members agreed to invite Kenney to testify.

Conservatives also indicated they want to call former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick; Sajjan’s former chief of staff Zita Astravas, who now works for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair; and Department of National Defence deputy minister Jody Thomas.

The committee’s decision to hold hearings into the allegations against Vance is in addition to a military police investigation and a promise from Sajjan to launch a separate review outside the chain of command.

Trudeau referred to that independent review, which has yet to be launched, when he was again asked about the allegations against Vance on Tuesday.

“We are very pleased that there is going to be a review going on to ensure that every step of the way, the right processes were followed,” Trudeau said during one of his regular COVID-19 updates.

“That’s something that will be looked at right now. But I can assure you that we’ve always taken these very seriously and ensured that those proper steps are followed.”

Committee members indicated they were leery of impeding any police investigation into Vance’s conduct, while suggesting the study should include a focus on pushing the military to better ensure women in uniform are not subject to sexual misconduct.

“The question of whether adequate efforts have been made to stem sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military is an important question, but one that we already know the answer to,” said Garrison.

“Progress has stalled at what can only be said, at its most charitable, (as) very low levels.”

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