Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Trudeau says he knew about investigation into general overseeing vaccines weeks ago

Trudeau says he knew about investigation into general overseeing vaccines weeks ago

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau says he first learned weeks ago that the general overseeing Canada’s vaccination campaign was under investigation, which the prime minister described on Tuesday as “not an ideal situation.”

The comments during a regular COVID-19 update represented the first from Trudeau since the Department of National Defence announced late Friday that Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was being replaced because of an unspecified military investigation.

A source who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly told The Canadian Press that the investigation relates to an allegation of sexual misconduct.

CTV News has reported that Fortin is being investigated for having allegedly exposed himself to a woman while he was an officer cadet at the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean, Que., in 1989.

Fortin’s military lawyer Cmdr. Mark Letourneau said his client only learned of the details of the allegation when reached by a reporter on Sunday, and that he categorically denies any wrongdoing.

Trudeau told reporters that he was not given the details of the allegation against Fortin as he was pressed on why the Liberal government did not replace the general immediately after it learned of the investigation.

The prime minister also deferred to military authorities when asked why more information about the nature of the investigation has not been publicly disclosed by the government or Department of National Defence.

Some experts as well as Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole have criticized the secrecy surrounding Fortin’s removal on Friday, which was announced in a terse three-line statement from the Defence Department.

“I understand all these questions, and they’re very legitimate questions,” Trudeau said.

“This is also not an ideal situation to be in, particularly in this moment of crisis, in this moment of importance, on the vaccine rollout. But it is really, really important that we have proper processes in place and that any concerns be followed up on.”

The Liberal government and military have both been under fire over their handling of several other cases involving allegations of misconduct against senior officers, including former chief of the defence staff general Jonathan Vance.

The House of Commons defence committee has been specifically drilling into why the government didn’t do more after then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne flagged an allegation involving Vance to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in March 2018.

The nature of the complaint reported by Walbourne has not been confirmed, but Global has reported that it involves a lewd email Vance allegedly sent to a service member he significantly outranked in 2012, before he became commander of Canada’s military.

Vance, who stepped down as chief of the defence staff in January and retired from the military in April, has not responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but Global has reported he denies any wrongdoing.

Conservative members on Tuesday tabled a motion proposing to summon Sajjan’s former chief of staff, Zita Astravas, to explain how and why the allegation was handled and hold her in contempt if she refuses.

The Liberals have said they would not let ministerial staff members appear before the committee, after opposition parties used their superior numbers in the House of Commons last month to call for Astravas to testify. Sajjan appeared in her stead.

Liberal members dragged out debate on the motion, calling for an end to further hearings so the committee could start writing a final report even as opposition members argued Astravas’s testimony remains critical.

The Conservatives also wanted to have the committee to expand the scope of its study to include the government’s handling of the allegation involving Fortin. But that proposal was defeated after the Bloc Quebecois and NDP sided with the Liberals.

“We’ve heard from witness after witness at this committee that … a lack of due process is part of the reason so many members, so many victims, so many members of the Armed Forces have lost confidence in the processes,” Liberal MP Yvan Baker said.

For his part, Trudeau sought to reassure Canadians that the vaccination campaign, which is now being overseen by Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie, will not be negatively affected by Fortin’s departure.

The Public Health Agency of Canada announced late Monday that Brodie, a 30-year veteran of the military who was working with Fortin on the vaccination campaign, would be taking over.

“Brig.-Gen. Brodie had already played a key role in the vaccine rollout with the Public Health Agency,” Trudeau said. “She, along with the team that’s been there since day one, is ready and able to get millions of doses to Canadians in the coming weeks.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press