Trudeau’s chief of staff ‘very concerned’ about Vance allegation but won’t say why she didn’t tell the PM
|Toronto Star 07 May 2021 at 13:58|
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford testified Friday she was “very concerned” after learning in 2018 of an allegation against Canada’s then top soldier, while dodging questions as to why she didn’t tell Trudeau about it.
Telford was testifying Friday at the House of Commons standing committee on national defence, which has been probing the handling of an allegation against now-retired general Jonathan Vance in 2018.
“We did not know what the complaint was about,” Telford said Friday. “Regardless I operated as though it could be serious.”
The allegation against Vance was first flagged to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in March 2018 by the military ombudsman.
Gary Walbourne said he raised an allegation of “inappropriate sexual behaviour,” but Sajjan maintains he was given no specifics. He refused to look at the evidence, saying that as a politician, he could not get involved in a potential investigation.
Sajjan’s office notified the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) at the time about the issue, but it was only revealed in committee testimony a few weeks ago that Telford knew about the allegation.
Telford said Friday she first learned about the allegation in March 2018 from senior PMO adviser Elder Marques, who told her Walbourne had raised an allegation of “personal misconduct” against Vance in a meeting with Sajjan.
Asked repeatedly by Conservative committee member James Bezan why she didn’t tell the prime minister at the time about the allegation, Telford repeated that she was focused on ensuring “the appropriate steps were being followed and that this was being taken seriously.”
“I was of course very concerned,” she said Friday. “I was not given the substance or the details of the allegation. My office and the minister were not given the substance or the details of the allegation.”
Marques that it was Telford or her assistant who asked him in March 2018 to get back to Sajjan’s then-chief of staff “on an issue relating to” the chief of the defence staff.
Marques testified that he referred the matter to the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the PMO.
“I advised the chief of staff to the prime minister that I was taking this step and I then kept her apprised as the matters developed,” he said.
The Privy Council Office was asked to find out more about the allegation at the time, but Walbourne refused to provide any information as he did not have the complainant’s permission. No further work was done on the matter.
“I was assured that they would remain engaged and advise us if they were able to obtain any information at all,” Telford said. “I was however troubled by this result.”
She said she still wanted to ensure that there were no safety issues involved, and said she was told there were none.
“Although I remained concerned, there was simply no information at all,” Telford said.
Trudeau confirmed earlier this year that staff in his office was aware of an allegation against Vance in 2018, but has never specified who. He said he only learned of its existence this year.
Earlier on Friday, Trudeau told reporters that it was “important” for Telford to appear at committee and “share her perspective” on sexual misconduct in the military.
“Katie Telford has been leading on these issues for many years now and we are, as a government, extremely serious about allegations of sexual harassment, assault and following the proper processes,” he said.
The Conservatives have called on Trudeau to fire Telford for not informing him about the allegation in 2018, tabling an unsuccessful motion to that effect in the House.
The Conservatives had also tabled a last Friday that called on Telford to appear there, but the Liberal members filibustered, preventing it from coming to a vote.
Then on Monday, the committee’s Liberal chair cancelled the meeting minutes before it was to begin, without providing a reason. Debate was set to resume Friday on the motion, but Telford then offered to appear.
Political staff don’t typically testify at parliamentary committees, even when they’re asked. The government has argued that ministers are ultimately responsible for their offices, pointing out that the previous Conservative government had a similar stance.
Sajjan’s former chief of staff, Zita Astravas, has not testified at the defence committee, despite being called. Sajjan appeared in her place last month.
But this is not Telford’s first time testifying at a committee. She appeared at the finance committee last year during its examination of the WE Charity scandal , along with Trudeau.
Vance is now the subject of a military police investigation over allegations of inappropriate behaviour. He has denied any wrongdoing.