Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff repeatedly told the National Defence committee today that while she knew of a complaint against Canada's former top soldier in 2018, she had no idea the complaint was sexual in nature.
Katie Telford was grilled by the Conservative members of the committee who wanted to know why an allegation first made in 2018 against retired general Jonathan Vance was not immediately forwarded to Trudeau.
Telford never directly answered the question but instead repeatedly laid out what she said was known in March of 2018 and what was done to address it.
"It has been hard, for everyone involved, to separate what is information we have in the last number of months with the information we did not have in March of 2018," Telford said.
"We didn't have any information about the allegation, we didn't know anything about it. It was something that all the appropriate follow-up was done through the appropriate people and the appropriate people was the Privy Council Office."
The Commons defence committee is looking into who in the Liberal government knew about a claim of sexual misconduct involving Vance when it was first raised three years ago by Canada's former military ombudsman.
Telford told the committee that on March 2, 2018, then defence ombudsman Gary Walbourne told Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan of an allegation of personal misconduct made against Vance.
Elder Marques, who worked in the Prime Minister's Office at the time, told Telford that Sajjan's office was seeking advice from the PMO on how to "ensure that the allegations were properly addressed."
'I was not given the substance or the details of the allegation'
Telford said Michael Wernick, then Canada's top civil servant, told both her and Marques that the complaint had to be taken up by the Privy Council Office and that elected officials and political staff should not be involved.
Telford said Wernick told her he would involve Janine Sherman, deputy secretary to the cabinet responsible for personnel issues, in coordinating the matter for PCO.
"I was not given the substance or the details of the allegation," Telford said. "My office and the minister were not given the substance or the details of the allegation. We did not know what the complaint was about."
Conservative MPs on the committee pushed back against that claim, citing a March 2, 2018 email between Sherman and a PCO staffer discussing "allegations of sexual harassment" and suggesting Telford did know about the nature of the claim against Vance in 2018.
Telford has maintained that she and Trudeau didn't learn the complaint was sexual in nature until it became the subject of media reports in March of this year.
Earlier this year, Wernick said that on March 2, 2018 he was alerted by Marques to an allegation of "sexual harassment" made against Vance but wasn't given specifics.
Wernick told the defence committee in March of this year that he had "no reason to think that the prime minister was aware of any of this at the time."
"The only person I know who would have been aware would be Elder. I don't know who he would have spoken to in PMO at the time, but I think effectively both Minister Sajjan and PMO had given carriage of the file to us at PCO."
Telford questions her actions in 2018
The PCO ultimately didn't conduct an investigation into the complaint because Walbourne refused to cooperate, insisting that he had given an undertaking of confidentiality to the woman who made the claim against Vance.
But during his testimony before the defence committee in March, Walbourne said that he did tell Sajjan details of the complaint.
"I did tell the minister what the allegation was. I reached into my pocket to show him the evidence I was holding. He pushed back from the table and said, 'No,' and I don't think we exchanged another word," Walbourne said.
The meeting ended, Walbourne said, when he asked Sajjan for direction on what to do about the allegation.
Telford said she remained concerned about the complaint after PCO abandoned its investigation into it, citing a lack of specifics about the allegation. She said she went to Marques and asked him if anyone's "safety" was at risk; she said she was assured that it was not.
"Although I remained concerned, there was no information at all," she said.
Telford also said today she has asked herself if she should have further questioned Vance when he told her about his commitment to the "Me Too" movement, and how frustrated he was that orders were not enough to deal with the problem of sexual misconduct in the military.
"Above all, though, I have thought about the brave women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces who face unthinkable and unacceptable harassment and misconduct in the line of duty," she said.
With files from the Canadian Press
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