Skip to content

Committee report on Vance allegations at risk as calls mount for minister's head

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are being accused of letting down victims of military sexual misconduct as a parliamentary committee prepares to rise for the summer without producing a report on the government's handling of allegations involving former

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are being accused of letting down victims of military sexual misconduct as a parliamentary committee prepares to rise for the summer without producing a report on the government's handling of allegations involving former defence chief Jonathan Vance.

The House of Commons defence committee has been investigating the government's handling of complaints against Vance as well as current chief of defence staff Admiral Art McDonald since allegations against the two first emerged in February.

Yet opposition members say nearly a month of Liberal filibustering has prevented the committee from finishing its final report before the House of Commons rises for the summer and a possible fall election. 

It has also kept two other reports, including one on access to mental health for service members, from being tabled in the House of Commons.

"Multiple defence reports are now casualties of this government's partisan antics," Conservative committee member Bob Benzen told the House of Commons on Wednesday. "The Liberal members continue to place their party above the people, and especially above victims of misconduct in our military."

The committee is scheduled to meet on Friday and Monday before the House rises next Wednesday, which NDP defence critic Randall Garrison suggested might be barely enough time to get everything done. But, he added, that is only if the Liberals stop their delay tactics.

"If we don't finish something on Friday, then there's no way it's going to get tabled in the House," he said in an interview.  

Liberal committee member Anita Vandenbeld in turn accused opposition parties of having dragged out the study, noting the committee previously agreed to start working on a report before the Conservatives pushed to call for more witnesses last month.

Those witnesses included Sajjan's former chief of staff Zita Astravas, who previously ignored a call from the House of Commons to appear before the committee.

"The committee had previously adopted a deadline that would have allowed us to finalize a report for tabling in the House of Commons," Vandenbeld said in an email. 

"From the beginning, Liberal members have worked tirelessly to bring forward reports with recommendations focused on survivors and the women and men of the CAF."

Opposition parties say the Liberals have been filibustering the move to work on a report after the Conservatives sought last month to withdraw their efforts to have Astravas testify.

"We strongly denounce the Liberals' repeated obstruction of the defence committee," Bloc Québécois committee member Xavier Barsalou-Duval said in an email in French.

"Ultimately, by blocking any new testimony and the good work of the committee, the Liberals will prevent the production of a report that would clearly blame the government for their mismanagement of cases of sexual misconduct in the military and their continued existence."

The defence committee is actually one of two committees looking into military sexual misconduct. The committee on the status of women has been investigating the broader issue and is expected to produce a report that contains recommendations to address the problem.

Yet Garrison argued that unless Parliament and Canadians understand why the Liberal government failed to do more when the military ombudsman flagged an allegation involving Vance to Sajjan in March 2018, then there is the risk a similar situation will occur again.

Garrison nonetheless said he was particularly upset that the study on military mental health could become a casualty of partisan politics given the clear needs that exist for those serving in uniform.

The Canadian Armed Forces reported last week that 16 service members took their own lives last year, bringing the total over the past decade to 191 — more than died during the whole of the war in Afghanistan.

Global News first reported allegations in February that Vance had a relationship with a subordinate that began in 2001 and continued after he accepted the top job in 2015. Vance has also been accused of sending a lewd email to a junior member in 2012.

Vance, who stepped down in January, has not declined requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but Global has reported he denies any wrongdoing.

While opposition parties expressed concerns on Wednesday about the fate of the defence committee, the Conservatives were also putting the House of Commons on notice that they may force a vote to censure Sajjan and express the House's disappointment in him.

The motion is one of three that the party can choose to have the House of Commons debate during a special opposition day on Thursday, which would lead to a vote next week. The others include one on parliamentary rulings and another on Canada-China relations.

Conservatives also ramped up their calls for Sajjan to be fired, with Leader Erin O'Toole blasting the minister for his handling of sexual misconduct in the military, overstating his role in Canada's largest battle in Afghanistan and other actions.

Garrison said he also believed Sajjan should be removed as defence minister, a position he has held since the Trudeau government first came to power in 2015, particularly after two senior officers were discovered to have golfed with Vance earlier this month.

Sajjan in turn accused the Conservatives in question period of having let down the military during their own turn in power by cutting the defence budget. He defended his government's record when it comes to addressing inappropriate sexual behaviour in the ranks.

"Our government has a lot more work to do when it comes to dealing with misconduct, and we will (do) that," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press