Informal allegations and “spectres of concern” about potential inappropriate conduct by the country’s former top military commander were, at various times, placed before the Liberal government, as well as the former Conservative government, which selected Gen. Jonathan Vance, CBC News has learned.
At one point, a bitter dispute over what to do about one of those allegations led to the sudden resignation and retirement of the country’s former military ombudsman almost three years ago, say multiple defence sources, as well as political and government insiders.
The sources spoke to CBC News on the condition they not be named because of the sensitive nature of some of the discussion or because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matters.
Almost six years ago, as the former Conservative government weighed his appointment as the chief of the defence staff, Vance was asked by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Ray Novak, to address concerns that the top general had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate.
The concerns were, at the time, either answered or explained away. CBC News reached out to Novak but has not received a reply.
Vance retired as defence chief two weeks ago.
Earlier this week, Global News published and broadcast a story alleging Vance had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, one that included private meetings and allegedly sexually explicit texts.
Responding to the initial Global story, Vance acknowledged knowing the woman, said they dated in 2001 and that it was not inappropriate because they were in different chains of command and that the meetings, more recently when he was CDS, were strictly professional.
Vance alleged to have sent inappropriate email
The concerns about Vance in 2015 came to the PMO through political channels, said sources with knowledge of the selection process.
Vance had already been interviewed for the top job, the sources said, but was asked about an alleged relationship with a female of junior rank.
During the meeting, he denied it was inappropriate because the woman in question was not within his chain of command at the time they were together.
Global News reported on a second, separate allegation, claiming that in 2012 while a major general, before becoming defence chief, Vance sent an inappropriate email to another female subordinate.
Vance declined comment to CBC News.
The Liberal government became aware of concerns through a more formal channel.
Multiple sources tell CBC News a woman, serving in the reserves, approached the ombudsman’s office for the Canadian Forces in early 2018, delivering a sealed envelope that allegedly contained harassing emails from “a very senior member of the command team.”
The woman emphasized she didn’t want to file an official complaint.
Under Operation Honour, the military’s campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks, the ombudsman could only act as a conduit to the Military Sexual Misconduct Response Centre. The ombudsman’s office, at the time, collected complaints to forward on and limited itself to advising potential victims on their options.
On March 1, 2018, former veterans ombudsman Gary Walbourne met with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, where multiple sources say he raised the informal allegation.
It is unclear what transpired during the private meeting, but after Walbourne left, the sources say Sajjan met with deputy defence minister Jody Thomas and later Vance.
Ombudsman’s abrupt departure
The circle was apparently later widened to include Zita Astravas, Sajjan’s former chief of staff, and some advisers and senior military members.
A senior government source acknowledged Thursday that “a spectre of concern related to the former chief of the defence staff was raised at the meeting,” but the minister insisted the issue be directed to the “proper authorities” for investigation, which included the Privy Council Office.
In a statement late Thursday, Sajjan defended the way he handled the situation.
“When allegations of sexual misconduct are brought to my attention, I have always taken them seriously,” he said.
“I want to assure Canadians that I have always ensured that any allegations that are brought to my attention have been reported to the appropriate authorities so they can begin any and all investigations that might be warranted, regardless of rank or position. My office has also worked with all relevant offices and followed all appropriate processes in pursuing issues related to workplace harassment whenever allegations have arisen.”
Sajjan gave a similar reply when asked about Vance today in the House.
Watch: Conservatives question defence minister on allegations against Vance:
Documents obtained under access to information show the day after the meeting, Walbourne tendered his resignation and announced to the minister he was leaving his job before the expiration of his mandate. The letter was presented to Sajjan two weeks later.
Walbourne left his job in late 2018 and has now been replaced by Gregory Lick.
In the fall of 2019, Walbourne told CBC News he was driven from office by a political vendetta, which involved a closed-door, wide-ranging review of complaints against him of mismanagement, nepotism and misuse of public funds.
Throughout the ordeal, the former ombudsman denied the allegations and said in an interview with CBC News, that there was an attempt to “silence” him.
The defence department is planning to conduct an investigation into the allegations against Vance.
On Thursday, the department stated that the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service had opened a file and interviewed one of the alleged complainants.