OTTAWA — Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne is set to testify today as a parliamentary committee continues digging into how the Liberal government handled allegations of misconduct against former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance.
Members of the House of Commons defence committee are expected to grill the former watchdog over what he told Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan three years ago, and how the minister and government responded in the days and weeks that followed.
Sajjan has refused to disclose what Walbourne told him during a meeting on March 1, 2018, citing confidentiality. However, multiple sources have told The Canadian Press that is when Walbourne first raised specific allegations of sexual misconduct by Vance.
The minister instead told the committee he was surprised when allegations against Vance were reported by Global News in early February, and insisted that he has followed all proper procedures when reports of military sexual misconduct are brought to him.
Sajjan has refused to provide specifics on what those procedures were, including whether he asked Vance about the allegations or notified Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and cabinet.
Global News has reported that Vance allegedly had an ongoing relationship with a woman he significantly outranked. He is also accused of having made a sexual comment to a second, much younger, soldier in 2012, before he becoming commander of the Armed Forces.
Vance, who turned over command of the military last month after more than five years in the job, has not responded to requests for comment by The Canadian Press and the allegations against him have not been independently verified.
Global says Vance, who as defence chief oversaw the military’s efforts to root sexual misconduct from the ranks, has denied any wrongdoing.
Military police are now investigating the allegations against Vance. They have also launched an investigation of Vance’s successor as defence chief, Admiral Art McDonald, who temporarily stepped aside last week in response to unspecified allegations of misconduct.
Walbourne was military ombudsman from April 2014 to October 2018 and repeatedly railed against his office’s lack of independence before resigning before the end of his five-year term.
The former ombudsman initially declined an invitation from the committee to testify on the allegations against Vance and what he told the minister, before members decided to issue a formal summons.
Walbourne, who now works at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., declined in an interview with The Canadian Press last month to speak to what he told the minister, citing confidentiality and his oath of office.
But Walbourne will have parliamentary privilege during his committee appearance, which is expected to result in a flood of new information for members of Parliament and Canadians searching for answers on what happened, and why.
Walbourne is also expected to speak to the limits of the ombudsman’s office, which is ostensibly independent but reports to the minister and relies upon the Department of National Defence for its budget and staffing approvals.
Previous committee witnesses have called for a truly independent oversight body for the military while questioning why Sajjan, if he did know about allegations against Vance in 2018, did not launch a formal investigation or inquiry.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law, has repeatedly called for an independent inspector general who has investigative powers to handle complaints made by military members.
“The ombudsman reported these allegations to the minister of national defence because he lacked the authority to investigate these allegations,” Drapeau told the committee on Feb. 22.
“Things would have had a very different outcome in 2018 had an inspector of the Armed Forces been in existence, because this would have provided … complainants access to a trusted and independent office capable in skill to investigate any allegations of misconduct.”
The federal government did set up a sexual misconduct response centre in September 2015, but the head of the centre acknowledged last month that its main job is to support victims and monitor such misbehaviour, not hold the military to account.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press