OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff says she was “very concerned” but had no details about the allegation weighing against then Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance in 2018, though she was told there was “no safety issue” and so no one told the prime minister.
“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. We did not know what the complaint was about,” Katie Telford told members of the House’s national defence committee Friday.
Later, she admitted that she and some staffer colleagues knew the allegation might be sexual in nature, and that she had asked PCO officials if there was an safety issue at all. The answer: “no,” she testified.
“I asked that question because I was getting no information, because it seemed that nothing further can be done and because I was very concerned,” she told MPs.
Despite operating as though the allegation “could be serious”, Telford reiterated past information that the prime minister was never informed of the allegation weighing against Vance (which was in fact sexual in nature).
She also repeated refused to answer roughly a dozen questions from opposition members — particularly Conservatives — about who decided not to tell Trudeau about the allegation weighing against the country’s top soldier, nor why exactly.
Ultimately, when asked by a Liberal MP if the reason she had kept the information about an allegation away from the prime minister was because she had been told PCO was best tooled to handle the issue, she said that was a “fair interpretation.”
“The first concern was about the complainant, and that’s why it was really important,” Telford responded at one occasion. “We think about who the appropriate person was to do the follow up in this unusual circumstance, and the appropriate people were not politicians and political staff. It was the Privy Council Office.”
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Telford mostly avoided answering questions from Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval as to how the prime minister reacted when hearing about the allegations not through his staff, but through media reports starting in February.
The top Liberal staffer also said that she’s done much soul searching since detailed allegations first surfaced via Global News reports last February about alleged sexual misconduct by Vance (who has previously denied any wrongdoing).
That included questioning if she should have believed anything the former top soldier said about addressing sexual misconduct in the armed forces.
“I have wondered if I should have further questioned the General when he told me about his commitment to MeToo not long after this movement and awakening began — when he told me how frustrated he was that orders were not enough to bring about change — when he told me it was personal for him,” she said.
Telford was testifying during a national defence committee study into sexual misconduct in the Canadian military after serious allegations were made against top military leaders beginning in 2018.
Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne told the committee in March that had brought Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan details about allegations of sexual misconduct involving Vance back in 2018.
At the time, Walbourne says Sajjan declined to accept the evidence, though the committee later learned that the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office were also informed there were allegations.
Telford told the committee she was “troubled” when PCO told her that there was nothing it could do to keep looking into the allegation without more information.
“I was later told that despite repeated attempts by PCO, Mr. Walbourne would not provide any information on the allegation and that without any details, they were unable to do anything. I was assured that they would remain engaged and advise us if they were able to obtain any information at all,” Telford testified.
In February, Global News first aired allegations that Vance had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate (later identified as Maj. Kellie Brennan) for years, and that he had sent an email inviting another woman he outranked to go to a “clothing optional” resort with him.
In front of a parliamentary committee in March, Sajjan confirmed that Walbourne had approached him in 2018, but explained that he did not think it was appropriate to view the evidence because he wanted to “protect the integrity of the investigation” which ended up at PCO.
Around the same time, then PCO clerk Michael Wernick told committee members that his office had lost track of the issue when came time to follow up on the allegations made against Canada’s top soldier back in 2018.
“I do concede it dropped off the radar in 2018,” Wernick said to committee members about the Vance allegations. “I did lose sight of the conduct issue.”
With additional reporting by David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen