Trudeau's chief of staff was aware of misconduct allegation against Vance, former adviser tells MPs
TORONTO -- A former adviser to the prime minister told MPs on Friday that Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff knew about a misconduct allegation against former defence chief General Jonathan Vance three years ago.
Elder Marques, who previously worked in the Prime Minister's Office, testified at the House of Commons defence committee, which is one of two parliamentary studies looking at what needs to be done to change the culture within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to prevent sexual misconduct.
Marques told the committee that Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, or her assistant contacted him on March 1 or March 2, 2018, to ask him to speak with then-chief of staff to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan "on an issue related to the CDS," referring to Vance.
"I think very quickly everyone had the same information, which was very limited, and we quickly moved to asking the Privy Council to now take carriage of that matter and do what it could with that information to have an investigation ultimately take place," Marques testified.
Military police launched an investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations against Vance in early February following his retirement. CTV News has not independently verified these allegations. Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, is also under a separate investigation.
Until now, it wasn’t publicly known who else in the PMO besides Marques knew about an allegation against Vance, and his testimony has renewed criticism of whether Trudeau was aware of the allegation against Canada's then-top military commander.
The Liberal government has faced criticism for its handling of the Vance allegation upon hearing about it as early as March 2018, however an investigation into his behaviour following "rumours" of an inappropriate relationship began in 2015, when he was first appointed defence chief.
Marques' testimony appears to contradict the previous order of events laid out by Sajjan earlier this month.
"The important, sensitive and unusual nature of this matter was immediately obvious to me, even in the absence of any details regarding the allegation," Marques said.
In March 2018, an anonymous complaint against Vance was presented to Sajjan by former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
Walbourne told the defence committee in April that Sajjan refused to look at the evidence. In his own testimony to the committee, Sajjan said that he could not get involved in such investigation as an elected official.
Sajjan said he passed the complaint along to his then-chief of staff Zita Astravas, who he said communicated first with the Privy Council Office and then with Marques in the PMO.
However, Marques said on Friday that Telford had asked him to contact Astravas, and only after that did he inform then-Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick about the allegation.
"I immediately brought this issue directly to the Clerk of the Privy Council, who was then Michael Wernick. I advised the chief of staff to the prime minister that I was taking this step and I then kept her apprised as the matters developed," Marques said.
Wernick did not say during his testimony earlier this month whether Telford or other staffers in Trudeau's office knew about the allegation.
Marques was unable to say how many times he spoke with Telford about the allegation, but said it was more than once.
"I would have given her an update as things proceeded, I don’t think the number of interactions ultimately makes a difference," Marques testified.
Marques told MPs that at no time did he brief Trudeau about the allegation, nor was he aware of any such conversation with the prime minister.
Marques left the PMO in December 2019, and said he left government last year.
REACTION TO COMMITTEE TESTIMONIES
Trudeau has publicly confirmed that his staff was aware in 2018 that there was an allegation against Vance, but has denied personally knowing about the allegation until media first reported it in February.
Trudeau said on Friday that the culture of tolerance for sexual harassment and "unacceptable actions" in the CAF needs to end.
Trudeau reiterated that Sajjan properly handled allegations against the then-top military commander that landed on Sajjan's desk in 2018, but said better support systems must be established for whistleblowers and survivors.
Conservative defence critic and defence committee member James Bezan called the narrative a "cover-up" and accused the Liberals of "misleading Canadians” on the issue.
"Justin Trudeau's claim that he was not aware of allegations of sexual misconduct by General Vance is clearly false. It is outrageous to believe that everyone around Justin Trudeau was aware of these allegations but the prime minister didn't know," Bezan said in a statement on Friday.
The news comes after Maj. Kellie Brennan testified at the House of Commons status of women committee on Thursday that Vance fathered two children during a relationship that allegedly began in 2001 and continued during his time as chief of the defence staff.
Brennan said she was subject to unfair power imbalances throughout her years with the military, including those while in a relationship with Vance.
Brennan testified that Vance told her that he was "untouchable" should she go to military police and instructed her to lie to the investigation service. While Brennan said Vance never threatened her with "bodily harm," she says he did tell her there would be consequences should she speak out.
"Definitely, he gave me very many consequences if I was not following his orders," she told MPs.
Brennan was one of the first women to come forward with allegations against Vance, who denies any wrongdoing. Multiple other women have since shared their stories of experiencing sexual misconduct in the military.
The status of women committee, along with the defence committee, is studying how Vance and other senior leaders rose to the top of the chain of command with a history of alleged sexual misconduct, how difficult and complex the reporting process is for members, and what culture change should look like.
Many witnesses have said they don't trust the CAF's chain of command, and want an independent body, rather than military police, to conduct investigations when allegations of sexual misconduct arise.
The federal government’s 2021 budget has committed to creating a new external oversight body to help fight sexual misconduct in the military, but no details about the mechanism have been provided.
With files from CTVNews.ca's Sarah Turnbull and The Canadian Press