'We did not know what the complaint was about': Telford says of Vance allegation
OTTAWA -- The prime minister’s chief of staff says she was given no information about a complaint levied at the former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance in March 2018 and was told there was “no safety issue” at hand.
Katie Telford is appearing before the House of Commons’ defence committee Friday, as members seek to pin down who knew what and when about the allegation that was brought to light by former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne.
She said the defence minister’s office contacted her office after Walbourne reported the allegation to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, seeking advice on where to direct it. In a conversation with the clerk of the Privy Council Office (PCO), he said it was the PCO not politicians that should follow up given it dealt with a governor-in-council appointment.
“[The PCO’s] advice was to redirect the ombudsperson to the Privy Council Office, so unless you’re suggesting we ignore that advice, that is the advice that we were given in terms of next steps by the appropriate people,” she said.
“As you have already heard, I was not given the substance or the details of the allegation, and as you have already heard 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.”
This contradicts Walbourne’s previous testimony and subsequent statements that he did in fact inform Sajjan it was a complaint of “inappropriate sexual behaviour” against the chief of defence.
As the committee has heard in previous testimony, the PCO contacted Walbourne but he couldn’t provide further information because he didn’t have the permission of the victim.
“I talked to Elder who asked the appropriate officials at PCO to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk and I was told that there was no safety issue,” she said, reiterating that there were no details provided about the nature of the complaint or “rumours” to go off of.
In her opening remarks she did however reflect on what else could have been done to better the situation.
“I certainly asked myself, what else could have been done. It breaks my heart to think that anyone, any woman, not only had to deal with harassment and inappropriate behaviour but had no safe place to talk about it and get justice or support,” she said.
Ahead of Telford’s appearance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was an opportunity for his chief of staff to “share her perspective” on the handling of the allegation.
“Katie Telford has been leading on these issues for many years now, and we are, as a government, extremely serious about allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and following the proper processes,” Trudeau told reporters earlier on Friday.
“I will let Katie speak for herself this afternoon, but I know that this was important for her to be able to share her perspective on these issues at committee.”
The Conservatives’ opposition motion this week, which was ultimately defeated, called on Trudeau to fire his chief of staff for failing to inform him about the complaint. Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, leader Erin O’Toole said he’s glad to see someone in the Liberal corner step forward “to be accountable” on the issue.
“Canadians deserve the truth and what Ms. Telford will have to show today is: has Mr. Trudeau been truthful with Canadians with respect to what he's known over three years with regard to allegations against the former chief of defence staff? Either he knew more than he's letting on... or miss Telford will have to explain to Canadians why she felt it appropriate to hide this critical information from the prime minister,” said O’Toole on Friday.
Military police launched an investigation into the Vance allegation in February of this year. Telford said it wasn’t until March when media reports surfaced that the prime minister’s office – including Trudeau – were made aware of the substance of the report.
Asked repeatedly why she didn’t tell Trudeau earlier about the complaint, she said she followed the advice she received from the PCO to keep it out of the hands of politicians and political staff.
“When we found out about the unusual circumstance that the minister found himself in, we immediately took it seriously, we immediately took action with the appropriate people who should follow up on it,” she said.
“There was no more information to be had.”
Telford also confirmed she did not speak with Sajjan about the issue at subsequent cabinet meetings, stating “I’m not sure there was any more information that he and I could have appropriately discussed on this.”
In an emotional plea, she encouraged members of the committee, who will be tabling an eventual report of their findings before Parliament, to move beyond partisanship and work together to ensure women ultimately feel safe in the military.
“What has motivated me through this week, has been focusing on an issue that I am incredibly passionate about, that I feel extremely strongly about and I do know that all of you do too. And I know that Parliament does and I know that if we can all put our collective minds together that we can truly make change happen,” she said.
“We need to stay focused on that before almost anything else and certainly before partisanship.”