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Trudeau says review of military sexual misconduct a response to system-wide failures

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday an independent review of the military's handling of sexual misconduct is an attempt to correct a "failing of the entire system." "We have brought in a number of measures.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday an independent review of the military's handling of sexual misconduct is an attempt to correct a "failing of the entire system."

"We have brought in a number of measures. They have all been inadequate," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.

"Survivors continue to feel like they are not appropriately supported."

The acknowledgment came hours before Liberal lawmakers talked out the clock in a parliamentary hearing Friday in a bid to stall an attempt to have Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, testify about her knowledge of a sexual misconduct allegation against former defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance.

The Liberal government announced Thursday it is tapping former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to lead a review of sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian Armed Forces and provide recommendations on an external reporting system for victims.

The announcement by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan came nearly three months after the government and Armed Forces were rocked by allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the military's very top commanders, including Vance.

Opposition leaders said Thursday the government largely failed to act on a 2015 report by former justice Marie Deschamps that also called for an independent reporting process and a reformed military culture, and that action rather than another review is what's needed.

Trudeau sought to diffuse responsibility for the current crisis across decades of indifferent governments, and said any service member who has experienced harassment, intimidation or assault needs to be able to have confidence they will have support if they come forward.

"That has simply not been the case in the past many, many years, and that’s why we were taking action today," he said.

"That is a failing of the entire system."

The Arbour report is expected to come out in 12 to 15 months.

Until then, Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, one of the military's highest-ranking female officers, has been tapped to lead a new internal organization that will oversee professional conduct and culture and follow up on any allegations.

Lawmakers from all three main opposition parties remained unsatisfied, pressing for the prime minister's chief of staff to testify before the House of Commons defence committee while Liberals stalled for time with drawn-out remarks that pushed a final determination to Monday at the earliest.

Committee members debated a motion Friday afternoon that calls on Telford to appear before the panel of MPs to clarify what she knew about allegations of sexual misconduct against Vance.

"By blocking Justin Trudeau's top aid, Katie Telford, from testifying at the defence committee, the Liberals are continuing their cover-up into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces," Conservative MP James Bezan, who put forward the motion, said in a statement with two other Tory MPs.

Megan MacKenzie, Simons chair in international law and human security at Simon Fraser University, said the "whole feminist brand of the Liberals is called into question" by the committee proceedings.

“I think it matters when you have a Liberal government that calls itself a feminist government shutting down or cutting off victims and survivors of sexual assault or using tactics to disrupt more information about something that impacts women and men," she said in an interview.

"There's a real issue of accountability."

Questions have emerged about what Telford and the Prime Minister's Office knew of the situation after recent statements a former Trudeau aide made to the committee, which is looking into sexual misconduct in the military.

Elder Marques testified last week that Telford contacted him in early March 2018 to speak with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's chief of staff after then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne raised a complaint against Vance with the defence minister.

While the nature of the complaint reported by Walbourne has not been confirmed, Global News has reported that it involves a lewd email Vance allegedly sent to a service member he significantly outranked in 2012, before he became commander of Canada's military.

Vance has not responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but Global has reported he denies any wrongdoing. He stepped down as chief of the defence staff in January and has since retired from the military.

Trudeau has defended Telford and his office by saying that while it knew there was a complaint against the now-retired general, his office didn't know the nature of it or that it was a "Me Too" complaint.

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison questioned that position.

"The evidence we have heard in committee seems to point very clearly to the fact that if they did not know, they should have known," he said Friday.

“This is not dragging out the hearings. This is getting a final witness who the prime minister himself has said has the answer to the question that we need to answer in order to restore trust."

Marques had told the committee that he believes he was informed the issue was one of "personal misconduct," and that while he presumed "it could have been of a sexual nature," he did not think he was told that specifically. 

Liberal MP Yvan Baker accused the previous Conservative government of shirking its duty when former prime minister Stephen Harper appointed Vance as top commander in July 2015 while he was under investigation by military police.

"Just days after the former government appointed him, the investigation was suddenly dropped," Baker said, citing a recent Global News report.

"This raises substantial questions as to who was behind the pressure, if the Conservative government pushed the investigation to be ended on the very day Vance was appointed and if the investigation was done appropriately.”

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole was Canada's veterans affairs minister at the time and on Thursday he defended how he handled the allegations of an inappropriate relationship involving Vance.

"There were no allegations. I heard a rumour that I wanted investigated,'' he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press