Gen. Vance 'was not truthful' in 2015 about sexual misconduct allegations, ex-Harper aide tells MPs

Then-Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance speaks to the media in Ottawa, Monday, March 30, 2020.

OTTAWA — Former prime minister Stephen Harper had limited information about sexual assault allegations levelled against former defence chief Jonathan Vance in 2015, and would have cancelled his appointment of the former general if any misconduct had been verified, a former senior adviser said.

In a House of Commons committee testimony on Monday, Ray Novak, who served as chief of staff to Harper between 2013 and 2015, said he was “very confident” that the Conservatives would not have appointed Gen. Vance if they were able to corroborate allegations that have recently come to surface.

Vance “was not truthful” when Harper directly asked him in a March 2015 meeting whether the former general might be subject to any allegations of misconduct over his long career, said Novak, who attended the meeting. Two separate “rumours” of misconduct that surfaced months later were investigated by the federal government’s National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSA), but did not find any material evidence of improper conduct, the former top aide said.

“If either of those two issues had yielded additional facts, or frankly any additional questions or avenues that needed to be pursued … I am very confident in saying that that appointment would not have proceeded at that time.”

Novak’s testimony comes amid explosive allegations of sexual misconduct against Vance that have left the military establishment reeling, raising questions around how much successive Conservative and then Liberal governments knew about the claims.

The issue has in recent weeks ensnared Liberal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, prompted by a series of Global News reports that said Vance allegedly had an ongoing relationship with Maj. Kellie Brennan, a woman he significantly outranked.

Novak said the recent allegations suggest he was not forthcoming in his conversations with Harper in 2015.

“I think it’s clear she made extremely serious allegations,” he told the committee. “And if they are true — and I have no reason to doubt her — that means the general was not truthful with the prime minister in their meeting of March 2015.”

Sajjan has faced particularly fierce criticism, following a committee testimony earlier this month that said the defence minister was fully aware of serious allegations against Vance in 2018, but went so far as to refuse to accept evidence that was offered.

Critics of the Liberal government say those actions run counter to the prime minister’s feminist mantra. Media reports, citing anonymous sources, have meanwhile questioned the robustness of the 2015 internal investigations under Harper.

Intensifying criticism directed at Sajjan and Trudeau, their newly appointed defence chief Admiral Art McDonald, who replaced Vance, also stepped down last month amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

In his testimony Monday, Novak said questions around Vance first came to light in March 2015, after the NSA gave a routine briefing to the Prime Minister’s Office that said the former general had engaged in a relationship with female U.S. officer Kerry Wheelehan, who he would later marry, during a NATO deployment in Italy.

Both the NSA and U.S. military investigators, Novak recalled, concluded that the relationship did not breach military protocol in part because Wheelehan, who was by then Vance’s fiancé, did not work directly under his command.

The Harper government officially appointed Vance in April.

Months after the appointment, in early July, the chief of staff to then-veteran affairs minister and current Conservative leader Erin O’Toole brought forward a “rumour” that Vance “had an inappropriate relationship” with a junior officer. Around the same time, a senior officer in the Department of National Defence, then headed by former defence minister Peter MacKay, received an anonymous email alleging an “inappropriate relationship” that involved Vance, according to Novak’s testimony.

Both rumours were investigated by the NSA, a top military-facing position within the federal government’s Privy Council Office.

Novak appeared to regret the appointment of the former general given more recent allegations levelled against him, but maintained that the NSA investigations into both matters did not produce new information.

“Obviously, looking back on this six years later, we have a range of very disturbing allegations that have been made, and when one makes an appointment to a position as senior as the Chief of Defence Staff, the head of the Canadian armed forces, one of the most historic and storied military institutions in the world, one is expecting that individual to uphold the proud record of that institution,” he said. “Unfortunately, clearly that has not been the case.”

Vance is currently under military police investigation, prompted by Brennan’s allegations first reported by Global News. The allegations suggest relations between the two began when they were both stationed at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick in the early 2000s, then resumed when he was her superior in Toronto in 2006.

Global also reported Vance is alleged to have made a sexual suggestion to a second, much younger soldier in 2012, before he was appointed chief of the defence staff.

Novak said he could not confirm whether Brennan’s allegations were the same ones that were investigated by the NSA years earlier.

“I don’t recall hearing major Brennan’s name until recent weeks when she did the interview. That said, I cannot recall with certainty the name that was conveyed to us.”

Novak also said he was “absolutely struck” by a recent Global interview of Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, a “decorated” officer who said she quit the military due to persistent atmosphere of sexism faced by female officers.

“Potentially we have an entire generation of young Canadian women who may have taken their skills into the Canadian Armed Forces to protect our country, and now they may be looking elsewhere thanks to what’s going on,” Novak said.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques