The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada says he was told there was a potential “issue” facing the general leading Canada’s vaccine distribution about eight weeks before he stepped down.
Iain Stewart told the House of Commons health committee Friday that “around about” the third week of March, the deputy minister of defence informed him of a potential problem facing Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.
But Stewart says he didn’t learn that “issue” was a sexual misconduct allegation until May 13.
“It was just kind of a heads-up, that there was a potential issue,” Stewart said of his first conversation about the matter in March.
On May 13, Stewart was informed there was a sexual misconduct allegation against Fortin and a process was underway and that afternoon he discussed what was happening with Health Minister Patty Hajdu.
Fortin stepped aside from his role at PHAC on May 14 pending the results of a military investigation. The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service has since confirmed it referred its investigation to the Quebec prosecution service to determine whether criminal charges should be laid.
Fortin’s lawyer has said his client was unaware of the details of the allegation until a reporter contacted him on Sunday, and that Fortin categorically denies any wrongdoing.
The investigation is one of many into complaints against senior members of Canada’s military in recent months as the Armed Forces addresses widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and other inappropriate behaviour in its ranks.
Stewart’s remarks came under questioning by Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner at the health committee Friday morning. Rempel Garner is concerned that sitting on the situation for almost two months sends a terrible message.
“I’m just kind of flabbergasted that you would know about this in the middle of March and not do anything about it,” she said.
Stewart said he couldn’t be more clear that he did not know the “issue” was an allegation of sexual misconduct.
“There was a potential issue, there was no allegation,” he said. You’re using the word I knew about an allegation. There was an issue and I was aware that there was an issue, but the exact nature was not specified. We did not have an allegation.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has also said he was informed Fortin was under investigation in March and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he knew “weeks ago” that there was something going on.
Rempel Garner wondered why it appears PHAC didn’t do more to prepare for the possible upheaval of losing their vaccine logistics chief.
“Did you do anything to get more information to understand how this might compromise Canada’s vaccine rollout?” she asked.
Stewart says he began thinking about what might happen if Fortin needed to be replaced “but it actually wasn’t clear what we were dealing with.”
“We have a highly effective and well performing team that involves over 200 people during the vaccine rollout and we have a variety of executives leading that team. So the vital mandate of the vaccine rollout was taken extremely seriously by this organization. At that stage the potential issue was not clear what it was, and nor is it clear what the repercussions were going to be.”
Fortin is still an active member of the military but was named vice-president of logistics and operations at PHAC on Nov. 27, to oversee the federal government’s plan to get millions of doses of vaccines into Canada and distributed to provinces and territories.
On May 17, the federal government named Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie to replace Fortin. Brodie was assigned to assist Fortin as one of two second-in-commands on the vaccine rollout, but left the team briefly in February. She said Thursday she was very happy to be back with the team again.
On Friday, Liberal members of a defence committee examining an allegation against former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance ran out the clock before a vote could be held on a Conservative motion to call Sajjan’s former chief of staff.
Tory defence critic James Bezan first put forward a motion Tuesday to summon Zita Astravas, but updated it Friday to also call on Sajjan and former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne to reappear in front of the committee before next Thursday.
He also withdrew a request to have the committee examine the government’s handling of the allegation against Fortin, a proposal that was already defeated by members earlier this week.
Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval indicated he would support Bezan’s motion Friday with an amendment that he said would help ensure a report is tabled in Parliament soon.
But the Liberal members of the committee filibustered the meeting, a tactic they also used on Tuesday, before a vote could be held and the meeting was suspended.
The House of Commons defence committee has been specifically drilling into why the government didn’t do more after Walbourne flagged an allegation involving Vance to Sajjan in March 2018.
The nature of the complaint reported by Walbourne has not been confirmed, but Global 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, who stepped down as chief of the defence staff in January and retired from the military in April, has not responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but Global has reported he denies any wrongdoing.
—Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press