OTTAWA — Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen says comments from the NDP around its decision not to support a call for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fire his chief of staff over the handling of a complaint against general Jonathan Vance are "patronizing and sexist."
The House of Commons is debating a Conservative motion calling on Trudeau to fire Katie Telford after recent testimony from a former adviser suggesting she knew of an allegation against the retired top soldier.
Trudeau has defended Telford, saying no one in his office knew the allegation against Vance was of a sexual nature — something Tories say shouldn't be believed.
Before the debate, NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said the party believes responsibility in the handling of the matter lies with Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, not Telford, who is an unelected staff member.
He also said in sexual misconduct cases it's common for women to be blamed for not taking their complaint to the right place.
Garrison said he found it "more than a little ironic that the Conservatives have decided the person who should pay the price to pay for the failure to act is one of the only women who was involved.”
Bergen said Telford is not a victim of sexual harassment and being Trudeau's top aide likely makes her one the country's most powerful women.
"To suggest that women in positions of power should not be held to the same account as men in positions of power, as a woman I find to be very patronizing, like somehow women can't handle that kind of standard," she said in an interview.
"I find it patronizing and sexist."
At a news conference, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh dismissed Bergen's accusation as ridiculous and said the Tories' efforts are not helping make the military any safer for women.
"They want to find out who to blame and they want to say who's worse: 'Were the Conservatives worse or were the Liberals worse?' They're both bad. They both failed women."
Although the opposition parties disagree on whether Trudeau's chief of staff should keep her job, both want to hear from her.
The Conservatives have called on Telford to appear before parliamentarians to say what she knew of the allegation against Vance. A meeting of the defence committee where the Tories were set to continue to push for her testimony was abruptly cancelled on Monday.
That came after an earlier meeting where Liberal committee members talked out the clock, so no resolution on the issue was reached.
Asked Tuesday about whether Telford will testify, Trudeau didn't directly answer. He said his government's focus is on supporting sexual assault survivors and those who face harassment.
He reiterated that processes in place in the military that are meant to do so are failing.
"That is a failing that we have collectively had, particularly in the armed forces and it's something that needs to end."
In response to the ongoing pressure his government has faced around how it handled the allegations against Vance and reports of sexual misconduct in the military, the Liberals asked a former Supreme Court justice and UN high commissioner to review the matter.
It would be the second review done by a retired Supreme Court justice on the issue in about six years.
The government says the new review by Louise Arbour will focus on how the military handles sexual assault, harassment and other forms of misconduct.
But a Conservative Quebec senator is asking Arbour, who has said she believes fresh progress can be made on the issue, to reject the mandate.
Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu says the Liberal government hasn't acted on the earlier review's recommendations, such as creating an independent accountability centre outside of the armed forces to deal with sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints.
The specifics of the complaint against Vance have not been publicly confirmed, but Global News has reported that it involved a lewd email he allegedly sent to a service member he significantly outranked in 2012, before he became defence chief.
Vance has not responded to requests for comment, but Global says that he has denied any inappropriate conduct. He is now being investigated by military police.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press