Politics

Admiral told a friend he was 'exhausted' by internal shipbuilding battles

Suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman considered resigning because of what he perceived was political interference in the navy's attempt to secure an interim supply ship, CBC News has learned.

Vice-Admiral Norman was suspended in January over allegations of leaking secret information

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, shown in 2015, confided to a friend that he was "exhausted" by the internal political, bureaucratic and corporate battles over shipbuilding, sources told CBC News. (CBC)

The military's embattled second-in-command considered resigning when he was head of the Royal Canadian Navy, over what he perceived was political interference from the newly elected Liberal government, CBC News has learned.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's frustration hit the boiling point during one weekend in late November 2015, days after a series of leaks about the troubled national shipbuilding program.

He confided to a friend that he was "exhausted" by the internal political, bureaucratic and corporate battles; that he was "prepared to go public, if necessary;" how he couldn't "keep playing along much longer" and he was "prepared to resign over this," sources told CBC News.

The focus of his frustration related to a cabinet decision temporarily halting the planned lease of a much-needed navy supply ship from Levis, Que.-based Chantier Davie shipyards.

Just days before the pause was ordered, the co-CEO of rival Irving Shipbuilding, James Irving, sent a letter to Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. It was also copied to Treasury Board President and Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, asking for a review of the lease plan.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (left) and Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote (right) are among the members of cabinet contacted by Irving Shipbuilding about the Davie shipyard. (Canadian Press)

All of those details were leaked to the media, setting off a furious round of internal finger-pointing and adding fuel to the fire of an ongoing RCMP investigation into unauthorized disclosures of cabinet documents and decisions.

Suspended but not charged

Norman swallowed his frustration, continued on as navy commander, and was eventually appointed as the vice-chief of defence staff in the summer of 2016 — a post he was suspended from in January after the RCMP questioned him about the leaks.

He has not been charged with anything, but remains off duty. His lawyer, Marie Henein, has said he looks forward to clearing his name.

The RCMP, National Defence and the Liberal government have steadfastly refused to comment on the removal of Norman, who is considered by the rank and file to be a straight shooter.

No one from the Liberal government was immediately available to comment Wednesday night.

Norman's boss, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, has publicly said that suspending Norman, a lifelong friend, was one of the hardest days of his career, but that he was required to do so and maintain a dignified silence while events played out.

Vance has not, however, said what his deputy has been accused of doing.

It is unclear what evidence, if any, the RCMP has that Norman was the source of not only the supply ship leak, but a series of other disclosures that embarrassed both the Liberals and the previous Conservative government. Sources have told CBC News the Conservative government initiated the wide-ranging federal police investigation of National Defence.

Wide-ranging investigation

The Mounties were already looking into the leak of a 2014 cabinet decision, which approved the sole-source, $800-million purchase of new Sea Sparrow missiles for the frigates, and further disclosures following the 2015 election of the military's plans to house Syrian refugees.

But the investigation kicked into higher gear when the story about the pause to the Davie shipyard project appeared on Nov. 20, 2015.  

The Davie shipyard in Levis, Que., is assembling a temporary supply ship for the navy. The Liberals placed the project on hold in November 2015, putting the yard's future in question. It has since proceeded with the program. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The program, worth about $587 million to taxpayers, was crucial to the navy because it had retired its two supply ships, HMCS Preserver and HMCS Protecteur, without any immediate replacements.

It was eventually allowed to go forward, despite objections from Irving. It had been locked in by the previous Conservative government and would have meant millions of dollars in cancellation penalties.

At the time, the Trudeau Liberals faced a hard contractual deadline of Nov. 30, 2015, for approving the Davie deal.

The pause had the potential of killing the Quebec shipyard because the company's financing was project-specific and up for renewal at the time, sources told CBC News.

Irving denial

In the aftermath of the leaks, angry federal bureaucrats accused Irving officials of slipping the letter calling for a review to reporters at CBC News and Postmedia — something the notoriously media-averse company vehemently denied.

Kevin McCoy, president of Irving Shipbuilding Inc., issued a statement at the height of the controversy, noting the company had also been asked to come up with an interim supply ship plan, and their call for a review of their rival's deal was meant to ensure "an open, merit-based evaluation of all proposals."

Kevin McCoy, president of Irving Shipbuilding Inc., addresses the crowd at DEFSEC Atlantic, the Canadian Defence Security and Aerospace Exhibition Atlantic, in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But how hard the company pushed that line behind closed doors with the new Liberal government is unclear.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who as the newly appointed minister, toured the Halifax shipyard on Nov. 20, 2015, and met with Irving officials — the same day the first of the leaked stories on the Davie supply ship program appeared in the media.

He and other freshly minted Liberal ministers, including Scott Brison, were at the time attending the annual security and defence forum in the Nova Scotia capital.

Sources say the subject of the Quebec shipyard contract came up during the tour of the newly modernized yard and was painted "as a threat to the Nova Scotia economy."

The two journalists who received the leaked Irving letters, which outlined the company's objections, have since been hired by the Liberal government.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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