Former top NORAD commander was investigated for months after defence department said he broke no rules

An alleged extramarital affair involving Canada's former top commander at NORAD was investigated by military police for several months after the Department of National Defence (DND) publicly stated that no rules were broken by former lieutenant-general Christopher Coates.

Christopher Coates was the subject of a high-level military meeting following reports of an affair

Col. Christopher Coates talks to media at the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on April 6, 2009. Coates, who was later promoted to Lt.-Gen, left the military last summer. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrice Bergeron)

An alleged extramarital affair involving Canada's former top commander at NORAD was investigated by military police for several months after the Department of National Defence (DND) publicly stated that no rules were broken by former lieutenant-general Christopher Coates.

Sources with knowledge of the probe told CBC News that interviews were conducted and statements taken from witnesses last spring — several weeks after the department publicly backed Coates.

Meanwhile, an access to information request filed by CBC News — looking for briefings and notes exchanged among senior military leaders about how the allegations were handled — was recently denied on the grounds that an active investigation was taking place.

CBC asked the defence department to explain the contradiction. It also asked DND when the investigation of Coates started, whether it has concluded and whether it yielded any action.

"As a standard practice, we do not confirm or deny the existence of investigations past or present," said Dan Le Bouthillier, the department's head of media relations.

"Confirming investigations does occur on a case by case basis with due regard to the integrity of the investigation, the privacy rights of all involved and the public's right to know."

The Ottawa Citizen reported last February that Coates had an affair in 2019 with an American woman, a civilian, who worked at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Military personnel at work in the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) centre deep inside Cheyenne Mountain. (Reuters)

The U.S. military has strict rules about fraternization and deems extramarital affairs a punishable offence. The Canadian Armed Forces does not outlaw affairs but considers relationships within the chain of command to be off-limits.

DND disputes the characterization of the relationship as "an affair," saying Coates — who is the brother-in-law of Canada's deputy defence minister — "was separated when he entered into a relationship with the individual in question." 

The military used that distinction to justify its claim that no rules were broken by Coates, and to smooth things over with the Americans — who were, according to sources, livid about the relationship.

Coates' personal life exploded into the open among senior NORAD staff in mid-December 2019 when his now-ex-wife wrote a scathing public denunciation of her husband in a note circulated online among the wives and partners of the bi-national command's senior officers.

Le Bouthillier said the relationship was reported to Coates' Canadian chain of command on Dec. 29, 2019.

When the story about Coates broke last February, DND stated that the woman was working outside of the lieutenant-general's direct chain of command to support its exoneration of the lieutenant-general.

American commander wanted to send Coates home

The sources, however, say the woman in question provided support to the NORAD command team and her performance evaluations had to be approved by both American and Canadian senior staff.

The question of what to do about Coates was the subject of a high-level meeting in early January 2020 between the Canadian chief of the defence staff at the time — now-retired general Jonathan Vance — and NORAD's top commander at the time, now-retired U.S. general Terrence O'Shaughnessy.

Sources say O'Shaughnessy wanted Coates returned to Canada immediately. Instead, a deal was struck that allowed Coates to stay in his deputy commander's role until the late spring of 2020. In the summer of 2020, he returned to Ottawa to assume responsibility for the country's military operations command.

United States Air Force General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of the United States Northern Command, speaks to reporters before the departure of the USNS Naval Hospital Ship Comfort on April 30, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

At the same time, Coates was also chosen for another overseas post as the deputy commander of NATO's joint forces command in Naples, Italy.

That overseas posting was cancelled by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan at the last minute after the story of the alleged affair became public.

In order to take up the NATO post, Coates first went through a screening process. NATO allies also would have been told who was taking over the deputy commander position.

DND said Coates "received his screening instructions on 27 January 2020, with a posting message in February" of the same year.

Retired colonel and military law expert Michel Drapeau said the NORAD controversy should have come up in Coates' screening. He said he wonders whether the decision to approve him for the Naples job — coming only weeks after the report of the affair went public — was part of the deal to allow him to stay in the deputy commander's job until spring of 2020.

"The light should have come on, the revolving red light should have alerted us and said there's an issue here," said Drapeau, who also said that it was troubling that the minister had no idea of what had gone down at NORAD until he was confronted with it publicly.

Coates signalled his intention to retire shortly after the Naples posting was cancelled. He was released by the military last summer.

A 'credibility' problem at DND

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think tank; she studies the Canadian military's struggles with sexism and sexual misconduct. She said the public deserves to know the scope and duration of the military police investigation of Coates, along with its results.

There is, she said, a whiff of deception and hypocrisy in the military's handling of the case — and the department never should have issued a public statement about Coates while military police were still looking into the matter.

"I do believe that being confronted constantly with the Department of National Defence's contradictions in terms of public statements versus action does hurt their credibility, not only to the public but to the people who serve ... in the military," Duval-Lantoine said.

She said other senior military leaders who have seen their careers sidelined and destroyed over allegations of misconduct must be looking at Coates' case with dismay.

"I'm concerned about the inconsistency in the treatment of flag officers because it gives the impression of favouritism," she said.

"It's perception that rules circumstances like this. I think this is why the Department of National Defence is having difficulty with issues in terms of telling the full story. It does little to reassure people if it is perceived there is deception or conflict of interest or favoritism. That is what is going to stick in their mind."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.