Former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance charged with obstruction of justice
Vance is being investigated for sexual misconduct over his relationship with a subordinate
Former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance has been charged with one count of obstruction of justice related to an ongoing military investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) announced the single charge against the country's retired former top military commander on Thursday.
The service would not provide details about what is alleged to have taken place, but said that it happened sometime after the CFNIS began investigating Vance on Feb. 4, 2021.
"It was during the course of this investigation that the obstruction of justice is alleged to have occurred," CFNIS said in a news release.
Provincial court documents, released late Thursday, allege that Vance "did willfully attempt to obstruction the course of justice in a judicial proceeding by repeatedly contacting Mrs. KB by phone and attempting to persuade her to make false statements about their past relationship to the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service."
Vance is due in provincial court on Sept. 17.
Vance retired as chief of the defence staff in mid-January. Almost two weeks later, Global News reported a story that accused him of having a long-standing relationship with a female subordinate and that he had sent a racy email to a junior non-commissioned officer eight years ago, prior to him assuming the top spot in in the military.
It was later revealed that the alleged inappropriate relationship involved Maj. Kellie Brennan, a reservist and staff officer at army headquarters in Ottawa.
Recordings of Vance
The allegations against Vance have sparked two sets of parliamentary committee hearings where Brennan testified and revealed the allegations which appear to be the basis of the charge against Vance. She also was interviewed by Global News and claimed that Vance, after the first story broke, counselled her to lie to military police.
She claimed to have tape recordings.
"It's recorded, and the CFNIS has all of the recordings of him directing me in what to say, what not to say, how to say it, what to exclude, to perjure myself," she told the Commons status of women committee on April 22.
WATCH | Former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance charged with obstruction:
Vance, responding to the initial Global News story, denied the allegations. He has not spoken publicly since the stories were first made public in early February.
CBC News asked Vance for comment on Thursday, but he did not respond.
The allegations touched off a series of revelations and accusations involving other senior leaders in the military, including Vance's successor, Admiral Art McDonald, who voluntarily stepped aside in late February after sexual misconduct allegations against him were leaked to CBC News and the Ottawa Citizen.
The Crown's hurdles
One legal expert says that one of the hurdles the Crown will have to cross in proving the charge is whether Vance threatened Brennan.
"We don't have all of the evidence, but what I would be interested in knowing is what evidence they have that there was a threat, a bribe or other corrupt means to persuade Ms. Brennan to lie — because simply asking somebody to lie is not obstruction of justice," said retired colonel Rory Fowler, a military lawyer now in private practice.
There is a 10-year maximum sentence for a conviction on an obstruction of justice charge, Fowler said.
He added that it is unprecedented that such a senior retired officer is charged with a criminal offence.
"Previous to this, the most senior rank in living memory, the most senior rank who was facing a charge like this, was the then-vice-chief of the defence staff [Vice-Admiral] Mark Norman," said Fowler.
Norman was accused in 2017 of leaking cabinet secrets and charged by the RCMP with a single count of breach of trust. The charge was stayed two years later.
The investigations into Vance, McDonald and other senior leaders set off a wider crisis within the Canadian military, which has been grappling ineffectively with the scourge of sexual misconduct for decades.
Vance was supposed to be the one who fixed it; coming into the defence chief's job in 2015, he launched Operation Honour, an attempt to stamp out inappropriate behaviour.
Defence expert Charlotte Duval-Lantoine said the charge against Vance is serious and a demonstration by the federal government and the military that there will be no impunity.
Restoring confidence in the military justice system will depend on whether he is found guilty and punished, she suggested.
"We don't really know what is the outcome of this charge, but there is that idea now that even a chief of the defence staff needs to be subject to the same punishment, to the same sanctions as anyone else in the Canadian Armed Forces," said Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The ongoing sexual misconduct crisis has prompted calls for the resignation of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, which were renewed Thursday once the obstruction charge was announced.
Renewed resignation calls
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said throughout the winter and spring, the Liberal government "went to great lengths to block investigations and hide the truth" about the sexual misconduct crisis and what it knew about Vance's personal life prior to the allegations becoming public.
"Accountability goes straight to the top," said Bezan. "Today's development is just one more reason why Minister Sajjan needs to resign."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also weighed in, calling Liberal attempts to address military sexual misconduct a failure.