Military grievance board undercut in case of officer's alleged affair

A former peacekeeping commander, who is fighting to restore his reputation, says the Canadian military's grievance system is broken and being undermined. Retired colonel Bernard Ouellette is still waiting for a court-ordered apology after being unjustly relieved of his UN command in Haiti.

A Canadian colonel, unjustly relieved of a UN command over rumours of an affair, fights for apology

Retired colonel Bernard Ouellette was relieved from his post in Haiti in 2010 after after allegations that he was involved in an inappropriate relationship. The allegations were never proven. (Cpl. Shilo Adamson, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

The military's internal grievance system, set up in the wake of the Somalia scandal to be independent and free of bias, is broken and being actively subverted, says a former soldier who's been waiting almost a year for a court-ordered apology.

A Federal Court justice, last October, ordered the country's chief of defence staff to take action in the case of retired colonel Bernard Ouellette, who was stripped of his command in 2010 as Canada's top soldier in Haiti.

Ten months later, Ouellette says it's clear Gen. Jonathan Vance, like his predecessors, wants to sweep his case under the rug and ignore the ruling.

"Nobody has heard what I have had to say, and nobody in the chain of command really cared about the way [my case] has been handled," Ouellette told CBC News in an interview.

"I would just like someone to say they are sorry."

Frustrating journey

It has been a six year legal odyssey for the once-rising star within the military.

Ouellette was relieved of command, which included being chief of staff to the United Nations Stabilization Mission, on the basis of rumours that he was having an affair with an assistant, something a military police investigation failed to establish.

He allowed the female assistant, a UN employee, to stay in his quarters after the 2010 earthquake destroyed her accommodations and the two were often seen together. 

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, killing and injuring thousands. (The Associated Press)

Over a year after he was brought home from Haiti in disgrace, the Military Grievances External Review Committee ruled his removal was unjustified and said it was aghast at the way he was treated.

The ruling from the independent agency said Ouellette was never given a chance to defend himself, nor told about all of the allegations against him.

'Grievances such as Col Ouellette's case are complex and reviewing the material takes time,'- Lt.-Col. Jason Proulx, spokesman for the chief of defence staff

The board also recommended an apology and a plan to publicly restore his reputation.

Former chief of defence staff Gen. Tom Lawson objected and upheld the original decision, something that prompted Ouellette to go to Federal Court.

The judge last fall agreed he had been treated poorly and ordered Vance, who took over from Lawson a year ago, to review the original decision.

"The system is broken in the sense that when they get a ruling they don't like, they just let it go," said Ouellette. "When you let it go, you hope people, like me, will let it go also because they don't have the resources; they don't have the health; they don't have the money; and they don't have the conviction to fight the chain of command. It's like David against Goliath."

A spokesman for the chief of defence staff says the matter is being taken seriously and a decision is expected to be rendered this fall.

"Grievances such as Col. Ouellette's case are complex and reviewing the material takes time," said Lt.-Col. Jason Proulx.

"There are a number of different perspectives that must be reconciled — including that of Col. Ouellette. The Chief of the Defence Staff (also) wants to ensure the process is fair but not at the expense of other grievances that are also being reviewed."   

On the question of an apology, Proulx said he won't speculate on the outcome of the review.

It has been making findings and provides the CDS with separate advice and separate recommendations. It's almost as if it's in opposition to the external review committee,- Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, military law expert.

But Ouellette's lawyer, retired colonel Michel Drapeau, says the problem goes much deeper in the sense that the external review committee — a quasi-judicial body created to give military members a fair, open process for airing their complaints against superiors — is being undermined.

Internal dissent

Before a grievance reaches the desk of the chief of defence staff for final adjudication, it must pass through a military administrative body, which Drapeau says was allowed to expand, unchecked under Vance's immediate predecessors.

"This staff has grown in size and authority where it intercepts many of the grievances that are looked at by the external review committee," he said.

Gen. Jonathan Vance took over as chief of the defence staff in 2015. (CBC)

"It has been making findings and provides the CDS with separate advice and separate recommendations. It's almost as if it's in opposition to the external review committee."

Drapeau, a military law expert who represents a number of veterans, says the administrative body, known as the Canadian Forces Grievance Authority, only began wielding what he calls its illegitimate authority about six or seven years ago.

In the case of Ouellette, he said the authority provided "bloody and totally contrary advice to the CDS about what to what the external, independent committee recommended."

Proulx said Drapeau is "entitled to his opinion," but there is nothing in legislation that binds the defence chief to accept the independent panel's recommendations.

Statistics released by National Defence show, on average over the last four years, the independent committee has sided with an aggrieved military member about 50 per cent of the time.

But a quarter of those positive findings were rejected when they hit the desk of the chief of defence staff.