Politics

Former top military commander pleads guilty to obstruction of justice

Canada's former top military commander has pleaded guilty to a single charge of obstruction of justice — the latest episode in a sexual misconduct crisis that has shaken the Department of National Defence to its foundations.

Jonathan Vance was charged in relation to an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct

A court sketch of Gen. Jonathan Vance, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice during a virtual court appearance on March 30, 2022. (Greg Banning/CBC)

Canada's former top military commander has pleaded guilty to a single charge of obstruction of justice — the latest episode in a sexual misconduct crisis that has shaken the Department of National Defence to its foundations.

Retired general Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, was charged by military police last summer in relation to an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Vance appeared virtually in an Ottawa court Wednesday morning and entered the guilty plea.

The judge accepted a joint submission from the Crown and defence and sentenced him to a conditional discharge, plus 12 months of probation.

"The offence is a serious offence," said Justice Robert Wadden during sentencing. "It involves an attempt to interfere with proceedings that would investigate your actions ... what you did while you were in your command position.

"It is serious because it is breach of trust. It is serious because it impacts all Canadian society to see a commander of your stature behave in this manner."

Vance must also complete 80 hours of community service and refrain from contacting Maj. Kellie Brennan, the woman at the centre of the sexual misconduct case against Vance.

Rodney Sellar, Vance's lawyer, read into the record a number of letters of support for his client — most of them from retired members of the military, including one former top U.S. general.

Vance chose not to address the court.

Vance 'takes full responsibility,' lawyer says

"My client regrets the actions and certainly takes full responsibility for what occurred," Sellar told the court. "But I think all of these witnesses ... [have] spoken to his character as a military officer."

In a brief statement released by his lawyer, Vance said he took responsibility for what happened and thanked his wife and family for their support. He declined to be interviewed or to provide further comment.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) laid the single charge against Vance last summer but did not provide details.

The CFNIS said only that the charge related to events that happened after the military police began investigating Vance over an allegation of misconduct on Feb. 4, 2021.

Provincial court documents said Vance "willfully" attempted to obstruct justice by repeatedly contacting Brennan and attempting to persuade her to make false statements to investigators.

Brennan, a staff officer at army headquarters, told Global News last winter that she and the former chief of the defence staff had an on-again, off-again intimate relationship. She subsequently testified before a parliamentary committee and claimed Vance had fathered two of her eight children.

Subsequent DNA testing confirmed Vance fathered one child with Brennan.

In a victim impact statement submitted to the court, Brennan described a punishing emotional toll caused by Vance's behaviour.

"To find myself in a position where my superior was abusing his power and using his authority to intimidate and silence me was a complete betrayal of everything I respected in the military," she wrote.

"I don't want him to have any power over me or the ability to influence me in my lifetime."

The revelations about Vance, first reported by Global News, set off a major crisis within the Canadian military and opened the door to a flood of allegations and investigations of misconduct involving some of the most senior leaders.

Vance's immediate successor, now-retired admiral Art McDonald, stepped aside after a military police investigation was launched into a decade-old allegation involving a female junior officer. Investigators declined to lay charges against McDonald, citing a lack of evidence.

The former head of military personnel, Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, is facing criminal charges related to a three-decade-old allegation of rape involving a female non-commissioned member of the navy.

Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson faces criminal charges related to a rape allegation. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The officer who led Canada's COVID vaccine distribution, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, also faces a criminal charge related to an alleged incident in the 1980s when he was at military college.

In total, 11 senior leaders in the military have been sidelined or swept up the crisis because of their handling of misconduct cases.

The crisis has prompted the Liberal government to institute another overhaul of military justice and to order that military sexual assault cases be moved to the civilian court system. It has commissioned a review by retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to map out a better system of accountability and find a way to execute recommendations from a previous review on sexual conduct — most of which have not been implemented.

Defence Minister Anita Anand had little to say Wednesday about the outcome of the case against Vance.

"It is not my role to comment on the results of an individual criminal case with an individual defendant," she said outside the House of Commons.

"However, as minister of national defence, my responsibility is to continue to build an institution where everyone can work with the respect and the protections that they need to do their jobs on behalf of our country."

WATCH: Defence Minister Anita Anand speaks after Vance enters guilty plea

Defence minister says her responsibility is to build an institution on respect and protection

5 months ago
Duration 0:37
Minister of National Defence Anita Anand reacts to former chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.

The results of Arbour's review are expected to be released later this year.

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who has conducted extensive research on the military's handling of sexual misconduct, said no one should view the conclusion of Vance's case a significant step toward ending the crisis of leadership.

"I don't think that Vance pleading guilty for obstruction of justice is a victory in the fight against sexual misconduct in the military for the simple reason that it is not about sexual misconduct," she said. "It's about obstruction of justice."

She said she's troubled by the defence suggestion that Vance's "good character" makes the offence "not as bad."

In fact, said Duval-Lantoine, it's worse because society holds members of the military to a higher standard.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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