Politics

Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, announces retirement

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country's top military commander, has announced his retirement.

After five years, Vance is one of the longest serving defence chiefs in the country's history

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 4, 2020. The general announced today he is stepping down. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country's top military commander, has announced his retirement.

A letter informing the troops of his planned departure was posted on social media Thursday. It says that he's informed the Governor General, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan of his decision "to relinquish command of the Canadian Armed Forces in the months to come."

He said it will be up to the government to select a new chief of the defence staff and decide when the change of command will take place.

"I'm a bit excited," Vance said in an interview with CBC News, when asked about the future. "I'm not just blowing sunshine here. I'm excited to see what the next person will do to keep the institution moving forward."

Vance has held the post for just over five years — often tumultuous ones — making him one of the longest serving defence chiefs in the country's history.

He was appointed in 2015 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

Vance said he has no post-military career plans, other than "getting a really good sleep" and spending time with family.

He also was reluctant to describe what he sees as his legacy, adding that he doesn't plan to write a memoir or "get into punditry" about military or defence issues.

"I'm not all that concerned about my legacy," he said. "My legacy is, I took command, I did the best I could and I left. And hopefully, I left the place better than I found it."

His tenure was marked by a high-profile campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct in the military and the politically-charged case involving former vice-admiral Mark Norman, who was accused of leaking cabinet secrets to a Quebec shipyard and the media.

Within some political and defence circles, Vance was accused of not doing enough to stand up for Norman, his former vice-chief of the defence staff, in the face of the allegations. The criminal case against Norman was stayed after the defence dug up evidence that the RCMP and the Crown had not considered.

The decision to suspend Norman in 2017 as the federal police force opened its investigation was, he said, the hardest call he had to make during five years in the job. 

"I regret that it happened, but my actions, and what I did, I did it the right way, the way I had to do it. Didn't like it, but there are lots of things I don't like," Vance said.

Throughout the controversies, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said repeatedly that he had full confidence in Vance, who was also assigned the thorny task of implementing the Liberal government's defence policy.

'I am so very proud'

Vance has been touted as a possible candidate to head NATO's Military Committee, a position that has not been held by a Canadian for more than 15 years.

The chairman's post is expected to become vacant next year and the NATO alliance has been actively canvassing nations with an interest in leading the advisory body.

But the Liberal government last week formally refused to put Vance's name forward, defence sources told CBC News.

Vance confirmed the government has elected not to pursue the competition, but said he wasn't told the reason. 

He made no secret of his interest in the job, but has said in public previously that if the NATO position was not available, after five years as defence chief, it would be time for him to retire.

In his letter to the troops, Vance praised them and described them as "the inspiration for my life," saying he had given them his all.

He told Canadian Forces members that they are "more important to the success of this nation than ‎most will ever know, and I am so very proud to be counted among your ranks."

A member of the army for 39 years, Vance did two tours commanding the Canadian task force in Kandahar before going on to a series of high-profile posts, including head of the military's overseas command and deputy commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Naples in 2014.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement today saying that Vance will continue to serve until he turns the command over to the new chief of the defence staff, "who will be named in the coming months."

"In his five years as chief of the defence staff, General Vance has served with distinction during a challenging period, leading the Canadian Armed Forces as they served at home and around the world, from Mali to Ukraine to Iraq," Trudeau said in the statement. "He has also worked with the Forces to make them more inclusive and representative of the country they defend and the Canadians they protect.

"With almost 40 years of service, General Vance has devoted his life to this country and we thank him for his dedication and leadership."

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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