Canada's top military general needs to resign

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General Jonathan Vance. Photo: NATO/Flickr

The Canadian military is currently fighting a three-headed dragon.

First, there is the state of the equipment. Second there is the problem of endemic sexual harassment. And third there is the perilous mental health of those currently in military service and those who have left.

The current chief of the defence staff, General Jonathan Vance, was supposed to tackle all three heads of this monster, but he has failed in spectacular fashion.

It is no secret that the ships, planes, helicopters and submarines that the Canadian forces employ belong in museums rather than in operation. Recently, the Sea King helicopter finished 40 years of service. These helicopters are not just obsolete for the battlefield. In many ways, they have become a safety hazard to the government employees who use them every day.

The refueling ship that caught ablaze and had to be towed to Hawaii is just one example of the decrepit state of our navy. It was after this incident that the former Conservative government awarded a sole source contract to build a new refueling ship to a company in Quebec, Davie Shipbuilding in Lévis, across the river from Quebec City.

When the incoming Trudeau government took over in October 2015, rival shipbuilders, the Irvings of New Brunswick, asked several cabinet ministers including Scott Brison, a Nova Scotia MP, about reopening the procurement process to consider other proposals.

The Liberals had just swept Atlantic Canada, winning all 32 seats. They decided it was worth paying the $89-million cancelation penalty to the Quebec firm to re-open the process. That decision pushed the desperately needed ship's production back years.

Someone leaked the information about this decision to the press and Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the military's second-in-command, was selected out of 73 possible whistle blowers and charged by the RCMP.

The subsequent two years have seen a persistent attempt to hinder the Canadian military's Norman's due process.

Norman was relieved of his position and denied compensation for his legal representation. In the end, when the prosecution abandoned the case, the government had to apologize to the vice-admiral.

General Vance accepted full responsibility for the Admiral Norman fiasco, but not before he, as chief of the defence staff, had received an increase in pay.

No progress over two decades on sexual assaults

On top of all this, General Vance has had to deal with a problem that has given Canada's Armed Forces a black eye for decades: the sexual misconduct within the forces. So persistent is this problem that Maclean's magazine could use the same headline about the victims of sexual assault within the Canadian forces twice, 20 years apart.

The military leadership announced a few years ago that sexual misconduct would be the chief of the defence staff's top priority. Then came a booze-filled Department of National Defence flight, carrying former NHLer Tiger Williams to meet the troops on the front lines. Instead of spreading good will and raising morale, the former hockey star got himself accused of sexual misconduct.

Although the charges were dropped, the damage was done. The military decided to cancel these morale-building visits.

The auditor general's 2018 report and a recent Statistics Canada study both showed that little to no progress on the sexual harassment file has been made in the three years since the current chief of defence staff assumed his role.

That is not a record of which anyone could be proud.

Then there is the very recent fiasco of the new Afghan Memorial. It was unveiled behind closed doors with only high-ranking leadership and civilian staff in attendance. The military brass did not invite any of the more than 1,800 soldiers injured in the Afghanistan operation injured; nor did they see fit to invite the families of the 158 soldiers killed there.

The ensuing outrage led to yet another government apology, with General Vance, yet again, shouldering the full responsibility. The damage to the mental health and well-being of the injured veterans, their families and the families of the dead was done, and no apology could assuage it.

Insensitivity to veterans and their families

I have had my own experience with the Canadian military's insensitivity to the suffering and sacrifice of its front-line troops. As a member of the service excellence committee I attended the last veterans' stakeholder summit. The veterans affairs minister, at the time, was Kent Hehr, and he presided over the whole affair.

This event coincided with the 10th anniversary of Operation Medusa, the 2006 Canadian-led offensive in Afghanistan, that saw 12 Canadian soldiers lose their lives. It was a deeply traumatic experience for all who took part, including me. Prior to the summit, I requested, through our committee, that Veterans Affairs give a presentation which would offer material that could help me and my colleagues find the mental health services we all needed.

Veterans' Affairs denied this request, on the premise that it would take away from the "vibe" the stakeholders' summit was trying to create.

I then asked if they would at least provide an information table for the veterans of Medusa in attendance, but that request was denied as well.

During the summit the chief of the defence staff did a Q and A with the assembled stakeholders, during which I asked him why this opportunity -- probably the last where most of the battle group would be together -- was wasted. His response was not merely to disagree. It was to yell and berate me. Three weeks later, one of the Operation Medusa veterans committed suicide.

This callous behaviour towards colleagues, subordinates and soldiers who died or were injured shows that the current chief of the defence staff is not fit for his command. He should do the honourable thing and resign his position before this contract comes to an end. His conduct and demeanour have been truly unbecoming of an officer. 

Editor's note, June 14, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the refuelling ship contract had originally been part of a bidding process; in fact it was awarded as a sole source contract to Davie Shipbuilding.

Bruce Moncur is a Canadian Afghan war veteran. In 2006, he suffered severe injuries during Operation Medusa in a "friendly-fire" incident between Canadian and American troops.

Photo: NATO/Flickr

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