A Canadian army colonel dismissed from his command in Haiti two years ago amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship has taken the extraordinary step of suing the Department of National Defence and fellow officers for defamation.
Colonel Bernard Ouellette is seeking compensation from DND as well as three soldiers who were his subordinates in the Haiti mission – officers who he alleges e-mailed Ottawa in March of 2010 to accuse him of sleeping with a United Nations staffer from the Balkans and “frolicking together” with her by the pool.
Soldiers are forbidden to engage in romance or sexual relations in theatre but several staff reporting to Col. Ouellette wrote headquarters in Canada to allege their boss was having an affair with Vlora Merlaku, his secretary at the UN mission.
“It is a fact that she [Vlora] is sleeping in the same room with Col. Ouellette and that there is only one bed in the room,” reads one e-mail that the army officer is submitting as evidence.
“They have been seen walking hand in hand, not normal behaviour for a boss and his subordinate,” this message, allegedly sent by a major under Col. Ouellette, reads.
Col. Ouellette was removed in late June of 2010 as commander of the Canadian task force in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he was also chief-of-staff to the UN stabilization mission there.
At the time of his ouster, Department of National Defence told journalists that he was relieved of command because of morale problems in the Canadian mission. A DND spokesman also said in widely reported comments that the colonel was being investigated for allegations he had carried on an inappropriate relationship with a UN staffer.
Col. Ouellette, 51, who remains married to his wife of 28 years, is seeking $6.2-million in damages as well as an apology from all five named defendants and a correction to his service record.
In a suit filed earlier this year in Ontario Superior Court, he denies any wrongdoing, explaining he had granted Ms. Merlaku his room at a Canada House residence to safeguard her in the months after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti and killed close to 100 UN staff.
“Ms. Merlaku had her own residence … However, that neighbourhood was considered unsafe and inhospitable,” Col. Ouellette’s statement of claim says.
He says he allowed his secretary to remain at Canada House for two months “for reasons of safety and health” and slept in his office or elsewhere.
Col. Ouellete said in his statement that he never attempted to cover up or hide this arrangement.
“I have been married for 28 years and I have never deceived my wife … I acted in good faith and without ulterior motive.”
Col. Ouellette, who remains employed by the Forces, says the Department of Defence bears heavy responsibility because it wrongly removed him from command and cemented the impression he’d disgraced himself.
“DND is responsible for allowing the propagation of libel inside DND and ultimately allowing it to be released and disseminated by the press,” the statement of claim says.
The colonel complained that Canadian Forces students are now being taught of the allegations against him.
“The defamatory statements ... have become so widespread and familiar that they are currently being used as an example to demonstrate ‘unethical conduct’ ” at Canadian Forces College, says the statement of claim, which also names a college teacher as a defendant.
Another e-mail sent by a subordinate to Ottawa headquarters reads: “It is common knowledge among UN staff that the Colonel is having an affair; they refer (behind his back) to the Colonel as the Colonel and his bride, the Colonel and his queen.”
The soldier complains that DND has commenced a review of his fitness to continue serving, a process he said “is punitive and only serves to further tarnish [his] professional reputation.”
He filed a grievance over his ouster and says the head of the Canadian Forces Grievance Board sided with him.
Col. Ouellette cites statements by Grievance Board chair Bruno Hamel who says he recommends that the military reverse its decision. “I am shocked by the manner in which the grievor was treated,” the statement of claim quotes Mr. Hamel’s report as saying.
Mr. Hamel is also quoted as saying he is troubled by Col. Ouellette’s superiors’ decision to remove him from his post so abruptly “on allegations submitted by Canadian Forces officers who had bypassed the chain of command.”
The army colonel was widely praised earlier in 2010 for helping co-ordinate relief efforts after the earthquake struck Haiti that January.
“Colonel Ouellette’s personal file is replete with correspondence from his United Nations’ military senior commanders indicating their admiration and respect for him both personally and professionally,” the statement of claim says.