A Canadian Forces member says his commanding officer appeared proud when he revealed last year that military officials had intentionally avoided using Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s name in internal correspondence.
The Forces member recounted the conversation in testimony Tuesday as Vice-Adm. Norman’s lawyers turned to witnesses and e-mails to hammer home their allegations that the government is trying to prevent a fair trial for their client.
The defence is alleging the government has been hiding or delaying the release of key documents, preventing access to witnesses and cherry-picking what information is made available to the court.
Government lawyers have denied the allegations.
The service member, who still works for the military and whose identity is protected by a publication ban, said he went to his commander in July, 2017, for help with an access-to-information request for internal documents about Vice-Adm. Norman. The request related to e-mails, reports, memos, text messages and other records from a two-week period around when Vice-Adm. Norman – who is facing one count of breach of trust – was suspended as the military’s second-in-command. The service member, who testified that he doesn’t know Vice-Adm. Norman and only came forward because it seemed like the right thing to do, said his commander smiled as he told him to tell the requester that there were no records.
“He gives me a smile and says … ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t our first rodeo. We made sure we never used his name. Send back nil return,“’ the service member testified, later adding: “He seemed proud to provide that response.”
Under cross-examination, the service member said his commander left a few months later for medical reasons. Pressed by the Crown, the member said, without offering details, that he had noticed his commander “was becoming a bit mentally unstable.”
The service member also said that he had filed a formal complaint Tuesday morning, but had only informally raised the issue with other senior officers in the intervening year because he wasn’t sure who he could trust.
Prior to cross-examination, Justice Heather Perkins-McVey described the member’s testimony as “very disturbing.”
The testimony came on the fifth day of a pretrial hearing over the question of access to numerous government records, but which has increasingly turned toward whether the government has been putting up roadblocks to Vice-Adm. Norman’s defence.
Vice-Adm. Norman was suspended as the military’s second-in-command in January, 2017, and charged this past March with one count of breach of trust for allegedly leaking government secrets about a $700-million military contract. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The contract, in which a Quebec shipyard was asked to convert a civilian container ship into a support vessel for the navy, was negotiated by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and finalized by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015.
Vice-Adm. Norman’s team wants access to potentially thousands of government documents about the contract, as well as records held by Mr. Trudeau’s office to prove their client was supporting the Tories in obtaining the ship before falling victim to Liberal political games.
After the service member testified, the court heard from former Privy Council Office analyst Melissa Burke, who attended various secret meetings about the project under both the Conservative and Liberal governments.
Ms. Burke told the court she had specifically flagged to government lawyers last month that some of the notes she had taken about one such meeting might be relevant to Vice-Adm. Norman’s case, as they were different from a statement she had made to the RCMP. Despite Ms. Burke’s efforts to flag the notes, government lawyers – in a previous written response to the defence’s request for documents – had said there was “no explanation or evidentiary basis” for why the documents were relevant to the case.
It was only when Ms. Burke e-mailed Vice-Adm. Norman’s lawyers to ensure they received the notes, which related to an exchange between Vice-Adm. Norman and officials in Mr. Harper’s office in March, 2015, that their potential relevance to the case became known to the defence.
“There had been no bona fide attempt [by the government] to produce all the relevant information,” defence lawyer Marie Henein told the court. “But for [Ms. Burke] sending an e-mail and then testifying what we would be left with is the Department of Justice’s position that there is no explanation or evidentiary basis for why records of such meetings are likely relevant.”
“Troubling,” Justice Perkins-McVey replied. “Very troubling.”
Ms. Henein also produced a letter Mr. Harper sent to the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, on Tuesday morning confirming that he would not block the release of any secret documents produced by his government that the court deems relevant to the case.
Vice-Adm. Norman’s team and Justice Perkins-McVey had asked government lawyer Robert MacKinnon several times over the past few days whether officials had asked Mr. Harper for his position on releasing the files after the former prime minister tweeted on the issue. Mr. MacKinnon had repeatedly sidestepped the question, saying it was irrelevant since the government was leaving it up to the court to decide whether to release the files.
Ms. Henein said the fact that her office had to go out of its way to obtain the confirmation and e-mail – which she suggested should have been the responsibility of the Crown – was further proof of obfuscation.
Mr. Trudeau has so far remained silent on releasing documents produced under the Liberals.
Tuesday was to mark the end of the five-day pretrial, but three more days have been added at the end of January.
Vice-Adm. Norman’s team plans to subpoena the service member’s commanding officer as well as defence chief General Jonathan Vance and then-deputy defence minister John Forster to testify.
THE CANADIAN PRESS