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Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance responds to a question during a news conference on May 7, 2020 in Ottawa.The Canadian Press

Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance announced he will step down in the coming months after five years as top soldier, which will mark the end of the longest term in history for a leader of the country’s military.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement Thursday thanking Gen. Vance for his service and saying the recruitment process to replace him is already under way.

“As Canada’s longest-serving Chief of the Defence Staff, he has led the Canadian Armed Forces as they defended our country against military threats, and deployed overseas to confront adversaries and support our allies,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Gen. Vance, 56, said in a statement “the selection of a new Chief of Defence Staff and a subsequent change of command date will be determined by the government.” He added the members of the Canadian Armed Forces have been an inspiration for his life.

“Now in my 39th year of service, and in my sixth year as CDS, and with the CAF gaining an even stronger strategic posture, I am excited at the prospect of a new CDS being appointed to lead the profession of arms in Canada and take you even further,” he said.

Andrew Leslie, a former Liberal MP and retired lieutenant-general, said Thursday that Gen. Vance had a challenging job and he did as well as could be “reasonably expected.”

“I know it had to be tough for him in many circumstances,” he said in an interview. Mr. Leslie said Gen. Vance kept the job a “remarkably long time,” adding most stay in the role for two or three years.

He pointed to deployments including the helicopter mission to Mali as being well-executed and noted Operation Honour, an effort to eliminate sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. Mr. Leslie said those types of initiatives are never perfectly executed but that it was well-started.

Gen. Vance didn’t give any specific reason for the timing of his departure. Last week, the government declined to put Gen. Vance’s name in the running for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization job after the government was embarrassed for failing to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The decision, along with the military’s pandemic response, implementation of a new defence policy and the recent creation of a “hateful conduct” policy to deal with racism and discrimination in the forces, may have also contributed to the timing of the departure, said Stephen Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network.

“I’ve been expecting him to go for two or three years now because they just don’t last this long,” said Dr. Saideman, an political scientist who specializes in civil-military relations and co-hosts Battle Rhythm, a podcast on Canadian defence.

“But we had an election, the pandemic, these new policies that were a priority for him. He may have been waiting for the NATO decision. So it does make sense for it to happen now.”

Mr. Leslie said that one thing that will form part of Gen. Vance’s legacy is the situation with former Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

In January, 2017, the military moved to suspend Mr. Norman and he was later charged with one count of breach of trust for allegedly leaking government secrets, known as “cabinet confidences,” to a Quebec shipyard.

In 2019, the Defence Department announced it had reached a “mutually acceptable agreement” with Mr. Norman and that he would be retiring from the military after consulting with his family, chain of command and his legal counsel.

“I am not at all happy with the way Mark Norman was treated,” Mr. Leslie said. “There’s many others who feel the same way and that happened on his [Gen. Vance’s] watch.”

There is no obvious replacement for Gen. Vance, in part because of the wake left behind the Norman affair, Dr. Saideman said. Gen. Vance has had seven vice-chiefs of defence staff during his tenure, including Mr. Norman, and many senior leaders retired or were very recently moved into new roles.

“The Norman thing really screwed up the regular rotation of positions,” Dr. Saideman said. “Once that happened, spinning plates started falling on the floor.”

The political scientist added “the real test now will be who they pick next. It will reveal a little bit about the nature, culture and priorities of this government.”

When he was appointed in 2015 by Stephen Harper’s government, Gen. Vance was the first among Canada’s senior front-line commanders from the war in Afghanistan to rise to the top military post. While his tenure involved overseas missions in Mali, Latvia and Iraq, it was largely preoccupied with domestic concerns in rebuilding the military’s capacity and overhauling culture to confront and reduce sexual misconduct and discrimination in the forces.

“He prioritized a lot of the right things, but people will quibble about how effective it was,” Dr. Saideman said. “He faced a lot of crises that weren’t necessarily of his making. The striking thing is he served twice as long as the average. Even if there were bumps along the way, he handled them in a way politicians liked.”

The Conservatives did not issue a statement on Thursday regarding Gen. Vance’s decision to retire. NDP defence critic Randall Garrison thanked him for his years of service to the country and wished him well in his retirement.

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