Canada’s former top soldier, Jonathan Vance, pleaded guilty Wednesday to obstruction of justice and admitted that he tried to persuade a subordinate officer to lie to military police about their illicit affair.
Justice Robert Wadden granted Mr. Vance a conditional discharge, which was recommended by both the Crown and defence. Mr. Vance will not have a criminal record if he completes his probation. The former general will have to do 80 hours of community service, report to a probation officer, and is subject to a 12-month communication ban with the woman he had an affair with, Major Kellie Brennan.
Mr. Vance was chief of the defence staff from 2015 to 2021. He acknowledged in the agreed statement of facts submitted to court that he repeatedly pressed Maj. Brennan to lie about the length of their relationship. The two were together for two decades, starting in 2001, and have a child. Mr. Vance is also married.
Mr. Vance was concerned that he would be found in breach of the National Defence Act if the military learned about the relationship extending into his term as chief of the defence staff, according to the document. Maj. Brennan recorded the conversations with him in February, 2021 that show he tried to obstruct justice, the document says.
“He promoted a false narrative,’ it says, “in which he encouraged Maj. Brennan to perpetuate his lie: ‘sex in Gagetown, no sex in Toronto, no sex while CDS.’ "
Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 3, 2021, Mr. Vance “attempted to obstruct, pervert, or defeat the course of justice,” the document says.
Mr. Vance declined to provide additional comment to the court prior to the sentencing. He appeared virtually in court via his iPhone, standing against a beige wall, wearing a dark suit. His law firm released a statement on his behalf after the hearing.
“General Vance wishes to thank his wife, Kerry, as well as his family and friends for their love and support during this difficult time,” the statement said. “He apologizes and takes responsibility for his part in this matter.”
Global News first reported allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Vance in February, 2021. At the time, two unnamed members of the Canadian Forces, who included Maj. Brennan, accused him of inappropriate behaviour.
The allegations were part of a crisis that has rocked the Canadian Forces in the past year and left several top commanders facing sexual-misconduct complaints. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been criticized for failing to root out systemic sexual misconduct in the military that has been documented for decades.
Mr. Vance’s obstruction case was sent to the civilian court system last summer after investigators cited what they described as “the limitations of the military justice system” in trying Canada’s top military officer.
The military police investigation into the sexual-misconduct allegations against him ended with no charges directly related to the allegations. The Forces noted that a recent report that looked at military justice found it is “legally impossible” to try the chief of the defence staff in a general court martial.
Crown attorney Mark Holmes told the court that Maj. Brennan supports the outcome in Mr. Vance’s criminal case. In her victim-impact statement, she said Mr. Vance’s abuse of power was a “complete betrayal.”
“I don’t want him to have any power over me or the ability to influence me,” she wrote. “I want to live free of ever doing anything he tells me to.”
Mr. Vance had previously denied any wrongdoing and the criminal case was scheduled to go ahead in May, 2023.
Mr. Holmes told the court Wednesday that Mr. Vance’s attempts to persuade Maj. Brennan to lie to investigators put her as a single mother in a “precarious spot that caused her considerable distress.”
The guilty plea puts to rest any doubts about the validity of what Maj. Brennan reported a year ago, Mr. Holmes added. Mr. Holmes also reminded the court that while Mr. Vance has suffered from the fallout of the case, “he’s not the victim here.”
Mr. Holmes made the comments after defence lawyer, Rodney Sellar, said Mr. Vance has suffered personally and financially as a result of the case.
Once senior military officers retire, they often take on lucrative contracts either with the government or defence industry. Mr. Sellar said those opportunities “may well have been extinguished” for the 58-year-old former general.
Mr. Sellar argued that Mr. Vance deserved credit for his decades of service to the country. He said that Mr. Vance put his life at risk while serving in the military and argued that he can still be a “great ambassador for our country.”
The defence lawyer presented letters to the court from former colleagues of Mr. Vance, all but one of whom were men, attesting to Mr. Vance’s character. He “put the needs of troops first and tirelessly sacrificed his own comfort and lifestyle,” wrote Gavin Liddy, a retired senior civil servant in Ottawa.
Justice Wadden said Mr. Vance’s breach of trust is serious because of the personal impact on Maj. Brennan and because of the societywide impact “to see a commander of your stature behave in this manner.”
Still, in granting the conditional discharge, the judge said based on the information before him, Mr. Vance “other than this, was a man of good character.”
Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who specializes in military history, said Mr. Vance’s plea to such a serious charge is precedent setting. She added that Mr. Vance’s defence used his military service as “an alleviating factor to the crime that he committed.”
“A lot of people would disagree with that. Why is it an alleviating factor when he actually went against those higher standards of ethics that he was supposed to represent?”
Opposition parties say the government has punted action on sexual misconduct in the military by instead striking new studies, and charge that the government turned a blind eye when an allegation against Mr. Vance was first raised internally in 2018.
In October, Anita Anand took over as Defence Minister. Her mandate letter asks her to implement forthcoming recommendations from former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour. Both Ms. Anand and the Canadian Forces declined to comment specifically on Mr. Vance’s case Wednesday.
“As Minister of National Defence, my responsibility is to continue to build an institution where everyone can work with the respect and the protections that they need,” Ms. Anand said.
Both the NDP and Conservatives said a lack of action by the government in the past has left survivors of sexual misconduct unprotected.
Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University, who has studied how the military’s legal system responds to sexual assault, said Wednesday that it is evident from a failure of leadership by the former chief of the defence staff “that the Canadian military is thread through with sexism and misogyny at every level of the organization and that its justice system has some serious flaws.”
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