Lieutenant-General Steven Whelan asked a senior officer to make a subordinate who had accused him of inappropriate behaviour “go away” and make it his “mission to appease” her in e-mails presented before a military tribunal struck to determine whether the three-star general is guilty of breaking military law.
Lt.-Gen. Whelan faces one count of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline” under the National Defence Act. He had initially been charged with two such counts in July, 2022, but as proceedings got under way Monday, the prosecution dropped the charge connected to more serious allegations.
Military prosecutor Major Max Reede said the remaining charge relates to alleged improper considerations made by Lt.-Gen. Whelan in the scoring of the subordinate’s performance evaluation in June, 2011, under threat that she would disclose their relationship to headquarters.
Lt.-Gen. Whelan, who was a colonel at the time of the events in 2011, pleaded “not guilty” in military court.
He was one of several senior officers to face sexual-misconduct complaints in 2021, sparking a reckoning in the Canadian Armed Forces and accusations the federal government had failed to root out long-standing sexual harassment.
The general faces no criminal charge and is one of the most senior Canadian Forces members to be brought before a court-martial. Rory Fowler, a lawyer who is not involved in this case and who previously worked as a military lawyer, said the case is rare because of how high-ranking the accused is but also because the charge against Lt.-Gen. Whelan revolves around an allegation that is usually dealt with through internal grievances – not court.
In opening arguments, Major Reede and defence lawyer Phillip Millar presented opposing narratives about what took place more than a decade ago. The prosecution painted the picture of a senior officer acting out of fear to protect his career and personal life, while the defence said Lt.-Gen. Whelan was a victim of “manipulation and extortion” and a politicized investigative process.
Major Reede said his case will show that Lt.-Gen. Whelan retaliated against his subordinate for rejecting his advances and tried to score her lower on her personal evaluation than she deserved. He alleged the general then granted a higher score once she said she would report their relationship.
He alleged that Lt.-Gen. Whelan was motivated to “prevent the inappropriate relationship” – which included “flirtatious e-mail exchanges,” telephone and video calls – from becoming public.
Mr. Millar countered that Lt.-Gen. Whelan was the “victim of politics” and said back in 2011 the subordinate “manipulated and charmed him to get what she wanted.” He acknowledged though that Lt.-Gen. Whelan “made a mistake” and developed a personal relationship – but not a physical one – with the complainant.
Outside of court, he also told reporters that the relationship ended before they were deployed overseas in Jerusalem, where Lt.-Gen. Whelan was the task force commander.
Lt.-Gen. Whelan went on paid leave from his post as chief of military personnel in October, 2021, months after the investigation into his conduct was launched, and only after The Globe and Mail asked the military about the probe.
Mr. Millar told the court that the general had offered to resign when he was first told about the investigation but that the chief of the defence staff told him not to. Despite that, the general was removed once the investigation was leaked.
The prosecution first called retired colonel Ron Ubbens to the stand and presented an e-mail chain between him and Lt.-Gen. Whelan from the time of the incident 12 years ago. The e-mails about the subordinate all occurred in the span of a few hours on June 13, 2011. Mr. Ubbens was a lieutenant-colonel at the time and under Lt.-Gen. Whelan’s command.
Mr. Ubbens told the court the e-mail exchange happened as the complainant was refusing to sign off on a personal evaluation report that she believed undervalued her work. During her conversation with Mr. Ubbens, she told him she would report her relationship with Lt.-Gen. Whelan to headquarters if her score wasn’t upgraded.
“Make her go away,” Lt.-Gen. Whelan said in the e-mail exchange with Mr. Ubbens. “We cannot allow this crazy person [to] muddy this mission. Make it your mission to appease this person.”
In the exchange, Lt.-Gen. Whelan also said, “this will destroy my career and marriage.”
“Anything you can do to help me will be much appreciated in getting her sorted,” he later said.
Mr. Ubbens told the court the incident broke his trust in Lt.-Gen. Whelan and he became sympathetic to the subordinate. However, he also repeatedly described her as unstable and said she had a dysfunctional relationship with her direct commander.
He said he forwarded the e-mail exchange he had with Lt.-Gen. Whelan to his private e-mail and saved it out of “fear of the unknown” and as a type of insurance.
Mr. Millar sought to discredit the complainant in his cross-examination of Mr. Ubbens and suggested that the retired colonel had also been manipulated and lied to.
Major Reede did not explain to the court why the second charge was dropped. The dropped charge accused Lt.-Gen. Whelan of engaging in improper communication with a subordinate or making advances toward the subordinate.
The entire case should be questioned, Mr. Millar told reporters after court, calling it “ridiculous.”
Mr. Fowler said the decision to charge Lt.-Gen. Whelan for improperly influencing a personal evaluation report is interesting because such cases happen frequently in the military and are almost always dealt with through an internal grievance.
The decision to proceed with a prosecution in the general’s case is “curious,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the second charge against Lt.-Gen Whelan, which was dropped, accused him of engaging in improper communication with a subordinate or making advances toward a subordinate.