WARNING: This story includes graphic details about an alleged sexual assault. This is separate from the allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Gen. Jonathan Vance. Please read at your own discretion.
Maj. Kellie Brennan says the time has come to tell her story.
For years, she says she felt she had nowhere to turn despite telling military superiors in the chain of command about the intimate, sexual relationship she says she had with former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance while he was her superior.
But always, she says the response was the same.
“It was a hot potato that nobody knew what to do with,” said Brennan, speaking with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson in her first on-the-record interview about the longstanding sexual relationship she says she had with Vance, including while he was chief of the defence staff.
Now, Brennan says she is sounding the alarm on the extent to which she says sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour continues to permeate the ranks of the Canadian Forces, despite the launch of Operation Honour in 2015 to root out harmful conduct.
“Tell us: who is Kellie Brennan?” asked Stephenson.
“Kellie Brennan is a soldier, is a woman,” she said.
“I want to say she’s a warrior with lots of scars.”
Brennan is one of the women at the heart of allegations first reported by Global News earlier this month and is the woman who brought her allegations to military police following that report.
Since then, she says military police sent all-male officers to her home to question her as part of the probe launched by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service into the allegations.
Following those allegations, Chief of the Defence Staff Adm. Art McDonald also promised an independent examination, and the House of Commons defence committee voted unanimously to launch a study into the matter.
The first of three meetings by the committee began Friday with testimony by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and other top government officials, and is set to continue this week.
“We must prevent the fear and the barriers that prevent people from coming forward,” said Sajjan during his testimony. “We need a complete and total culture change.”
Brennan says the barriers to coming forward are ones she knows all too well.
“I wasn’t allowed to tell the truth until I was given permission to tell the truth,” she said.
“I didn’t even know how to get that permission. I tried. I asked my chain of command for permission to speak, and I listened to a whole range of reasons why I should and shouldn’t,” she said, before describing a conversation with one of the top media relations officials at the Department of National Defence.
“I can just remember her voice on the phone … she said: ‘Kellie, you can speak.'”
“This uncontrollable gasp came out of me. And I said, ‘oh,’” Brennan said, exhaling. “Because I was no longer under his command.”
Deschamps report highlighted military power dynamics
Brennan says she first began an intimate relationship with Vance while the two of them worked at the Canadian Forces Base in Gagetown, New Brunswick, in 2001.
Vance has acknowledged to Global News that the two dated while at Gagetown but denies any intimate relationship with Brennan while she was under his command.
He has said the relationship ended and was not intimate in 2006 when he began working as chief of staff at Land Force Central Area, headquartered at the Denison Armoury, in Toronto. Brennan says the relationship was sexual in 2006 while she was within Vance’s chain of command in Toronto.
“So he’s your boss but at this time, you’re having a romantic relationship, an intimate relationship, a sexual relationship?” Stephenson asked.
“Yes. In his office, I guess that’s an intimate relationship – having intimate encounters in his office, at my house, at his house, in cars. Have sex in these places, I guess, is an intimate relationship,” Brennan said.
“And what about while he was CDS (chief of the defence staff)?” Stephenson asked.
WATCH: Maj. Kellie Brennan talks with Global’s Mercedes Stephenson about her history with Gen. Jonathan Vance (YouTube version)
“When he became CDS, I think that he tried to fight it,” said Brennan. “The way I’ll explain it is that, right before he became CDS, I can remember an event. He had me over at his house, his residence, and we drank wine and we sat in his bed and we had sex, and we decided — he was writing his speech for becoming CDS, but he really wanted my opinion on a lot of facts.”
She says that after that encounter, Vance told her they needed to stop. And for a while, she says that was the case – until she was posted to Ottawa, and the relationship began again while he remained chief of the defence staff.
Vance has told Global News there was no romantic relationship during the time they were both working in Toronto, that there has been no sexual relationship with Brennan since the two dated in Gagetown in 2001, and that he never influenced any of her postings.
He says he has served as a “supporter” for Brennan, and that the two are “colleagues and friends.”
“I’m a champion for her. There to provide advice,” he said earlier in the month.
Vance became chief of defence staff in 2015 following a damning report by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps that found sexual misconduct was rampant throughout the military. In response, he launched Operation Honour, which had the mission to root out misconduct and eliminate sexual misconduct in the military.
The Deschamps report also highlighted the challenge of power dynamics in the military when it comes to the ability to give consent – a challenge Brennan says she knows well when asked whether the relationship she says she had with Vance was consensual while she was his subordinate.
“On a personal level, ‘consensual’ meaning was I participating in it? Yes. Could I say no to him? No,” Brennan said. “The reason why I say that is because if he rang me on the phone or if he texted me, I was obliged to get back to him.”
She added that she feels Vance abused his authority over her both while he was chief of the defence staff and while she says they were engaged in an intimate relationship while stationed in Toronto.
“I think so, because no matter how much we want to say that it doesn’t affect your career or it doesn’t affect your life, it does,” she said, adding that Vance filled out her personnel evaluation form while she was stationed in Toronto and told her he couldn’t recommend her for a promotion because of their relationship.
“I remember the conversation in his house, where he told me that I was an awesome captain,” she said. “He used words like, ‘You have performed your duties admirably at that rank, but to be promoted further than that would be complicated.’”
Vance says he never held back Brennan’s career. He says he offered her advice when she told him she was unhappy in a posting, but never improperly leveraged his authority over her.
Brennan says she wants to see the military culture change, but that there are still barriers for people coming forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
“I know of women who have difficulties admitting it to themselves, admitting it to other people, because there’s a culpability that you think that maybe you got yourself into that position,” she said. “And when you’re in that situation, you can’t get out — it’s your boss.”
Brennan says she has faced dozens of incidents of inappropriate sexual conduct over her roughly 30-year career in the military from a number of different men, including rape.
She says she shared some of those experiences with Vance in conversations about joining the class action lawsuit for victims of sexual misconduct in the military, but nothing happened.
Brennan said she told Vance about a specific violent assault at a previous posting.
“He snapped and he raped me, and I fell to the ground. I smashed my head. I lost consciousness.”
Brennan continued: “I conveyed all of this to Jon Vance in detail, and he did nothing.”
“He knew about this after Operation Honour, and he did nothing?” Stephenson asked.
“Nothing, because he couldn’t, he said,” Brennan said. “I was the dirty secret. He couldn’t defend me — then people would know about us.”
Vance is married.
He told Global News Brennan never mentioned any specifics like names of alleged perpetrators to him of previous alleged assaults and that he provided her advice. He says he recommended that she either join the military’s class action lawsuit for victims of sexual misconduct or consider other forms of legal action if she wanted to do so.
Brennan said Vance called her “many times” following the initial report about the allegations.
“What did he say to you, Kellie?” Stephenson asked.
“Told me to lie,” Brennan said.
“What did he tell you to lie about?” Stephenson asked.
“Having sex. He first started telling me not to say anything about anything,” Brennan said.
“He gave me barriers when I could say what: that yes, I could say that we had a relationship in Gagetown; no, I couldn’t say that we had a relationship after that; that we were just friends.”
Vance told Global News while he had spoken to Brennan, he had not pressured her to say anything or asked her to say things that weren’t true.
According to the most recent tracking report of harmful behaviour within the military, there were 172 incidents of sexual misconduct and 84 cases of sexual assault reported within the Canadian Forces from 2018 and 2019.
Most complainants were female, and the majority were junior, non-commissioned members of the military who hold positions like master corporal, corporal and private.
That same year saw four people permanently removed from command, 14 removed from supervisory positions, and more than 300 cases of sexual misconduct investigated.
Brennan said if the military is serious about creating cultural change, women need to be able to speak openly about their experiences and have a seat at the decision-making table.
She said the only way to move forward is to confront the problems head-on.
“You unlock the door. There’s a locked door of secrets, and we’re all scared to open that door to tell the truth. Because the truth is ugly. The truth is complicated,” she said.
“That door needs to be unlocked and opened.”
If you think someone is abusive to their partner, here is a list of resources to help.