THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 22, Season 10
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guest: Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: He was Canada’s top soldier, the country’s longest serving chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance. He vowed to stamp out sexual misconduct in the military and expel troops who crossed the line.
But just weeks after stepping down, the man who came up with Operation Honour, is under investigation by military police after Global News broke allegations of sexual misconduct with subordinate women.
Vance is accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate woman, including while she was under his command, and emailing a young corporal about going to a clothing option beach after encouraging her to reach out to him for career advice.
Vance was investigated by military police on separate allegations about inappropriate behaviour in 2015. He was not charged. He has denied all allegations of inappropriate conduct.
Now there are questions about who knew of the allegations and why more wasn’t done. On top of the police investigation, there will be an independent probe and House of Commons hearings into the allegations.
Sources tell Global News the military ombudsman warned Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan of concerns in 2018. Sajjan says he has always reported allegations to appropriate authorities.
Randall Garrison, NDP Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke: “I’m asking for you to confirm to me, whether you knew or did not know about these allegations.”
Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence: “What I’m saying is here that the conversations and the meetings are confidential.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Did you, at any point, raise this with Prime Minister Trudeau or any of his senior staff or fellow members of cabinet?
Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence: “Any type of information was brought to the appropriate authorities.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The prime minister has not answered repeated questions about whether he knew.
Mike Le Couteur, Global National Parliamentary Correspondent: “I think Canadians just want to know what you knew.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canadians know everyone deserves to be in a safe workplace free from harassment or unacceptable actions.”
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: “Were you aware of any concerns about General Vance’s behaviour towards subordinate women?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I wasn’t yet prime minister when General Vance was selected in 2015. So there are processes that happen before we came into office.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Today we will sit down with one woman who is at the centre of the controversy: Major Kellie Brennan, the woman who says she and Vance were in an inappropriate sexual relationship while she was under his command and while he was the chief of the defence staff.
Today, she is speaking out and telling her story, describing alleged complicity of senior military officials who she says looked the other way when Vance abused his authority over her, the hypocrisy behind Operation Honour, and she’s sounding the alarm about the continued inappropriate behaviour in the forces. Kellie Brennan says she wants the truth to be heard.
Kellie, thank you sitting down with us today and agreeing to speak and tell us your side of the story because it’s a story that people have been watching. They’re wondering who you are, what this is all about. So tell us, who is Kellie Brennan?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Kellie Brennan is a soldier, is a woman, and I want to say she’s a warrior with lots of scars.
Mercedes Stephenson: Tell me about how you met Jon Vance and what your relationship with him has been.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I met him at a legion on the 11th of November, and I was with my commander and I was his EA, his SO, what we call a staff office, and he presented himself to my commander and looked at me. And in that moment, my—it’s funny, the body language—my commander took a step backwards and he took a step forwards. And then he pursued me afterwards: emailing me, asking me out. We dated openly, out at dinner. I would call it courting. I think that at the first—one of the first meetings he said something to me that I think has stuck with both of us for the whole 20 years, is he described it as ships in the night that clink their lights when they see each other and they know that they’re not alone. And I want to say that that’s been the underlying relationship.
Mercedes Stephenson: Did you have a relationship at any point while you were under his command?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: When I was in Toronto, I guess you can consider that under his command because he was my boss. I was in Petawawa and he posted me to Toronto and into a position under him, to have me close, I think if you want to know why. I can’t speak for anybody else, but that’s the way I felt that he was bringing me in to his inner circle.
Mercedes Stephenson: So he’s your boss, but at this time you’re having a romantic relationship, an intimate relationship, a sexual relationship?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Yes, in his office. I guess that’s intimate relationship, having, you know, intimate encounters in his office, at my house, at his house, in cars. Having sex in these places, I guess, is an intimate relationship.
Mercedes Stephenson: And what about while he was the CDS?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: When he became CDS, I think that he tried to fight it in the way I’ll explain, 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. So then he told me afterwards, he says, you know, we’re going to have to stop this, kind of like in a language not specifically, but just in the way he spoke to me. And for a little while, I was posted away, very far away, so we didn’t have a relationship. And when I was posted back to Ottawa, that’s when it started again.
Mercedes Stephenson: And at this time he’s the chief of the defence staff. He’s the top soldier and you are an active serving officer in the military, right?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Yes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Kellie, do you feel that General Vance ever had an influence over your postings or an influence over your career because of his high rank?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I was posted into Toronto because he wanted me there. He doesn’t necessarily, as the CDS, rank you as a low ranking officer. Like he doesn’t have anything to do with your PR, but when I worked for him in Toronto he did. He wrote my PR. He evaluated me. At the time it was really funny because other people got promoted, and I was promotable, is what we call it. But when I asked him, I said I didn’t get recommended. And he says, “Well I can’t recommend you,” even though I had, at the time, the qualifications for the next rank and the time in.
Mercedes Stephenson: So do you feel he held you back?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I feel that he kept me at that rank, and he explained it to me in length one time. I remember the conversation in his house where he told me that I was an awesome captain. I was a specialist. He used words like you have performed your duties admirably at that rank, but to be promoted further than that would be complicated. So I don’t know really, the answer to that. You would have to ask him.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Major Kellie Brennan on why she chose to come forward and share her story.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. My interview with Major Kellie Brennan continues now.
When this relationship started, it was above board, it was in the open, you were dating at CFB Gagetown. When did that change? When did it become a relationship that had a power element or an element where you felt you were no longer equals?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I think that when he got married it became underground. I became the dirty little secret and I felt that way. I felt that that’s the way he saw me. And that changed the dynamics of me being free with speaking of it, or saying anything was because that was imposed. It wasn’t something that I wanted. I was a single woman. I didn’t have anything to be fearful of.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you were working for Jon Vance, did you feel you could say no to the relationship? Was it consensual?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: On a personal level, consensual meaning was I participating in it? Yes. Could I say no to him? No. And 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. If he asked to see me, I had to drop tools and see him.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you feel that General Vance abused his authority, his command by having a relationship with you, both in 2006 in Toronto and while he was the CDS?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: 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.
Mercedes Stephenson: And he told me that you and he are good friends, old friends, but that there has never been a sexual relationship beyond Gagetown and that when you were together there is no power and balance. How do you feel about that?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Well I can kind of hear him saying that he thinks that I’m a strong woman, but the power and balance is, is that from the time in Gagetown ‘til now, I’ve had to bear a lot of burdens. I’ve had to—people know like I’ve never lied about it. I’ve never, not told somebody that I’m in a relationship with him.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you think that people at high levels in the military knew about this relationship, but…
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I know because I’ve told them.
Mercedes Stephenson: So how serious do you think General Vance and others at the top of the military are about Operation Honour?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: They have no clue.
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you think they change that? Can they?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Yes. I actually am, still believing that we can change it, by speaking the real truth from your gut. Not giving lines or responses or sugar coating it, is tell the truth from your gut. Like be able to tell the truth.
First of all, I wasn’t allowed to tell the truth until I was given permission to tell the truth. But we have to give that permission for everybody to tell their truths.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think a lot of people wonder why now. Why come forward? Why share this story? What is the reason why Kellie Brennan wants Canadians to hear your side of the story?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Because I’m allowed now. I’ve been given permission, and it was a hard thing to get because I didn’t even know how to get that permission. I tried. I asked my chain of command for permission to speak and I was—listened to a whole range of reasons why I should and shouldn’t. And then ADMPA, I don’t remember her name, but I do…
Mercedes Stephenson: The top civilian for media relations at National Defence.
Mercedes Stephenson: So all of those years you felt you couldn’t say anything because you were under his command.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I’m a guard officer. We have a saying. We have a culture. We have it engrained in us. We don’t say ‘yes sir.’ We say ‘sir,’ because there’s no question that we’re going to follow the order.
Mercedes Stephenson: After Global broke the story, General Vance called you.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Many times.
Mercedes Stephenson: What did he say to you, Kellie?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: He told me to lie.
Mercedes Stephenson: What did he tell you to lie about?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Having sex. He first started telling me not to say anything about anything. 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. He was giving me what to say. And I kept on asking him, “Don’t you understand you’re asking me to lie?” I said, “Lies become perjury. Perjury becomes me, myself, who was a police officer, has sworn to tell the truth, you’re asking something of me that you can’t ask. You can’t take that—my voice away from me.”
Mercedes Stephenson: If he was here, what would you want to say to him, if he’s watching right now?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Do the right thing. The truth will set you free.
Mercedes Stephenson: We have more of Major Kellie Brennan’s story, up next.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. We would like to give viewers a warning: This interview contains graphic details about an alleged sexual assault. Please watch at your own discretion.
Kellie, how common do you think this situation is for women in the military where there are bosses making sexual advances on women who work for them? What do you think the culture is like in the Canadian Armed Forces for women right now?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: I think that it’s not just me. I’m not alone. The silence keeps us alone, but I’m not alone. I’ve seen it. I know of women who have difficulties admitting it to themselves, admitting it to other people because there’s culpability that you think that maybe you got yourself into that position. And when you’re in that situation, you can’t get out. It’s your boss.
One of my COs used this information that I was in a relationship with Jon Vance to perform his duties to a higher level for him. He would come back to me every time and say, “He wants this, what do I do?” And I would tell him, “You have to do what he asks you to do.” And he’d turn that ugly, because he also asked me for sex, my CO, my boss.
Mercedes Stephenson: So this is now, two men in the Canadian Armed Forces who were your boss, who’ve asked for that.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Oh no, I had to fill out the form for—there’s a class action suit and that’s what…
Mercedes Stephenson: For victims of sexual misconduct in the military.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Yes. So there’s a form online that you have to fill out and I was not ready to fill it out, and Jon Vance kept on pushing me to fill it out, telling me that I needed to make the claim and I never understood why. And I kind of left it on the backburner a lot. And then he kept on pressing me and asking me what’s your code number when you do it? And I, I was—I finally filled out the form, but it took me three days because I had to list every time somebody either took something from me by touching me, or pressured me into having sex with them, or used leverage on me to extract something from me. And when I conveyed this to Jon Vance, I said to him, “I’m at 63 and I’m only at 2006.” I said, “You’re asking me to fill out a form that’s going to take me a long time and a lot of me to fill out.” And then I explained to him certain times where I felt that they really took a lot out of me. So I conveyed to him when I was in Wainwright and this military member that I thought was a nice guy, invited me to engage with him in a conference room, meet-up with him in a conference room—not in a bedroom, in a conference room. And he turned from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He snapped, and he raped me. And I fell to the ground, I smashed my head. I lost consciousness. And I conveyed all of this to Jon Vance in detail and he did nothing.
Mercedes Stephenson: So he, he knew about this after Operation Honour and he did nothing.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Nothing, because “he couldn’t” he said. He couldn’t because…
Mercedes Stephenson: Why couldn’t he?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: He—I was telling him, I was the dirty secret. He couldn’t, he couldn’t defend me. Then people would know about us.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you’re telling me General Vance is out there talking about Operation Honour, but when you came to him with a violent sexual assault, he didn’t call the military police.
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Nothing.
Mercedes Stephenson: He didn’t call the authorities. Did he ever suggest that you should call the military police on some of these people? That you should report them?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: Never. He said, “Put it all in the declaration.” He says, “I’ve designed it that way. You don’t have to name names in it.” He said, “This is what I told them to do: make you make the declarations and pay you off.”
Mercedes Stephenson: We’ve identified this problem and you’ve described it to me as being endemic in the forces. So how do they move forward? How do you fix it? How do you make Operation Honour not just words but sincere?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: 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. We’re humans, very complicated people and that door needs to be unlocked and open.
Mercedes Stephenson: What’s broken in the Armed Forces that led to this?
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: The reason is, is women don’t have a voice. We’re not at the table, we backbench men. We coach them on how it is, but we don’t have a seat at the table. Our voices aren’t heard.
Mercedes Stephenson: Global News previously spoke to General Jonathan Vance. He denies he had an intimate relationship with Kellie Brennan while she was under his command. He also denies allegations he held back her career. Vance denies that Brennan told him about the sexual assault she said she experienced at the hands of another Canadian Forces member. He also denies that he told her to lie, and denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
According to the most recent tracking report, 172 incidents of sexual misconduct and 84 cases of sexual assault were reported with in the Canadian Armed Forces from 2018 to 2019. Most complainants were female and the majority were junior non-commissioned members who held positions like master corporal, corporal and private. That same year saw four people permanently removed from command, 14 from supervisory positions and more than 300 cases of sexual misconduct investigated.
In the weeks to come, I will keep pushing for answers on why in the era of Operation Honour. So many members of the Canadian Armed Forces continue to face incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, we will keep asking who knew about allegations of inappropriate behaviour and why more wasn’t done to look into them.
For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and I’ll see you back here next Sunday.