Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country’s former chief of the defence staff, pleaded guilty on Wednesday morning to one count of obstruction of justice laid against him.
The charge came after military police launched an investigation following allegations of inappropriate behaviour first published by Global News last year.
Appearing virtually before an Ottawa courtroom, Vance entered the plea following a year that saw the Canadian Forces embroiled in what experts have called an existential crisis over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against senior leaders.
When asked for his plea by the presiding judge, Vance answered: “Guilty, your honour.”
Rodney Sellar, legal counsel for Vance, told the court his client is seeking a conditional discharge, and Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes agreed to a period lasting 12 months.
The presiding judge agreed to the requests, saying that all evidence presented indicated that Vance was a “man of good character.”
“I do take into account the fact that you are still in the position where you have much to contribute to society,” said Justice Robert Wadden in granting the conditional discharge.
“I don’t feel that it’s necessary to burden you with a criminal conviction.”
Under the terms of the discharge, which the judge granted, Vance must complete 80 hours of community service and cannot communicate with Maj. Kellie Brennan, who identified herself as one of the women behind the allegations in an interview with The West Block on Feb. 21, 2021.
Vance cannot communicate with Brennan except through legal counsel on matters pertaining to family court. Vance and Brennan share a child, and Sellar told the court that Vance has been making child support payments to Brennan.
The discharge means Vance will not have a criminal record.
During the hearing, the court heard six letters of support written for Vance by former military colleagues and which were read out. A victim impact statement, written by Brennan, was not read out.
Vance’s lawyer said repeatedly that his client is taking responsibility by entering a guilty plea, and that Vance “has suffered personally” and “will suffer significantly” financially, adding that his opportunities to be remunerated for his contacts and experience “may well have been extinguished.”
Sellar added that Vance wants to “be a great ambassador for our country and he certainly hopes to be involved in many charitable interests.”
Holmes, while agreeing to the conditional discharge, urged the court to consider that none of the letters written in support of Vance acknowledged or made mention of his crime, suggesting there was “willful blindness” on the part of the authors to the “underlying facts.”
“Notice what is omitted,” Holmes said. “To be clear – he’s not the victim here.”
He added that Brennan supported the conditional discharge.
Vance declined the opportunity to speak during the hearing.
Global News reported exclusively in February 2021 on allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Vance, which were made by two female subordinates.
The allegations sparked a national reckoning over military culture that continues to this day.
Just days after the Global News report, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service launched a probe that culminated in the laying of one count of obstruction of justice against Vance on July 15, 2021.
The CFNIS laid the charge, but handed the case over to civilian authorities for prosecution.
According to court documents filed last year, military police alleged that between Feb. 1 and Feb. 3, Vance “did willfully attempt to obstruct the course of justice in a judicial proceeding by repeatedly contacting Mrs K.B. by phone and attempting to persuade her to make false statements about their past relationship to the Canadians Forces National Investigation Service, contrary to section 139(1) of the Criminal Code.”
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Feb. 21, Brennan said that 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.
Brennan gave similar testimony during an appearance at the House of Commons status of women committee in April during its study of military sexual misconduct.
She recounted comments she said took place when she asked military police investigating her allegations whether they had the authority to do so when the individual facing the allegations was the former chief of the defence staff — the “CDS,” as the role is colloquially known.
“The answer was no because as the CDS told me, he was untouchable. He owned the CFNIS.”
Vance contacted Brennan multiple times before Global News reported the allegations on Feb. 2, and advised her of the need to be “clear on our story, and that you stick to it.”
He also contacted her multiple times after publication.
Global News obtained recordings of three phone conversations between Vance and Brennan that took place on Feb. 1. According to these records, Vance told her he had been contacted by Global News about allegations that he said “could be life-changing for both of us in a bad way.”
He told her: “Change your number. Get a new phone.”
“If there is an allegation that we engaged in sexual relations while I was the CDS and you were in the military, that would be devastating. And so it’s a good thing we didn’t,” Vance said to Brennan.
“I just wanted to make certain that you’re clear on our story and that you stick to it.”
Vance said repeatedly through the calls that what he was describing was the truth.
“I will, you know, tell them the story that we’ve gone over today, which is, you know, the truth and — as I described it to you — and then, you know, see where they want to take it,” he told Brennan. “They may investigate, they may not.”
The court documents filed at the time the obstruction of justice charge was laid did not indicate specifics of the allegation, or whether the phone call records obtained by Global New are among any of the evidence weighed in the decision.
What happens next?
The plea comes as the Canadian military stands at a crossroads.
Multiple other senior leaders have been removed from their posts or face criminal charges of their own in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Senior brass and politicians are under pressure to address the underlying issues behind what was identified back in 2015 as a “hostile” and “toxic” culture for women and LGBTQ members.
Harjit Sajjan, former defence minister, was removed from the post he held for six years in the fall following the election, which came on the heels of eight months of intense criticism over his handling of sexual misconduct within the military.
Anita Anand, who is now defence minister, has said the matter is her top priority and as one of her first acts in the role, accepted the recommendation from former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to remove sexual misconduct cases from military jurisdiction.
That interim recommendation was asked as part of an external review being led by Arbour.
Announced in April 2021, the review is tasked with providing the government recommendations for how best to create an independent process for handling military sexual misconduct complaints.
Arbour is expected to present her final report in May.
But on Wednesday, military officials confirmed just two cases have been transferred to civilian authorities under the new policies, adding that it won’t be until June that the government brings legislation into force that lays out the rights of victims moving through the military justice system.
Anand was asked about the decision in the Vance case on Wednesday and specifically, about the granting of a conditional discharge to the former top soldier.
“My role as Minister of National Defence is to build a Canadian Armed Forces and an institution where everyone can work in a safe and respectful environment where they are not suffering sexual harassment or discrimination or sexual misconduct,” she said.
“That is what I am striving to do as minister and that is what I’m working on every day.”
But there are questions about whether the granting of a discharge was appropriate.
NDP defence critic Lindsay Mathyssen said she is “extremely disappointed” by the decision.
“I can’t imagine how the women in this in this case are feeling. They came forward with such incredible strength and bravery, and I don’t know if they feel that this is the justice that they deserve,” she said.
Mathyssen said Vance is not being held “accountable” and that the case is a sign the government needs to move more quickly to implement reforms targeting military culture.
“I know that there’s a genuine willingness or desire to improve things, but the government has been so slow on this,” she said.
“They have so many examples and so many reports of what they can do to change the toxic culture in the Armed Forces. And they haven’t moved as quickly as women serving women and men deserve.”
In particular, the judge’s focus on the contributions he said Vance would be able to make without a criminal record appeared to reflect a pattern of how white male criminals often are treated by the courts, said one defence expert specializing in studying military culture.
Megan MacKenzie holds the Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University. She described her reaction to the discharge as “disappointment.”
“I think it really sort of is a setback to efforts to convince the public that there is real serious commitment to this issue,” she told Global News, suggesting it reflects a “pattern” on how civilian courts often handle offences related to sexual offences or sexual misconduct.
“We have, in other high-profile cases, a statement from a judge believing that a perpetrator has a bright future ahead of them or can make contributions to society,” MacKenzie said.
“And this is what we have in Vance, where they think that he still has contributions to make, irrespective of the fact that he he pled guilty to a criminal offence. So I think this good guy defense really only works, quite frankly, for white men. I think it works particularly well for service members,” she continued.
“There is this over-emphasis on deployments, on the the word of their colleagues, and I think that can be very convincing to a judge — even though it doesn’t actually change the fact that someone has committed a crime.”
With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson and Marc-Andre Cossette.