David Pugliese, writing in the National Post, exposes yet more potential wrongdoing or bad judgement or, perhaps, just simple incompetence in National Defence Headquarters. He accuses General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff and Navy Commodore Geneviève Bernatchez, the Judge Advocate General, of going along with an attempt to deny Vice Admiral Mark Norman’s legal defence team information that they had sought. “Judge Advocate General Commodore Geneviève Bernatchez, who oversees the military justice system and is the top legal advisor to the Canadian Forces,” he says “endorsed a recommendation by one of her staff to tell Department of National Defence’s access to information officials that [some documents sought by Vice Admiral Mark Norman’s legal team] didn’t exist, according to the briefing document for Vance’s office. The JAG organization sent a “nil” response following two requests for a draft report of the court martial system review.” There was, he says, a document, but it was in draft, only, and some bright light suggested that it could be withheld on that basis ~ it’s only a draft so it’s not a real, official document was the argument ~ Mr Pugliese says that “Bernatchez’s office also sought advice from a legal advisor who pointed out that such draft documents were not exempt from being released under the access law … [but] … Despite the concerns and advice, the JAG’s office told the DND access branch that no records existed.” In other words, it appears that the military’s top law officer sought independent legal advice and then decided to withhold evidence.
David Pugliese also says that “two officers on Bernatchez’s staff prepared a briefing for [General Jonathan] Vance because they felt that military regulations required them to alert the senior leadership about potential wrongdoing … [and] … Vance’s office was told that the response “that the requested records do not exist is potentially unlawful in that it seeks to deny a right of access to a record … [they said that] … “The records that were requested clearly exist, and have existed since at least 21 July 2017.”“
So what appears to have happened is:
- Some officer/official thought it would be a good idea to deny the existence of a document that Vice Admiral Norman’s legal team has requested. (S)he did so on weak legal grounds;
- Someone in the Judge Advocate General’s office smelled something fishy and sought outside legal advice ~ that advice said “the document exists, hand it over;”
- The Judge Advocate General then signed off on the untrue story that the document did not exist;
- Officers/officials in the Judge Advocate General’s branch realized that this was wrong and told the office of the Chief of the Defence Staff; and
- The Chief of the Defence Staff appears to have done nothing until this misstatement of fact became known.
Caveat lector: I know the Chief if the Defence Staff, we are not friends, but I know him well enough to, now and again, at Regimental events, share a pint and reminisce about his late father who was my company commander and mentor, when I was a junior officer, and I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say he was also a friend. I believe that General Vance is an honest and honourable man who would not, intentionally, try to hamper Vice Admiral Norman’s legal case.
I also know that the Chief of the Defence Staff is:
- Incredibly busy; and
- Surrounded by a coterie of officers, led by a least a brigadier general, who try to manage the details so that he can focus on the “big picture.”
I can imagine that on reading a memo from a colonel in the legal branch another colonel in the Chief’s offices phoned and said something like “are you saying the Chief broke the law?” “Oh, no,” the legal colonel might have said, “I’m just saying that someone may have and the Chief is, ultimately, responsible for everything.” “OK, thanks,” the colonel in the Office of the CDS might have replied as he hung up and filed the memo away because he felt it needed no further action.
But this is, still, a troubling issue. It calls into question both the legal ethics of the Judge Advocate General and, at the very least, the judgement of the officers who surround the Chief of the Defence Staff.
believe know there is a culture in Ottawa that encourages senior officials and military officers to be extraordinarily sensitive to the political ramifications of their actions and decisions. That is not a bad thing. What worries me is that the line between being sensitive to the political factor and being subjugated to it is a fine one and is too often crossed, especially by the people just one or two rungs below the (too numerous) admirals, commodores and generals on the ladder. My personal experience, but I retired over 20 years ago, says that most admirals and generals can see that line clearly and most of them stay on the right side of it. I am less certain about the officials and officers who serve them (Navy captains and commanders, Army and RCAF colonels and lieutenant colonels) and who are, in my experience, more fascinated with the aura of power that surrounds the minister and so than with the proper, apolitical role of officials in government.
My guess is that this tangled web is more about bad judgement than bad intent; I do not think that General Vance is in league with Gerald Butts in some plot to make Vice Admiral a Norman a scapegoat … tangled web? Yes. Tarnished brass? No.