David Pugliese, again,* writing in the Ottawa Citizen, says, and this is related to something I discussed nearly a week ago, that “There are … concerns that some in National Defence headquarters have made a concerted effort to hide the documents [Vice Admiral] Norman needs. Some of the vice admiral’s supporters believe he is being railroaded … [then, he says] … In December the court heard a bombshell that appears to give that theory some legs. One witness called by Norman’s lawyers to testify revealed that his superior officer, a brigadier general, told him that Norman’s name was deliberately not used in internal Department of National Defence files — meaning any search for records under the Access to Information law about Norman would come up empty … [and] … The witness, a military officer, told the court that he was processing an access-to-information request in 2017 that returned no results. When he sought clarification, the witness testified the general smiled and told him: “Don’t worry, this isn’t our first rodeo. We made sure we never used his name. Send back the nil return” … [and the witness added that] … “He seemed proud to provide that response,” … [and, while] … The witness does not know Norman … [he] … came forward because of his concerns the actions being taken were not proper.“
Let me be clear, access to information requests can be, or could be, 25 years ago, anyway, a distinct pain in the you-know-where to process, and this is not the first time that I have heard of some people using e.g. Post-It-Notes and other forms of deception to avoid, formally, “discussing” a subject or person and, thereby, avid having to turn documents over in response to an (anticipated)** access request ~ think back to some of the testimony in the 1997 Somalia Inquiry, for example. But the public is entitled to know, within reason, what its government is doing and the public is allowed to see documents that are not, somehow, protected by e.g. security regulations. This is especially true when the person seeks government information in order to defend themselves against change brought by that same government.
But David Pugliese goes a step further: “Just as disturbing,” he writes, “is that fact the judge believed there was a need to protect the witness from reprisals from federal officials and those at National Defence headquarters. To do that, the judge ordered a publication ban so the name of the military witness – for now anyways – would not be revealed publicly … [and, he asks us to] … Think about this for a minute. This,” he says, “isn’t some Mafia or narcos trial. This isn’t some snitch who needs to be protected from his fellow gangsters … [rather] … This is a military member who knew what the right thing to do was and came forward on his own …[but] … He didn’t trust the Canadian Forces system to protect him. He didn’t trust the senior military and defence leadership, which had already determined that Norman was guilty of wrongdoing, even though no internal investigation into the vice admiral’s actions were conducted.” Thats a very damning indictment of a lot of senior people.
Mr Pugliese concludes by saying that “This is a situation where it seems the courts don’t believe Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance, and Deputy Minister Jody Thomas can even guarantee basic workplace protection to those individuals who want to follow an ethical and legal path.“
I’m not ready to go as far as David Pugliese, but I do think that some things in National Defence Headquarters need some sorting out. The culture of an apolitical government department and uniformed, armed service that must, always, without question, be above politics, needs to be restored. That’s the job of Jody Thomas, the deputy minister, supported by Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, and of General Vance, supported, actively and loyally, by the admirals and generals who surround him:
The people of Canada and, indeed, the government of the day need that apolitical culture to be firm and consistent, throughout the defence establishment, civilian and military, from top to bottom.
If that culture does not exist, if serving officers and officials are afraid to speak the truth, for fear of reprisals from within the military and civil service bureaucracy ~ and at least one judge seems to think that at least one officer needs to be protected from that ~ then we, Canada, have a serious problem.
* It is very nice that we have at least one journalist in Canada who specializes in defence matters and who seems to have good contacts inside the military. I don’t always agree with what Mr Pugliese says nor do I think that all the things he choses to report on are worth the attention he gives them but I believe he is an honest, fair investigative journalist.
** Anticipated because the subject was “newsworthy” and, by the 1980s and ’90s, we, the HQ staff, were being forced to be more and more sensitive to the public’s interest in gossip and there was an overarching fear that something, or someone, might embarrass the minister. The fact that the minister’s political discomfort should have been none of our (officials’ and unformed officers’) business was neither here nor there.