An Ottawa court heard details on Wednesday about attempts by the former top Canadian soldier to convince his secret lover not to talk to military police about their sexual relationship.
Retired General Jonathan Vance was charged with obstruction of justice in July 2021 after a series of phone calls with Major Kellie Brennan, with whom he had a long-standing affair and fathered a child.
During those calls, Vance told Brennan to lie to the military police about their sexual relationship. Unknown to Vance, Brennan was recording their phone calls, which they relayed to the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.
Vance, one of the longest-serving chiefs of defense staff in Canada’s history, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of obstruction of justice.
Over the past year, the Canadian Forces has been rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct as women came forward to discuss incidents of sexual assault and abuse by senior military leaders.
The county court heard Wednesday how Vance’s intimate relationship with Brennan began in 2001, when both were placed in Gagetown, NB, and continued through early 2021, when he retired.
Vance had not disclosed the relationship, exposing himself to the possibility of being charged under military regulations, according to an agreed statement of fact read in the case file.
The court heard that Brennan’s decision to talk to Global TV about the relationship in February 2021 prompted a series of phone calls from Vance trying to convince the major to promote “a false story”.
While it is not a crime to lie to the news media or encourage others to do so, it is an offense when it comes to a police investigation.
In the first call, on February 1, 2021, Vance acknowledged to Brennan the possibility that military police could investigate his actions if there was media publicity about their relationship. In another phone call that same day, Vance told Brennan about the various ill-effects of disclosing their illicit affair, including the impact on his reputation, his employability and his marriage.
Vance told Brennan: “The only thing worse it could be is that the NOS would want to investigate,” referring to the military police unit.
Vance: ‘The very, very, very important thing here is that we didn’t have sex in Toronto or here in Ottawa’
During the conversations that day, Vance told Brennan that “before the storm hits, I just wanted to make sure you’re clear about our story… and that you’re sticking to it.”
Vance wanted Brennan to acknowledge that they had a relationship years ago in Gagetown, but that it didn’t continue to other times and locations or when he was chief of the defense staff.
“I just want to make sure before everything goes crazy you have a moment to process this,” he told Brennan. “The really, really, really important thing here is that we didn’t have sex in Toronto or here in Ottawa.”
On Feb. 2, Global News reported that Vance was facing charges of inappropriate conduct with two female subordinates, but did not reveal any names.
The next day, Vance was back on the phone with Brennan, insisting that she should not reveal that they had sex while he was Chief of the Defense Staff. “It would be much better for us if we didn’t have sex while we were CDS,” he said.
Vance also asked Brennan if she was willing to witness. “And it’s really only one thing you need to be convincing about, and that’s that yes, we got together,” he added. “When we did, we didn’t have sex.”
In their last phone call that day, Brennan told Vance that she had been approached by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, also known as the NIS, and that she had agreed to speak with the investigators the next morning.
Vance asked Brennan if she was willing to do what he suggested: “You can tell the NOS, you know, the story. Are you sure enough that you can do that without telling them I told you to say it, of course you trust the part not having sex while I was CDS?”
But Brennan replied that she intended to publicize their relationship, including that they had sex while he was chief of the defense staff.
Vance accepted that. “OK. I get it. That’s good. I’ll have to prepare for this.”
Ontario court Robert Wadden agreed to a suspended sentence for Vance, meaning that although the retired general pleaded guilty, he will have no criminal record.
Crown attorney Mark Holmes, who agreed to the conditional dismissal, emphasized to the court that Vance was “not the victim”.
Brennan said in her court testimony that as a result of her relationship with Vance, she suffers from stress-related illnesses and has lost all respect for the military chain of command. “I’ve lost my smile when I work,” she wrote.
“To find myself in a position where my superior abused his power and used his authority to intimidate and silence me was a complete betrayal of everything I respected in the military,” Brennan added.
She said she never wants to hear from Vance again. “He makes me feel sick and sick, and makes me question my core values, he has the ability to continue to influence my behavior,” she wrote.
Vance’s lawyer said he took full responsibility for his actions. He noted that Vance pays child support to Brennan to support their daughter.
Justice Wadden ordered Vance to 80 hours of community service. He is on probation for 12 months.
In April 2021, Brennan testified to the Commons Women’s Status Committee that although she had a 20-year relationship with Vance, she felt she had little choice but to continue that relationship because of his senior rank.
In her testimony before the Commons committee, Brennan said her relationship started when Vance was her boss and continued as he progressed in his career. Brennan also claimed that senior military leaders knew about her relationship with Vance because she told them.
Vance one of many CAF leaders accused of sexual misconduct
There are a number of high-profile cases involving senior leaders of the Canadian Forces.
• In December, Vice Admiral Haydn Edmundson was charged with assault and indecent behaviour. The charges follow allegations by a former sailor that she was raped by Edmundson aboard HMCS Provider in November 1991. He has denied the allegations. The case will be heard in a civil court.
• In August, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was charged with sexual assault. He has denied any allegation.
• In October, Lt.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu, who was to be given command of the Canadian military, was placed under police investigation after allegations were made of sexual misconduct. Cadieu said the allegations were false.
• Marechaussee has also investigated the successor of Vance, Admiral Art McDonald, after allegations were made, but stated last year that they had found no evidence to support the charge. McDonald declared his innocence and left the Canadian Forces.
† Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe was convicted in early May by survivors of sexual assault after it was revealed that he wrote a positive character reference to try to influence the conviction of an officer convicted of sexual assault. Dawe has apologized for his actions.
The House of Commons Defense Committee heard in hearings last year that Canadian Ombudsman Gary Walbourne, in March 2018, gave Defense Secretary Harjit Sajjan details of allegations of sexual misconduct involving Vance. Sajjan refused to accept the evidence. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council office were also informed that there were allegations.
That incident involved an inappropriate message allegedly sent by Vance to a younger female soldier. Vance has said he couldn’t remember sending the message, but if he did, it could have been as a joke.
In addition, the House of Commons Defense Committee heard testimony last year that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s previous government was also investigating allegations against Vance. Harper met the general in person in 2015 and received assurances from senior defense officials and bureaucrats that the allegations were unfounded.
This newspaper reported last year that the state troopers were investigating allegations of an inappropriate relationship by Vance in 2015, but never interviewed the senior officer. The police investigation was done hastily just weeks before Vance was to take up the top military job as chief of the defense staff.
With files by Gary Dimmock