Court martial begins for former head of military’s HR accused of inappropriate relationship

Court martial begins for former head of military’s HR accused of inappropriate relationship

Politics

A two-week military court martial is expected to begin Monday into the Canadian Armed Forces’ former head of human resources over allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. 

Highest ranking military leader to face court martial after sexual misconduct crisis

Ashley Burke · CBC News

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Lt.-Gen Steven Whelan has been with the Canadian military since 1990.

Lt.-Gen Steven Whelan has been with the Canadian military since 1990. (Military Personnel Command/X)

A two-week court martial is expected to begin Monday for the Canadian Armed Forces’ former head of human relations over allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan was charged in July 2022 with two counts under the National Defence Act related to “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.” 

The charges are tied to alleged incidents between January, 2010 and June, 2011 while Whelan served as commander of Task Force Jerusalem, the defence department said. The task force helped train the Palestinian Authority security forces to build their capacity, according to the defence department’s website. 

Whelan has previously denied any wrongdoing.

Whelan is one of the highest ranking military members to have his case tried in the military’s judicial system in recent history. 

Since late 2021, the military said all new sexual offence charges under the Criminal Code are being laid by civilian police and prosecuted in civilian courts. The move is in response to retired Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour’s interim recommendation to transfer cases of this kind to civilian authorities due to an “eroded trust and morale.” 

Whelan’s case is going through the military’s judicial system because the investigation did not “reveal any evidence” to support laying criminal charges and is “specific to the military context,” the defence department has said.

A landmark report into the military’s judicial system from retired Supreme Court justice Morris Fish found a series of real and perceived gaps in the military justice system’s independence from the chain of command.

A woman with short, red hair, wearing red-framed glasses, smiles.

Louise Arbour, former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivered a landmark report on sexual misconduct in the military last year. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Whelan is also the most senior military official to face a court martial in connection to the military’s sexual misconduct crisis.

Since 2021, roughly a dozen senior Canadian military officers — current and former — have been sidelined, investigated or forced into retirement from some of the most powerful and prestigious posts in the defence establishment.

Whelan replaced now retired Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, who was charged in 2021 with sexual assault and committing indecent acts stemming from allegations dating back to 1991.

Edmundson pleaded not guilty in civilian court.

WATCH | Top Canadian military commander steps aside while under investigation for sexual misconduct: 

Top Canadian military official steps aside while under investigation for sexual misconduct

The Canadian Armed Forces’ commander of military personnel has stepped aside from the role. The military confirmed late Friday that Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan is facing an allegation of sexual misconduct that has been under investigation since at least June 2.

Whelan was in the job as the commander of military personnel for less than six months when he stepped aside from his post in October 2021 amid the investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS), the investigative branch of the military police.

The acting chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and then defence minister Harjit Sajjan learned of the investigation four months earlier, CBC News has previously reported.  

As the commander of military personnel, Whelan had authority over career consequences for military members found to have engaged in sexual misconduct.

The government’s website says a top issue at Whelan’s office was also complying with a class action sexual misconduct settlement. The government reached a $900-million settlement in 2019 and more than 18,000 people came forward to submit claims in 2021. 

Military judge to preside over case

Military judge, Cmdr. Martin Pelletier will preside over the standing court martial for Whelan’s case in Gatineau, Que. A standing court martial is a military court that a military judge presides over alone without a panel of military members. 

Fish raised “major concerns” in 2021 with military judges continuing to handle cases. Fish recommended in his review into Canada’s military justice system that military judges renounce their rank and become civilians to safeguard their impartiality and legitimacy. 

Fish wrote in his final report that he has no reason to doubt the actual independence of the military judges he met with. But said there are major concerns “that the appearance of justice is prejudiced by the fact that military judges remain members of the CAF while holding office.”

The defence minister last week said the government is working on changing the law to move forward with Fish’s recommendations, but did not provide a date when that would happen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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