The enduring loyalty of a Canadian general derailed by scandal

Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan’s career was derailed by now-withdrawn sex misconduct charges, but he remains committed to rebuilding Canada’s military

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. 

I spoke to Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan not long after military prosecutors withdrew the two sexual misconduct charges that effectively ended his distinguished career. I expected to find a bitter man.

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Instead, I found a soldier full of dignity, one who remains committed to rebuilding Canada’s military as a trusted institution.

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“My mom was French Canadian, and my father was Indigenous. Neither one raised me to complain,” Whelan explains.

“I just want to see the organization, the system, the architecture, change for the better.”

In 2022, Whelan was charged with two counts of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline” under the National Defence Act for misconduct alleged to have taken place more than a decade ago, and faced a court martial in Gatineau, Que., this September.

At the trial’s outset, military prosecutors inexplicably dropped the more serious allegation of improperly communicating with a female subordinate (flirting, in colloquial terms) and a week later, dropped the remaining charge accusing Whelan of enhancing the same subordinate’s performance evaluation in 2011, allegedly fearing she would disclose their relationship to others.

Young people look at how the Forces is managing itself and think, I don’t want to be part of that. It’s an organization that eats its own

It was a technical win for Whelan and his legal team, but it deprived him of the ability to tell his story. Another setback for a man who gave 40 years to the Canadian military. It’s amazing to me that anyone treated so shabbily — one more officer in a string of senior military men purged from the Canadian Armed Forces — can remain so loyal.

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This three-star general claims to not carry a grudge, asks that I not name names, and assures me a publicly funded windfall from the Forces isn’t his first priority. His lawyer is, however, gearing up for a lawsuit of his own, citing prosecutorial misconduct, negligent investigation and malicious prosecution. Someone has to be held accountable if the organization is to change for the better.

And this 56-year-old soldier knows he must be practical. He won the day in military court, but the allegations compromise his future. “I would rather have faced a Mark Norman situation (unproven ethical breaches) than be roped into a sexual misconduct or assault allegation. It’s like poison for the rest of your life,” Whelan shares, soberly. “That’s why I need to apply for some kind of restitution.”

The only time Whelan chokes up is talking about how he and his family were made aware of the misconduct allegations, two years ago. Someone within the CAF leaked the investigation to the media and Whelan was given 20 minutes notice that a news story was coming out accusing him of sexual misconduct. “I told my family right away, I’ve got this allegation. And that generated some tough discussions with my wife and some direct questions. I was like ‘no,’ ” Whelan says, his voice pained. “That is a moment of trauma that will stay with me forever.”

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Before being removed from command, Whelan was responsible for recruitment. Attracting and retaining military personnel is a challenge; the CAF operates with roughly 65,000 men and women and is presently 15,000 short. “You hear people say ‘they have a recruiting issue because of all the senior officer allegations,’ but that’s not the case,” Whelan asserts. “The case is young people look at how the Forces is managing itself and think, I don’t want to be part of that. It’s an organization that eats its own. If they are willing to chew up all their senior leaders, what will they do to me?”

Even in the few weeks since the conclusion of the court martial, global security has been shaken. There are 300 CAF personnel reportedly heading to the Middle East. What role Canadians will assume in the Israel versus Hamas war is yet to be defined (and we can’t forget that Bill Blair, minister of national defence, remains obligated to find $1 billion in cost savings in DND’s budget).

But one thing is certain: Whelan’s decades of on-the-ground military experience in hot spots like the West Bank, Iraq and Afghanistan no longer matter. He’s been sidelined. He remains on administrative leave and anticipates he’ll be formally released from the military.

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If given the chance, I ask, what would or could Whelan do to revive the CAF’s esprit d’corps.

“There is no vision (for the CAF) other than a social experiment agenda. We’ve substituted what should be operational effectiveness and ability with culture,” he laments, “and that doesn’t resonate with people.”

To counter the military’s obsession with dress policies and sexual misconduct and to focus instead on building the capacity of soldiers, sailors and aviators to deal with problems in the world, Whelan is recommending the military start looking at its priorities through the lens of what Canadians expect rather than through the lens of the federal government’s social agenda.

The military necessarily answers to civilian leadership, I point out, and Whelan agrees, so politics is necessarily involved. But sometimes it’s too much, he continues: “The pressure that senior (military) leaders feel from the political operatives is immense and sometimes it’s easier to just nod your head and meet it as best as you can.”

Whelan understands that his approach — to provide fearless advice to government — may have made him vulnerable.

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But he contends he wouldn’t do things differently. And now that he’s been dragged through a court martial and witnessed what he calls “the chicanery” of Canada’s military justice system, he’s still advocating for transparency. Rather than relying on the Forces’ internal complaints process, Whelan is seriously considering sending a letter to the Parliamentary defence committee, asking for public hearings. Why? He wants Canadians to be able to hear the stories of how the system let down the most senior officers of the CAF.

“We don’t have a military culture here in Canada,” Whelan observes. “We’re safe, so to speak. With oceans between us and Europe, and between us and Asia, Canadians don’t feel the pressure of Russian or Chinese forces on our borders and we have the luxury of Americans to our south.”

As Canadians’ sense of security shifts, so too may the tide turn within the military. “The focus is now switching,” he suggests, “being redirected from those of us who were under allegation and now it’s shining on the senior officers involved in managing the process … and the military justice system.”

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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Originally posted 2023-11-05 14:00:37.