Canada's top soldier talks North Korea, ISIS and military suicides in year-end interview
It’s been a busy year for Canada’s military.
North Korea conducted 23 missile tests this year, three of which were inter-continental ballistic missiles that the rogue nation claims have the ability to strike anywhere in North America.
In Iraq, political turmoil has forced Canadian Special Operation Forces soldiers to halt their “advise-and-assist” co-operation with Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers.
Dozens of service members found guilty of sexual misconduct were forced out of the military.
All the while, the Canadian Forces have been working to reduce the rate of military suicide, a problem that some advocates say kills up to three veterans or active troops each week.
In a wide-ranging interview with CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson, Canada’s top soldier, Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, discussed the threat of a North Korean attack on Canada – a threat he called “theoretical” – detailed the steps he’s taken to weed out sexual harassment, and touched on the future of Canada’s involvement in Iraq.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to start with what has been a big priority for you, and that’s Operation Honour and cracking down on sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian forces. What kind of grade would you give yourself and the institution on how you’ve done, and what developments are next?
Gen. Jonathan Vance: We’re certainly trying very hard. Trying to learn about best practices, both in terms of preventing behaviours and changing culture. My sense is that we’ve made some significant progress in policies. I’m happy to announce, for example, that I just signed off yesterday a Canadian Forces general order that will come out that will prohibit the release of a person who is suffering trauma as a result of harmful sexual behaviour until such time that they’ve had a chance to heal, which generally means that they’ve been through all of the administrative and legal judiciary proceedings that they need to.
We had a case, and I know you talked about it last year, we’ve had cases where people have been released before they’ve had the conditions set for them to actually heal, which is akin to releasing someone for medical reasons because a wound hasn’t healed yet and you haven’t done all the things you need to do with a wound to help it heal. So I’m proud of that. That’ll be coming out in the next few days.
North Korea – it’s something that people are talking about, they’re thinking about every single day. They’re wondering, what are the Canadian Forces doing to prepare if you’ve yet called back into action there, which is possible. The war isn’t over, we’re still a combatant. What does that look like, and are you prepared to defend Canadians here at home?
Well we’re always prepared to defend Canadians here at home within the means that we have and with allies. So to take a large geopolitical look, what are we doing, we’re doing everything every one of allies are doing, which is part of an international community that has condemned the behaviour of North Korea and in effect has put in place very effective deterrents.
There’s one thing for North Korea to be developing a nuclear capability, which they seem bound and determined to do, that is a problem that the international community will continue to deal with diplomatically or otherwise. There’s also the threat of it being used.
It is very clear to me and I’m sure as clear to North Korea that the use of a nuclear weapon against Canada or any of our allies is being deterred, like any other war-like act is deterred. There would be significant and severe consequences to North Korea if they did that. And they know that.
And so Canada is a part of that. We are diplomatically very much in the vanguard on this. North Korea knows that there would be consequences, militarily and otherwise, if they were to attack someone with a nuclear weapon. And our preparations, as we do for any number of crises around the world, continue. We have well-trained forces ready to conduct operations where the government would have us conduct operations.
What would that look like, possibly, for Canada? Likely not a ground war. Maybe an air war. Have you looked at the possibilities of what Canada could be asked to contribute?
Not specifically. I think that what we tend to do is maintain a generic capacity to respond with high-readiness, well-equipped forces. It would be a waste of time at this juncture in terms of my military opinion to try to do anything other than be generally ready to respond. And we have the capability to deploy, we have the capability to operate from Canada, we have the capability to operate within the region.
Missile defence is something a lot of people are wondering about because we now know North Korea is shooting missiles higher, further, longer than they ever have before. They can reach North America. Canada is not part of missile defence, but we are part of NORAD. I know that’s a politically led discussion, but is that something the military is looking at as well? Are there conversations with your American allies about what happens if they have to shoot down a missile over Canada?
There’s a lot of things in that question. The first premise I think I have to challenge you on is you categorically stated they can reach North America. That’s an academic argument at this point in time. They haven’t demonstrated that. The tests that they’ve done are absolutely approaching the possibility that that will happen. So we’re not there yet. The threat is emerging. It’s emerging faster and faster, but it’s not there yet. It’s theoretical at this juncture.
That said, it is an emerging ,clear and present danger, not just to those within North America, but elsewhere within the region.
So I would say the essence of your question is what do we do in NORAD as a result of this – of a U.S. shoot-down. We exercise every year consequence management to do with a range of threats for things that could happen to Canada and inside North America. This is but one. And we’ve exercised repeatedly what would happen if a weapon struck North America. So it’s consequence management, largely protecting Canadians, responding to that. There would be a whole other set of decisions that would be sheer speculation at this juncture because the international environment would be gearing up for the response, and Canada would be a part of that and there would be decisions made by the government of Canada as to what would occur or not.
And so a lot of the discussion right now around continental defence really just points straight to BMD. I’m interested in the long-term discussion that is pointed to in the policy about continental defence over the long term. Being able to deal holistically with a number of threats and ensuring that we have the capability to deal with them effectively when they emerge.
Iraq – I have to ask you. Canadian Special Operations Forces, are they still contained at the base? Is there any review that you’re going to bring them home? How long does the situation there need to remain unstable before you question that mission?
The Iraq mission is more than Special Operations Forces. There’s a lot going on there. We’ve got air power, we’ve got the Role 2 hospital, we’ve got the helicopters. There’s a lot going on. We’ve got people in Baghdad helping at the ministerial level. So it would be unfair, I think, to have Iraq simply cast as Special Operations Forces.
It is, and we know it, a complex political situation inside an already complex, violent situation. The defeat of Daesh (the Islamic State, or ISIS) in terms of its organized capacity to fight where we were is largely over. But it’s not over with Daesh. Daesh is not fully defeated at this juncture. So we have paused operations. We’re not contained to the base. It’s not quite as dramatic as that. But we’re not advising and assisting any forces at this juncture. That’s what the Special Operations Forces principle effort was supposed to be when we deployed. It’s been done superbly well up to this point in time. And now we are evaluating the situation. Will ISIL re-emerge in a different form? And what might we do about that along with the coalition?
We’re also looking at doing reconnaissance and determining what the next set of tasks will be. Whether they be building partner capacity inside the Iraqi security forces or otherwise. It is a complex political situation, but Canada, I think, is absolutely comfortable with the idea that we support a unified Iraq into the future. And so that’s what we’re doing. We were not in Kurdistan to make a Kurdistan. We were there because it was a practical place for us to be to deal with the threat.
Suicide has been a huge topic, not only within the Canadian Armed Forces but society talking about the concern over our troops and our veterans. Advocates are saying they’re seeing as many as three suicides a week between serving troops and veterans, that they don’t see the numbers decreasing. I know you’ve taken a number of steps to try to address that. Are you seeing any kind of success with these strategies?
Well the joint suicide prevention strategy just came out. I think we’ve been doing a lot that’s already in it for a while. It’s hard to tell when you meet success. It’s hard to tell when you’ve prevented a suicide. All you see are the suicides that occur. I think we’re getting more and more people into mental health care. That’s important.
And I think that although Veterans Affairs will look after accounting for the veterans that commit suicide, inside the Canadian Forces I can’t say it’s a success at this juncture. We still have people commit suicide while in uniform. We want to prevent it. We want to get to zero.
So I can’t claim any success. The numbers are out this year from the surgeon general. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, because it’s not numbers. These are real people, real families, there’s devastation in the wake of a suicide. All I can tell you is that we’re going to keep trying. We’ll keep applying effort, get people into mental health care and do everything we can using best practices and partnering with as many people and as many organizations as we have to try to prevent the suicides.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
With a report from CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson