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Former head of military HR sues Armed Forces, government after misconduct case

Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan makes his way to a court martial proceedings, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Gatineau, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan makes his way to a court martial proceedings, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Gatineau, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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OTTAWA -

A former military leader who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2021 is suing the federal government, the Armed Forces and his accuser, claiming he was maliciously prosecuted for political reasons.

Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan filed a statement of claim in Federal Court asking for damages and a public apology.

The claim says the military and Defence Department should apologize for the "abuse of office, negligent investigation, malicious prosecution and involvement in the media leaks that destroyed his reputation and career."

The lawsuit names defendants including defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre and vice-chief Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen; Jody Thomas, the former deputy minister of defence; Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, the military's chief of professional conduct and culture; the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal; the director of military prosecutions and the investigative arm of the military police.

It accuses the defendants of conspiring to minimize the political fallout.

Whelan's claim also names his accuser, saying she misrepresented facts and defamed him. And it says the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office were acting in response to public and political pressure.

"Individuals with inappropriate motives influenced the military justice system, military police processes and career administration processes. The resulting chaos reflects a military that is still unwilling to free itself from improper political influence," the claim says.

It seeks $10 million for loss of income and loss of enjoyment of life, as well as damage to Whelan's mental health and reputation.

The allegations in the statement of claim have not been tested in court.

Whelan was accused in late 2021 of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. He was put on leave from his role as head of the military's personnel during an investigation.

The military charged him with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline in 2022.

The case went to a court martial last fall, and military prosecutors eventually dropped both charges.

"I think the military, when it was exposed to be not doing enough to act on sexual misconduct cases, overreacted by commodifying allegations," said Whelan's lawyer, Phillip Millar, in an interview.

Millar said Whelan offered to resign when he first learned of the accusation against him. According to his statement of claim, the defence chief told Whelan the complaint was not serious enough to warrant his resignation.

Millar said he believes the government didn't want the case to be made public before the 2021 federal election. The complaint was the subject of a news story in October, after the election, and Whelan's statement of claim said he believes "members of his chain of command enabled the leak" about the investigation.

Throughout 2021, the Armed Forces was embroiled in controversy after several high-ranking leaders were publicly accused of sexual misconduct.

The government called for an external review by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who recommended sweeping changes to the military's culture and the way it deals with sexual misconduct cases.

Some military leaders were criminally charged.

That included former vice-admiral Haydn Edmundson, whom Whelan replaced as head of military personnel.

Edmundson was charged with sexually assaulting a junior navy member in 1991. The case went to trial earlier this year and a verdict is expected in July.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was removed as head of Canada's COVID-19 vaccine rollout campaign in May 2021 while he was under investigation for an allegation dating back to 1988.

He was charged with one count of sexual assault in August 2021 and was later acquitted after a trial in the civilian Quebec Superior Court. The Armed Forces also cleared him of wrongdoing.

Fortin filed a lawsuit in March 2023 against 16 high-ranking officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Eyre and the Liberal cabinet ministers who held the defence and health portfolios at the time of the accusation.

He reached an undisclosed settlement with the government last October.

Millar said Whelan filed the lawsuit after discussions with the federal government were "not fruitful."

Whelan's statement of claim says he "witnessed firsthand his chain of command receiving direction from the sitting government" in other cases and that his concerns about this became a point of contention with his superiors.

It also accuses the government of destroying the lives of senior officers "on allegations alone."

"It perpetuated a forever war that has generationally destroyed operational effectiveness, fractured CAF members' confidence in CAF leadership and sullied the reputation of Canada's military," the claim said.

None of the defendants have filed a response with the court.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024.

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