Norman, Wynnyk, Vance: Drawing the line between politics and leadership in the CAF

Lieutenant General (Retired) Guy Thibault, Chair of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and former Vice Chief of Defence Staff (2013-2016)


Today in National Defence Headquarters marked the change of appointment of Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) between two outstanding career military leaders Lieutenant General Paul Wynnyk to Lieutenant General Jean-Marc Lanthier.  LGen Wynnyk can hold his head very high, as his incredible military service comes to a somewhat abrupt end.  He served with distinction and answered the call time and again over his 38+ year career including being asked to leave his prestigious appointment as Commander of the Canadian Army early to take on one of the most challenging assignments in the Canadian Forces (and perhaps in Government) as the Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS).  It is however disappointing to see him leaving the Canadian Forces in the shadow of the complex matters involving former VCDS Vice Admiral Mark Norman.

There has been a great deal of media and political interest in the Mark Norman affair given the unprecedented suspension and perceived poor treatment of such a high-ranking military commander and his family.   In the aftermath of the stay of proceedings against VAdm Norman him and his subsequent retirement, combined with the unexpected departure of LGen Wynnyk it is not too surprising to see the inevitable finger pointing and ‘blame game’ with various commentators accusing both the Liberal Government and the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Jonathan Vance for contributing to the upheaval within the senior ranks of the military and the untimely end of the careers of two distinguished officers.

The burden of responsibility for the suspension of VAdm Norman rested wholly with the CDS in accordance with his responsibilities outlined in the National Defence Act, as were the internal Canadian Forces decisions surrounding VCDS succession. While it is easy in hindsight for some to second guess our most senior military leader’s judgement in these matters, it must be pointed out that the outset General Vance had no way of knowing how long or what the outcome would be from the RCMP-led investigations and eventual legal proceedings taken by the Crown against VAdm Norman.  Suspending his VCDS, was undoubtedly one of the hardest personal decisions that Gen Vance has had to make in his career, and in the circumstances, totally appropriate.

The fallout from Admiral Norman’s suspension was hard to manage given the importance of the role that the VCDS plays in National Defence, not only serving as the Acting Chief of Defence in the absence of the Chief, but placed at the epicentre of National Defence where the military strategic level issues and staffs intersect with the Deputy Minister and civilian members of DND, Central Agencies and partner Ministries and Canada’s political leadership.  It is hard to overstate the importance of the role of VCDS in the effective day-to-day functioning of the Military/Civilian Defence Team.   The fact that the investigation and legal proceedings against VAdm Norman was unfolding in the immediate timeframe following the release of the new Defence Policy “Strong Secure Engaged” made this situation much worse.

The Chief’s steps to immediately fill the gap behind Norman were very logical with the Commander of the RCN VAdm Llyod as the Acting VCDS until an interim solution could be coordinated with LGen Parent eventually repatriated from a NATO post in Italy pending resolution of the Norman situation. When it became increasingly clear that legal proceedings against the former Vice would not be resolved in a short time frame, the Chief was left with little choice but to find a permanent replacement and there was no better candidate than the Commander of the Canadian Army at the time, LGen Wynnyk.

While understandably disappointed to have to leave his post as Army Commander, in accepting the position LGen Wynnyk had secured a number of assurances from the Chief including that his appointment would be made substantive (neither Acting or Interim VCDS), that his Imposed Restriction would be extended and that he would serve in the post for two years. Based on his resignation letter it is clear that not all of these honest commitments by the Chief at the time could be guaranteed given the evolving situation surrounding Mark Norman.

Some loyal friends and supporters of VAdm Norman and LGen Wynnyk are looking to blame someone for what has happened to these highly respected officers and some detractors of the current CDS and opponents of the current Government have openly placed the blame on the Chief or the Prime Minister. In my view these criticisms are unwarranted and worryingly risk politicizing the role of Chief of the Defence Staff and the senior leadership of our Armed Forces.

With the benefit of hindsight and seeing how all of these issues unfolded, those in positions of authority regarding the RCMP investigation, charges and legal proceedings against VAdm Norman might well have wished they acted or made different decisions. In the end however, all decisions regarding the Vice Chief of Defence were the CDS’s decisions and based on my personal experience with General Vance and the outstanding military leaders I worked with over my 38 years in uniform, I trust that in these matters he has always acted with integrity, a profound sense of duty, honour and service and most certainly always in the best interests of the Canadian Forces, Canada’s National Defence and our Nation’s security


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