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Liberals give themselves more time to meet five-year-old peacekeeping pledge

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

The federal Liberal government has quietly given itself more time to provide a 200-soldier force for peacekeeping, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first pledged to the United Nations nearly five years ago.

The commitment of a “quick-reaction force” was one of three signature promises that Trudeau made during a major peacekeeping summit in Vancouver in November 2017, with the government promising its deployment within five years.

But while internal documents obtained from Global Affairs Canada by The Canadian Press show the commitment was set to expire this past March, the Department of National Defence says cabinet recently added another year.

“The cabinet authority covering the QRF and other contributions to UN peace support operations was renewed in March 2022 for a period of one year,” Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said in an email.

Canada did make good on the other two promises by deploying a helicopter unit to Mali in 2018-19 to help with medical evacuations, and through the provision of a transport plane to ferry troops and supplies to different UN missions in Africa.

The government’s failure to make good on the promised quick-reaction force comes despite the UN having said it needs several such forces now, and the United States having asked Canada late last year to fulfill its commitment.

Washington’s request came ahead of a peacekeeping summit in South Korea in December, where countries were asked to provide new commitments to fill gaps in both funding and peacekeeping missions in the field in Africa and elsewhere.

Asked whether Canada still intends to fulfill its commitment, Lamirande said: “Canada regularly engages with UN officials to assess when and where a QRF may be required.

“Any deployment of a QRF would be following a decision by the Government of Canada to do so in support of a specific UN mission within clearly defined parameters,” she added.

Defence Minister Anita Anand did not mention the quick-reaction force during the South Korea summit, but told The Canadian Press several weeks later that the force is “not off the table.”

The heavily redacted Global Affairs Canada report suggests Canadian officials have been looking at options for deploying such a force, which would be designed to respond to emergencies and threats to UN personnel and facilities as well as civilians.

Such units have been deployed in recent years to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where they have clashed with different armed groups as the UN has sought to provide security and stability.

The undated Global Affairs report notes that while the UN needs such units, there is an increased risk given “deteriorating security, increasing violent extremist organization capabilities, transitions, reduced resources (and) COVID-19.”

Trudeau’s commitment in 2017 came as the Liberal government promised a renewed Canadian engagement with UN peacekeeping that most observers and experts say has not actually come to pass.

Canada had 60 police and military personnel deployed as peacekeepers at the end of March, according to the UN. While that was up from the record low of 34 in August 2020, it was still less than half the number when the Liberals took power in 2015.

Canadian Forces College professor Walter Dorn said the government’s decision to keep the commitment on the table for another year offers a glimmer of hope that the force could materialize at some point.

Nonetheless, “given that the QRF pledge has not been fulfilled in a half decade, it now appears like an empty promise made by Trudeau in 2017,” Dorn said.

“Canada should have completed that promise long ago and made many more progressive contributions afterwards to support the United Nations, which is at the centre of the rules-based international order.”

Royal Military College professor Jane Boulden was also skeptical the quick-reaction force will appear, particularly as the federal government is focused on bolstering Canada’s commitments to the NATO military alliance in light of the war in Ukraine.

To that end, she questioned whether the decision to keep the commitment alive is more about optics than any real intention of fulfilling it.

“It’s a safer thing to say the commitment is still open,” she said. “It’s going to generate less criticism.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2022.

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Defence

Ministerial staff shared information about soldiers’ role in “Freedom Convoy”

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Ottawa – Emails released through a public inquiry suggest federal Liberal political aides were scrambling earlier this year to figure out the extent to which members of the Canadian Armed Forces were supporting “Freedom Convoy” protests that had gridlocked downtown Ottawa.

The internal communications are among thousands of documents submitted to the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is looking at the Liberal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to end the demonstrations in February.

On Feb. 15, one day after the Emergencies Act was invoked, Defence Minister Anita Anand’s press secretary, Daniel Minden, emailed fellow political staff in the offices of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

“Please see this internal list of CAF members allegedly involved in the convoy so far,” Minden wrote.

The email goes on to provide a “list of known members connected to protests,” including five who are specifically named and two who are not. Those not named include a special forces soldier based in Ottawa and a civilian Defence Department employee.

(All names are redacted in copies of the emails provided to the commission as “Personal Info.”)

The list also includes the individuals’ location, what action the military was taking at the moment and the results of any actions that had already been taken.

The list appears to have sparked a strong reaction from Mendicino’s director of communications, Alexander Cohen, who used an expletive in his response to Minden, saying: “How the f— many soldiers are in the convoy?”

“7-8 that we know of,” Minden replied.

Minden and Cohen did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The email does not provide specifics about what those on the list were accused of doing, including what rules they are alleged to have broken.

It also isn’t clear how many were voicing support for the “Freedom Convoy,” and how many were speaking out publicly against the military’s requirement that all Armed Forces members be vaccinated as a condition for their continued employment in uniform.

The military has forced about 300 members out of uniform over the past year because they refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19. About 100 others have left voluntarily, while hundreds have had permanent censures put on their files.

Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said the threshold would have been “various actions that would run contrary to” the military’s rules around discipline, code of ethics, and other rules and guidelines.

“Any member of the Armed Forces who brings discredit to the CAF through either conduct or performance deficiencies, be it through actions or words, will be held accountable,” he said in an email Wednesday.

Le Bouthillier added that the military has since identified 13 cases of Armed Forces members publicly supporting the “Freedom Convoy” protests, some of whom appear to have been included in the list sent by Minden.

Those include Aviator Riley MacPherson of 19 Wing Comox, who was found guilty of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline and fined $500 after posting a video voicing support for the convoy while in uniform in February.

There is also a reference to a military police investigation of an Armed Forces member in Gagetown.

The military previously said it was investigating Maj. Stephen Chledowski after a video was posted to social media of the officer speaking out against mandates and restrictions while in uniform. The post was made during the protests last winter.

The Defence Department said it was trying to get an update on the investigation on Wednesday. Chledowski did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

One name that appears to have been missing from the list is Warrant Officer James Topp, who is facing a court martial after appearing in two videos posted on social media in February criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

The army reservist later became a symbol of sorts for those opposed to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions after a cross-country march that included a meeting with Conservative MPs on Parliament Hill, including the current Conservative Leader, Pierre Poilievre.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.

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COVID-19

Defence chief was warned about legality of military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate: memo

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OTTAWA — The commander of the Canadian Armed Forces was warned by his senior legal and medical advisers last year that requiring all troops to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was unnecessary ⁠ — and that doing so “may not constitute a legal order.”

The message was delivered to chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre in an August 2021 briefing note, two months before then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan directed him to impose a vaccine requirement for all troops.

In two separate interviews with The Canadian Press, the defence chief described the briefing note as one of several legal opinions received before handing down his order in October 2021.

“We get lots of legal opinions out there, but we can’t allow one legal opinion from stopping us from doing the right thing,” Eyre said. “And here, the right thing is ensuring our operational readiness so that we can protect Canada and Canadian interests around the world.”

However, Catherine Christensen, the Edmonton lawyer who obtained the briefing note through the Access to Information Act, argued the document shows Eyre’s order was driven by politics.

The Aug. 27, 2021, briefing note was presented to Eyre by Maj.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu, who was one of the defence chief’s strategic advisers at the time. It was prepared “in close collaboration” with senior medical, legal, political and public affairs officers and it incorporates legal analysis from the Department of Justice.

Citing concerns about a fourth wave of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant, the advisers noted the benefits of vaccination in preventing the spread of disease, adding vaccine mandates “may be effective in increasing coverage rates.”

They also described the purpose of a broader federal vaccine mandate would be “not only to protect public health, but also for the federal government to demonstrate leadership and assist in economic recovery.”

On Aug. 13, 2021, the Liberal government had announced a vaccine mandate for federal public servants, as well as workers and travellers in federally regulated transportation sectors.

The memo suggested a universal mandate was unnecessary to protect the health of the Canadian Armed Forces, given that more than 90 per cent of Armed Forces personnel were already vaccinated at that time.

The early analysis noted “the level of legal risk” for a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy would depend on the final details, as well as “the strength of the public health rationale and how the policy will be implemented.”

It said that would include any accommodations and mitigation measures for those either unable or, notably, unwilling to be vaccinated, which it recommend to help defend against Charter challenges.

The advisers also warned that Armed Forces members could try to push back against the vaccine mandate on safety grounds. At that time, Health Canada had authorized COVID-19 inoculations under a special interim order due to the emergency nature of the pandemic.

“Prior to full approval of the vaccines under Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations, CAF members ordered to receive COVID-19 vaccination might argue that they are being ordered to accept a new and potentially dangerous medical substance into their body,” the note said.

The interim order, which expired in September 2021, allowed the government to authorize vaccines faster than normal where the benefits were deemed to outweigh the risks.

In their note, Eyre’s advisers cited the case of former Sgt. Mike Kipling, who was charged in 1998 under Section 126 of the National Defence Act, which allows the military to charge members who “wilfully and without reasonable excuse” refuse an order to get a vaccine.

Kipling had been ordered to take an anthrax vaccine while serving in Kuwait, but refused because he considered the drug unsafe. The vaccine was unlicensed for use in Canada. A military judged eventually ruled in favour of Kipling, agreeing his Charter rights were infringed. The Forces appealed and a new court martial was ordered, but the military decided to drop the proceedings.

Eyre was told military personnel who refused a vaccination order could be similarly charged under military law, but “there is a significant risk in ordering CAF members to accept COVID-19 vaccination, as it may not constitute a legal order.”

The memo also said a mandate for the Armed Forces “would not only be punitive in nature, but would also be counter to the successful efforts made to date to encourage maximum voluntary uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine.” The advisers suggested the military share its voluntary approach with other federal departments as a “best practice.”

The advisers concluded by expressing support for the federal government’s intent to bring in a proof-of-vaccination policy, but again cautioned that the rollout would need “prudent planning” that kept in mind the challenges they described.

Eyre first ordered all Armed Forces members to attest they had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on Oct. 6, 2021.

Rather than charging those who refused to comply, the military forced about 300 non-compliant Armed Forces members out of uniform using an administrative process called a 5F release that declares them unfit for service.

About 100 troops have left voluntarily. Hundreds more had permanent censures put on their files. Outside the military, most federal employees were allowed to go on leave without pay and returned to their positions after the mandate was suspended in June.

The Armed Forces’ vaccination policy does allow exemptions for medical reasons, religious beliefs or any other grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In late April, a parliamentary committee heard that more than 1,300 members had requested exemptions, but nearly 1,000 had been denied.

Retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military cases, said the decision to use 5F releases instead of charging unvaccinated troops means the Armed Forces doesn’t have to defend the legality of the order in court.

And while troops can file a grievance, it currently takes about three years for a case to be heard — with the defence chief serving as the final authority.

Christensen, who is representing a number of those unvaccinated troops who lost their jobs, said she believes the briefing note explains why the military is using 5F releases instead of charging those who refuse to comply with Eyre’s order.

“They didn’t want their mandate or their order for everyone to be vaccinated to be challenged in court,” said Christensen. She said Eyre had the power “to order everyone to be vaccinated. Full stop. Then if they did not want to be vaccinated, they had to come up with a reasonable excuse at court martial. … (Eyre) didn’t do that.”

Fowler has previously raised concerns about the military trying to punish soldiers without involving the courts in other situations, and believes there are legitimate questions about the legality of the vaccine order.

“What I believe is it should be tested,” he said.

Eyre and his office have not said exactly why that decision was made. His office said in a statement that “administrative measures and the administrative review process was considered the most appropriate approach.”

Asked if the decision to avoid the courts was the result of concerns about the legality of his order, Eyre said: “Not at all. We had numerous legal opinions.”

The defence chief also said that while Sajjan directed him to include the Armed Forces in the broader federal government’s mandate, “I was in agreement at that time, I issued the order. … Make no mistake, it’s my order.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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