By Scott Taylor
Last week the surprising announcement that the Crown Prosecutor’s Office was staying the single charge of Breach of Trust against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman ignited a massive media storm. This was indeed a major development in a saga that has gripped the attention of the entire defence community since Norman was first suspended from his duties as Canada’s Vice Chief of Defence Staff nearly two and a half years ago.
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Norman to be a friend and I am pleased that he has been exonerated. This story is still far from over and I will continue to watch with great interest exactly how both the Liberal government and the Canadian Armed Forces chain of command will go about reengaging this fine officer to active duty.
Almost lost in the frenzied coverage of Norman’s case was the announcement that the Ottawa Crown Attorney was dropping the sexual assault case against former NHL hockey star Tiger Williams in exchange for an apology to the alleged victim. Effectively, the dropping of charges in this case closes the lid on a military incident now known as the ‘Party Plane’ scandal.
The particular flight in question took place in December 2017 and was part of an ongoing program wherein RCAF Airbus planes were used to transport VIP’s on morale boosting visits to Canadian troops deployed overseas. Then Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier first initiated the practice in order to inspire our soldiers fighting the war in Afghanistan. The VIP list usually included NHL old-timers like Tiger Williams along with Olympic athletes, rock n’ roll bands and various television personalities.
Over time, many of the VIP’s making repeat tours began to take advantage of the status afforded to them aboard these flights. Rules on drinking alcohol were at first bent and then by the time of the ‘Party Plane’ incident were completely broken.
Facebook videos surfaced showing the band Carpet Frogs playing the Doobie Brother’s 1970 hit song China Grove in the aisles of the Airbus while drunken VIP’s danced. Media soon got wind of the fact that a flight attendant had complained of being sexually assaulted by Williams during that flight, along with many of the other sordid details of the VIP’s urinating themselves and leaving behind coffee cups of tobacco spit.
The story proved impossible for the military to contain. Williams was eventually charged with sexual assault and Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance put a hold on any future morale boosting junkets.
However, to his discredit, Vance also tried to justify what had happened on that flight. “The band was playing in the back of the plane, that’s team building for people who have never met soldiers before and are going to go into maybe a dangerous place” Vance explained to reporters. “So, it’s not Mardi Gras, it’s not a party. It’s a mission.”
While Vance tried to portray this as if the passengers were about to deplane into a war zone, on the flight in question they were enroute to Athens, Greece. Their first visit was to be aboard the HMCS Charlottetown in tourist friendly, Piraeus harbor.
The military also tried to downplay the actual cost of the flight by stating it was a mere $15,000 when in fact and independent estimate put that cost at $337,000 (not including the cost to fly the original flight attendant crew home from Riga, Latvia on commercial flights).
An RCAF flight safety investigation concluded that the drunken antics of the VIP’s had indeed put the other passengers at risk, but Vance inexplicably disagreed with that finding. I am not a safety expert, but I would suspect that fellow passengers inebriated to the point of voiding their bladders involuntarily would be a hindrance to others in an in-flight emergency. Just saying.
The worst part of this whole story is the fact that it all took place while the Vice Chief of Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Alain Parent, and Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West were on board.
In her witness statement at Williams’ court hearing last Tuesday, the flight attendant victim of the alleged sexual assault commented on the lack of support she got in this instance from Parent and West. “I was lost, confused and feeling pretty betrayed. I was overwhelmed by the lack of support from the higher ranks.” she wrote.
For the record, no disciplinary or administrative action was taken against Parent or West and both officers are now retired from the military.
The party flights remain on hold.