By Scott Taylor
On Monday, January 16 at 8:00 am, the Office of Chief of Defence Staff issued a brief statement from General Jonathan Vance. The bilingual message stated that Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was being temporarily relieved of his duties as the Canadian Armed Forces’ vice chief of defence staff (VCDS). The notification further stated that Norman’s responsibilities as VCDS would be immediately assumed by the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd.
The removal of Norman was a bombshell and the widespread dissemination of the notice throughout National Defence Headquarters ensured that the media were aware of it almost at once.
Phones and email in boxes lit up throughout the entire military community. Initially there was only confirmation of Norman’s removal, with absolutely zero explanation for such a drastic course of action.
With no clues to go on, everyone began speculating to fill the void.
By unfortunate coincidence, that same day The Toronto Star had published a story detailing how CDS General Jonathan Vance was going to start terminating the career of anyone in the military who was guilty of sexual misconduct. The Star story was based on an internal memo that Vance had issued back on December 16, but for many speculators the timing seemed too obvious — Vance will fire sex offenders, Norman gets fired, fill in the blank.
However, for all of us who know Norman — and in the interest of full disclosure, I do consider him to be a professional acquaintance — such an allegation made no sense.
Norman had a well-earned reputation as a straight shooter and has been a prominent promoter of recognizing the contributions of women in the defence field.
Within hours of the story breaking, additional information was leaked to the Globe and Mail — probably in an effort to spare Norman any additional public speculation about sexual misdeeds — that his firing was related to a security breach involving the disclosure of information. Again, no specific details were given.
Some began guessing that Norman was the culprit who had leaked details of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Christmas holiday destination on the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.
For his part, General Vance was travelling in Europe when the story broke on January 16, and he responded to media inquiries with an email.
“I understand there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the circumstances that led to my decision with regards to Vice-Admiral Norman,” Vance wrote. “For privacy considerations, I’m unable to provide further information,” he added.
This non-clarification from Vance, with the allusion that it was something of a personal nature, was akin to ladling chum in a swirling shark tank. The rumour mill kept churning at full tilt.
Additional details were drip fed to the media and, despite reporters trekking out to the front door of his suburban home, Norman maintained his silence.
Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement that distanced himself from Norman’s firing while at the same time supporting it. “The Chief of Defence Staff took a decision and this government supports General Vance in the decision that he took,” Trudeau told reporters.
This sentiment was echoed by Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, who repeated that the firing was the work of Vance.
Within 48 hours of Norman being removed from his post, the incident was drawing international attention. The BBC and the U.S. news outlets were reporting on the unprecedented removal of such a high-ranking official, in such a public fashion.
With such intense media scrutiny, more details found their way into the public domain — albeit not through official disclosure. Unnamed inside sources advised the media that Norman was being investigated by the RCMP for allegedly disclosing classified shipbuilding information to a private company. Reportedly, the timeframe for Norman’s alleged crime occurred while he was still the commander of the RCN – prior to assuming his most recent post as the VCDS in 2016.
Such a security breach, if proven to be true, will have significant repercussions for the Canadian military’s reputation, not only with the defence industry but also with allied nations.
However, because of Vance’s decision to relieve Norman without providing a clear explanation as to why, the country's second-highest military commander has endured unfounded public speculation that he was everything from a sexual deviant to a Russian spy.
Sometimes silence is not golden after all.