Canada’s outgoing top military commander and his U.S. counterpart will have their first conversation today about the violent protests that rocked Washington last week and the impending political showdown over President Donald Trump.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, who will step down as chief of the defence staff on Thursday, said he doesn’t see the eruption of mob violence in the U.S. capital that temporarily halted a sitting of the U.S. Congress as a broader defence and security issue that might affect Canada.
Vance did not speak with Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley last week as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump clashed with Capital Hill police, invaded the building and threatened lawmakers. The two military chiefs are frequently in touch because of the shared continent and Canada’s status as one of the United States’ oldest allies.
In his final interview with CBC News as chief of the defence staff, Vance said he remains fully confident in the U.S. military’s command structure and its ability to respond to alarming political events.
“We were all shocked and so were our colleagues in the United States,” said Vance. “I did not have professional concerns about the capacity of the United States or its command authority and the military posture at all.”
Bilateral institutions such as NORAD and multilateral organizations such as NATO have continued to operate, Vance said.
“If there was something [Milley] was worried about as it relates to the military capacity of the U.S., the defence of North America or our missions overseas, he would have reached out [to allies],” said Vance, who added he was kept up to date “minute by minute” on last Wednesday’s riot by the Canadian liaison officer at the Pentagon.
Vance said he has no concerns about “our sovereignty or the defence of Canada” in connection with Wednesday’s events, or about the potential of instability spilling over the border — but he acknowledged political concerns about extremism in Canada and how events south of the border could influence events here.
The Canadian military has been grappling with right-wing extremism, anti-government rhetoric and hateful conduct in the ranks for the better part of two years. The three major branches — army, navy and air force — have issued specific orders meant to crack down on racism and discrimination.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has appointed an advisory panel to investigate the depth and extent of the problem in the wake of several reports of military members — mostly reservists — being involved with extremist groups.
Those groups include the Proud Boys, the survivalist militia Three Percent movement and the white supremacist organization Soldiers of Odin.
A CBC News investigation last fall uncovered the case of a Canadian Ranger who actively supported the latter two of those groups and was the subject of a military counterintelligence investigation after concerns were raised by allies — but was allowed to continue serving.
The advisory panel is not in the same league as the full-throttle approach the military took five years ago — at the beginning of Vance’s tenure — to combat sexual misconduct and violence within the ranks. That effort, known as Operation Honour, has yielded mixed results in its efforts to change the culture of the military.
Vance acknowledged the military is taking a different approach to extremism.
“It’s partly because we learned from Operation Honour what works and doesn’t work inside [an institutional initiative] that has that kind of branding,” he said.
The approach to countering extremism is different, Vance said, because victims of sexual assault have needs and concerns than differ from those who experience racism.
Vance ends his tenure as Canada’s longest-serving defence chief of modern times. He said that while he is proud of the social change and initiatives launched under his command, many of those efforts still need to be seen through to completion.
His toughest day as top commander, he said, occurred last April when a military maritime helicopter crashed in the Ionian Sea off Greece, killing six aircrew and sailors.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail last week, Vance said western democracies inevitably will have to come up with a grand strategy to confront a more assertive China and a resurgent Russia. He repeated those comments Monday.
Vance said he believes Canada’s defence policy is well-placed to address the return of great power competition and believes the Liberal government will put the money into defence that it promised, despite the strain on public finances caused by the pandemic.
With the deployment of troops to backstop long-term care homes in two provinces, Vance said, the pandemic has demonstrated the value of the military to Canadians.