Military brass refuses notion of oversight

Lieutenant-General Guy Thibault takes part in meritorious Service medal and Bravery Awards for Canadian Armed Forces members during a ceremony at Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, in Ottawa, Friday June 26, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Lieutenant-General Guy Thibault, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff


After a 38-year career in the Canadian Army, Lieutenant-General Guy Thibeault used his last speech in uniform to suggest that the armed forces should be subject to less oversight by parliamentarians and government officials.

LGen Thibeault who for the past three years served as the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, (VCDS) noted that while the military is ‘far from perfect’ and layers of oversight and scrutiny are not the answer. Really?


If I were king for a day, rather than providing more oversight and controls over National Defence, I’d simply give us clear direction as to the outcomes we’re looking for, with predictable and sustained funding, and then I’d get out of the way and watch”  – In other words: “leave us alone!

In an editorial published in the Ottawa Sun, the former Armed Forces Ombudsman, lawyer André Marin, forcefully argued the reverse. He notes that in Canada, civil society already exercises very little and quiet oversight over the Canadian Forces.  He suggested that such oversight is limited to four agencies:

  1.  The military has an Ombudsman, but it’s a far cry from the parliamentary Inspector General recommended by the Somalia Commission of Inquiry in the 1990s. Also, that office operates as an internal body and has none of the statutory powers and independence of a parliamentary ombudsman,
  2. The Canadian Grievances External Review Committee, can only make non-binding recommendations to the Chief of Defence Staff on grievances from the rank and file.
  3. The Military Police Complaints Commission offers similar avenues of complaints and investigations that civilian police have to contend with.
  4. The Parliamentary Budget Officer is a third-party review body that exercises its authority over many other federal bodies including the Canadian Forces.

Marin went further pointing out by way of example, that military lawyers had recently attempted to stop a provincial inquiry on the ‘absurd basis that the province had no jurisdiction over the federal government.’ [Absurd and arrogant!] Provincial inquests about deaths in federal penitentiaries are routine and go unchallenged. “On what basis did the military really attempt to halt the inquiry? Perhaps to quell the judge’s anticipated criticism of the thin-skinned chain-of-command?” he added.

Personally, I find LGen Thibeault statement most inappropriate and unbecoming for a man in uniform, particularly one occupying such a position of leadership in a nation’s military hierarchy. It leaves me to wonder whether his statement is more of less common currency within the highest echelons of the Canadian Armed Forces.  I strongly suspect that it is.  This would help explains why the Canadian military recoils each and every time a suggestion for reforms to its archaic and unfair military justice system comes under scrutiny by academia or the media. Yet, at present that stand-alone military justice system operates in splendid isolation from the established and accepted concepts of the common law denying a bundle of rights to soldiers, sailors and airpersons. Rights which are taken for granted by the citizenry.

How ironic, however,  that the military which is always very strong on discipline, loyalty and accountability from the rank and file winces at being subject to a modicum of accountability by a very restricted number of independent oversight agencies and while having practically no parliamentary oversight over their defective military justice system. They are more certainly not hesitant to exercise much control and oversight over their own units and formations – as it should – and subject them them to regular inspections, audits, reviews, reports and assessments. –

As Marin wrote, the Canadian military should embrace third-party oversight as an opportunity to learn and to improve. :

I am glad Thibault is not king for a day. We expect our military leaders not to want to command in a zone of immunity but to understand that probity and accountability rules don’t just apply to civilians.”

LGen Thibeault’s bold and ill-chosen statement is antipodal to the notions of civil control and how a military should operate within a democracy. The military, here and elsewhere, must not operate as if it were a parallel government. The military should not only accept but should embrace civil control over  its accounting, equipment, deployments and management processes, and above all, its military justice system which desperately needs to be modernized to be in full conformity with the law of the land. This is currently not the case.

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