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Gen. Jonathan Vance focused on the future of the military and not his career

OTTAWA — Gen. Jonathan Vance says he still has a lot of work to do.

OTTAWA — Gen. Jonathan Vance says he still has a lot of work to do.

It's been nearly five years since former prime minister Stephen Harper first appointed Vance as chief of the defence staff, making him one of the longest-serving military commanders in Canada's history.

The ensuing years have been busy for the military as it has fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, stood guard against Russia in Latvia, rescued injured peacekeepers in Mali and helped Canadians with natural disasters at home.

The Forces have also grappled with sexual misconduct, aging equipment, including fighter jets, and significant upheaval in the top ranks over the failed prosecution of vice-admiral Mark Norman.

Vance, 56, has been one of the few constants throughout, weathering both criticism and praise.

The Liberal government itself has expressed its continued confidence him and there are persistent reports it plans to recommend him to become NATO's top military official in the fall.

Vance will not speak to those reports, but the four-star general, whose father Jack Vance served as vice-chief of the defence staff in the 1980s, says he has no plans to step down as Canada's top military commander.

"I serve entirely at the pleasure of the government and will continue to do so and to the very best I can," Vance told The Canadian Press.

"We have a pandemic we have to deal with, we've got troops overseas and I've got an institution that I'm trying to do my part to make certain is competent in warfighting deep into the 21st century. That's what I'm focused on."

Vance's first act as chief of the defence staff in July 2015 was to launch Operation Honour, the military's effort to stamp out sexual misconduct.

It was an attempt to undo some of the damage caused by his predecessor general Tom Lawson's ill-advised remarks about "biological wiring" and restore the military's credibility on an issue that threatened to turn public opinion against it.

It was also the opening gambit in an effort to attract and retain people of different backgrounds, education and skillsets to address the realities of 21st-century warfare and Canada's own changing demographics.

Vance set an ambitious target to have women represent one in four Forces' members by 2026. He actively reached out to the LGBTQ community and eased rules around beards, ponytails, boots and cannabis.

Meanwhile, the military has been called upon to respond to more events around the world over the past five years.

Canadian troops were already in Ukraine helping train local forces following Russia's annexation of Crimea when Vance took command in 2015. They were also helping the Kurds in Iraq fight ISIL.

Those missions continue five years later, but Canadian troops now also lead a NATO battlegroup in Latvia and a NATO training mission in Iraq. There was also the year-long contribution to UN peacekeeping efforts in Mali.

There was also a change in government before the Liberals developed a defence policy that provided a broad vision for the military for the next 20 years — including tens of billions of dollars in promised investments for new equipment.

Vance has been at the helm throughout.

"I have been continuity in the institution," Vance said when asked about his future, before pointing to the work ahead, including a major review of North America's defences.

"As we try to go into the detail of Norad modernization, continental defence and so on ... I want to continue to lead there and certainly want to continue on all aspects of the force development so we're the right force for the future."

Yet while the general has received praise for his leadership and vision through what has been a period of constant change, including from the government, he has not sailed through the past five years without criticism.

There were questions early in his tenure over whether the general was tailoring the definition of "combat" to suit the needs of his political masters when it came to Canada's mission in Iraq.

Some also took issue with Vance appearing on stage with several Liberal ministers in November 2016 to support the government's decision to punt a competition to replace Canada's aging CF-18s and buy 18 Super Hornet fighter jets.

This past week, Lt.-Gen. Jean-Marc Lanthier announced his surprise retirement after less than a year as vice-chief of the defence staff, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

Lanthier was only the latest officer to serve as the military's second-in-command since Vance suspended Norman in January 2017 due to an RCMP investigation into whether the vice-admiral and former navy commander had leaked cabinet secrets about a shipbuilding project.

Norman's supporters have heavily criticized Vance for suspending then replacing Norman after the vice-admiral was charged with breach of trust. Prosecutors dropped the charge last May before Norman received a settlement from the government and retired.

Vance said he does not regret how he handled the situation, saying the rules governing the military are clear on what needed to be done.

"If people want to be pointing their fingers at me, that it's somehow to do with my leadership, they really don't know what they're talking about," said Vance.

The last Canadian general to serve as chairman of the NATO military committee, the third-most powerful position in the alliance, was Ray Henault from 2005 to 2008. Getting the job would represent the culmination of Vance's nearly four decades in uniform.

But he won't talk about that, noting that decision is up to the government. Besides, with Russia and China flexing their muscles, ISIL and Iranian-backed militia active in Iraq, more natural disasters in Canada and now the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, he says he has enough to worry about.

"Until they make a decision, it does not exist, it's not a factor," Vance said of the NATO job. "And so right now I am focused on this job and will continue to focus on this job. ... I'm not focused on the future. I'm not focused on my legacy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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