This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 27, 1995
Their support was welcome, but it was too late. Last week, bleary-eyed travellers boarding Air Canada's 9:15 a.m. flight from Toronto to Ottawa were joined by Maj.-Gen Brian Vernon. At noon on the previous day, Vernon, who is one of the highest-ranking army officers in Canada, was fired from his post as commander of Land Force Central Area, which comprises some 11,000 troops in Ontario. His crime: he had failed to warn his superiors that the government would be embarrassed by a video depicting yet another group of Canadian Airborne Regiment paratroopers in a grisly hazing ritual. Even though his fate was sealed, passengers on the flight encouraged him to fight on. But Vernon may be just the first casualty as the military attempts to modernize the outlook of many of its senior officers. "There is a component in the video that does reflect on how the forces operate," Defence Minister David Collenette told Maclean's. "The armed forces cannot be completely inured from changes that go on in society."
Vernon was the highest-ranking officer to fall over the release of videos depicting Airborne soldiers in crude and sometimes racist acts. His exact fate was not known last week. Officially, he was to be reassigned to a new position at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. But Vernon also said that he might seek the advice of lawyers on what to do next. And while his dismissal was tied directly to his failure to correctly advise his superiors on the contents of a third hazing video, many defence analysts saw wider implications. In fact, sources within defence headquarters in Ottawa told Maclean's that Vernon's firing sends a clear signal that Collenette is determined to reform the military and to demonstrate that he intends to deal aggressively with any rogue elements within the armed forces. To reinforce that, commanders from all three branches of the armed forces were summoned to Ottawa to meet with the chief of defence staff, Gen. John de Chastelain, last week. They discussed the hazings and what policies are needed to prevent them from reoccurring in the future. "The military is being forced to adapt to a rapidly changing society," said Collenette. "There are going to be problems."
De Chastelain's decision to sack Vernon may help to build acceptance for any future reforms. Martin Shadwick, a defence analyst with the Toronto-based Centre for International and Strategic Studies, said morale in the armed forces had been badly damaged by crude depictions of Canadian soldiers. But he said the rank and file may well see Vernon's dismissal as an indication that a high-ranking officer is finally being held accountable. "The enlisted people felt the higher-ups were not getting hit as hard," said Shadwick. "They feel Vernon's sacking is justified."
The Airborne's trouble began during the UN famine-relief mission to Somalia in February, 1993, when a Somali teenager was beaten to death by a group of soldiers assigned to the regiment's 2 Commando unit. So far, eight members of the unit have faced courts martial over the incident. And this week, Capt. Michael Sox, the last officer to be charged in the murder, is to appear before a military court in Petawawa, Ont. The negative fallout from the courts martial was only enhanced in January when a video showing Airborne soldiers in Somalia making racist comments was broadcast. A few days later, a second video surfaced, showing paratroopers in a grotesque ritual in which soldiers appeared to be eating toilet paper soiled with human feces. Public outrage over the videos prompted the government to order the Airborne disbanded in late January. But since then, two more videos were slipped to the media. In one, made in 1991, sailors are depicted being doused with what appears to be vomit in a 300-year-old ritual associated with crossing the equator.
While Collenette eventually accepted the navy's insistence that what appeared to be vomit was actually oatmeal spiked with Tabasco Sauce, the minister was deeply angered by yet another video, this one shot in Petawawa just six months ago. Vernon had earlier been assigned by de Chastelain to examine the contents of the video. In his report, Vernon said it contained little more than "innocuous" scenes of beer drinking. In fact, the tape shows soldiers undergoing electric shocks, having their heads shaved and drinking to the point of vomiting. As a result, Collenette told the House of Commons that he might have been misled by his military staff. Last week, de Chastelain concurred with Collenette saying that the hazing rituals and drinking parties depicted in the videos would no longer be tolerated in the Canadian armed forces. And he promptly offered the defence minister Vernon's head. Said de Chastelain: "I hold Vernon fully accountable for his actions."
Vernon, who also faces a military inquiry into a $500,000 overrun in the cost of furnishing his unit's headquarters in Toronto, began his military career with the reserves in 1958 at age 16. He entered the regular army in 1965 and advanced rapidly, taking over as operations officer of the Airborne Regiment in Edmonton in the early 1970s. A tour as a company commander in the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry followed and, in 1975, he was made commanding officer of the Airborne's 2 Commando unit. In 1985, he was appointed base commander of CFB Calgary, and in 1993 was promoted to commander of Land Force Central Area - in effect, chief of the army in Ontario. Vernon, who colleagues say is a traditional army man, did not accept his punishment quietly. The firing was first made public in a news release. And in his farewell news conference, Vernon, wearing a distinctive maroon beret, appeared to take direct aim at de Chastelain, saying that only a "bureaucrat or a civilian" could find the video offensive. By speaking out, Scott Taylor, publisher of the Ottawa-based military magazine Esprit de Corps, said Vernon had earned the respect of his colleagues. "He took it on the chin and and didn't duck," said Taylor. "He was speaking directly to de Chastelain."
Despite his candor, Vernon appeared to contradict himself on at least one crucial point. In a television interview on Feb. 9, Vernon said that he had not seen the entire contents of the videos. But he added that if he had viewed portions of the video showing paratroopers holding charged electric wires in a test of strength, he would have "gone ballistic." According to Taylor, Vernon's initial comments stuck closely to the official military line on the controversy. But once he realized he would likely be fired, Scott believes that the general decided to "go out in a blaze of glory," by holding his own news conference.
In fact, Vernon even told reporters last week that some aspects of the horseplay depicted in the video were essential to promoting cohesiveness in a fighting unit. He also claimed the video, which he described as "festive," showed no evidence of racism, harassment, injury or coercion. "Isolated scenes may be offensive," said Vernon. "But the total effect is one of male bonding which is essential for teamwork in fighting units."
Some military observers say Collenette may have backed himself into a corner by setting impossibly high standards for the military to meet. Nicholous Stethem, a prominent Toronto defence analyst, said that by disbanding the Airborne Regiment and firing Vernon the army would now have to offer up someone's head every time a soldier steps out of line. As a result, he said, many officers would likely avoid making critical decisions. "We have gone from a disgusting element [the Somalia murder], to the trivial [the videos], and yet they are all being treated at the same level," said Stethem. "It has profound implications for the armed services."
Other analysts say de Chastelain's decision to fire Vernon may have also driven a wedge between the military's top command structure and more traditional soldiers. In fact, one Airborne officer based at CFB Petawawa told Maclean's that most of the former Airborne troops will now side with Vernon because they believe the government overreacted in its decision to disband the unit. And, he said, most soldiers believe that the acts depicted in the hazing videos are largely harmless. "The minister can stand up and fire a general because some soldiers puked on a video?" asked Stethem. "This is silly." Silly or not, Collenette appears determined to reform the military. And that has already cost a proud general his job.
Maclean's February 27, 1995