Military's former head of HR sues government, others for millions over handling of misconduct claim

Lt.-Gen Steven Whelan is suing the federal government, the complainant and military officials over the handling of misconduct allegations against him. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Lt.-Gen Steven Whelan is suing the federal government, the complainant and military officials over the handling of misconduct allegations against him. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Claiming they destroyed his career to score political points after he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan is suing his accuser, the federal government, Canada's top soldier and other military officials for $10 million in damages.

Military prosecutors withdrew the service offence charges against Whelan last year.

He was accused by military prosecutors of giving a female military member a better score on her performance evaluation report in 2011 to stop her from reporting "flirtatious" emails he sent her.

Whelan's lawyer last year said his client made "a mistake" by engaging in a "personal relationship" with a subordinate, but nothing sexual happened between them. Whelan pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In a statement of claim processed Tuesday in Federal Court, Whelan's lawyer argues the defendants should pay $8 million in damages for his lost promotions and opportunities, another $1.5 million for damage to his reputation and $500,000 for violating his Charter rights.

Whelan was "on a path towards competing" to be named chief of the defence staff and "likely would have been appointed" as vice chief, the statement of claim says. His opportunities to enter the private sector were also damaged by the charges, the lawsuit alleges.

"He was the most decorated General Officer at the time of his removal," the statement of claim says. "But for the reputation damage suffered, his opportunities in the private sector were enormously wide and lucrative. He will be denied millions of dollars in lost income and opportunities earned through a life of service and sacrifice to his country."

The allegations in the statement of claim have not been proven in court.

Whelan was removed from his post as head of the military's human relations section while under investigation by military police in October 2021.

His statement of claim names as defendants Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, Vice Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan — tasked by the federal government with changing the military's culture to prevent sexual misconduct — National Defence assistant deputy minister of public affairs Laurie Kempton, director of military prosecutions Col. Dylan Kerr and Provost Marshal Maj.-Gen. Simon Trudeau.

The statement of claim, signed by Whelan's lawyer Phillip Millar, claims the allegations against him were "negligently investigated and maliciously prosecuted"  in response "to intense political and media pressure to respond" to the military's sexual misconduct crisis.

Since early February 2021, roughly a dozen male senior Canadian military officers, current and former, have been sidelined, investigated or forced into retirement from some of the most powerful and prestigious posts in the military over claims of sexual misconduct. The government tasked former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour with investigating the problem of sexual misconduct in the military; she recommended sweeping changes to the military's culture.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The statement of claim alleges Whelan's prosecution and trial were "part of a deliberate campaign to show that authorities were taking action" in response to the crisis.

"Tragically for the [Canadian Armed Forces], the presiding government recognized this crisis as an opportunistic tool that could be leveraged to advance its political goals," the lawsuit said. "The CAF became a tool to advance public policy. In doing so, the government destroyed the lives of many senior officers on allegations alone."

Whelan's statement of claim alleges the female complainant "frequently misrepresented facts for her personal gain" and defamed him.

The statement of claim also says Whelan's family received multiple threats and he became a "pariah in his community, an enemy amongst his colleagues" and a "magnet for strangers to stalk him and his family."

"On more than one occasion, protesters and or media would stalk L.Gen. Whelan outside his house and stay out there for hours," the statement of claim said. "These stalking incidents traumatized all family members."

Whelan's lawsuit is the second of its kind to be filed against the federal government in recent years.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin retired from the military last year after settling a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount against the military and top government officials over the handling of his case. Fortin was acquitted of a sexual assault charge in civilian court; he denied the allegations.

The defence department said in a statement to CBC News it's aware of the lawsuit, but "as this is active litigation, it would be inappropriate to provide any comment."