Military Ethics and Politics in Canada


The House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament voted unanimously on May 14, 2019 to apologise to Vice Admiral Mark Norman, Vice Chief of Defence Staff, for his legal ordeal  with a resolution that “ The House recognize Vice-Admiral Mark Norman for his decades of loyal service to Canada, express regret for the personal and professional hardships he endured as a result of his failed prosecution and apologise to him and his family for what they experienced during their legal conflict with the government.”

What was remarkable was that the resolution was moved by a member of the opposition Conservative party and passed by the house duly supported by the ruling Liberal party whose government was mainly responsible for the Admiral’s ordeals. Indeed, it was an unmistakable sign of a healthy democracy. The passage of such a resolution was a tacit admission of error on the part of the Liberal government, however much one may argue that the investigation and subsequent procedure is carried out by independent agencies.

However, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a hard time saying sorry to Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.  He refused to apologise when asked directly to do so by Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Scheer.  Trudeau’s response was to blame Stephen Harper, his Conservative predecessor, for awarding a defence contract, in which the admiral allegedly had an interest.

Scheer pointed out the double standard and launched a vicious attack on the Prime minister for his willingness to spend untold millions of Canadian tax payers’ money for prosecuting a righteous public servant, Vice Admiral Norman who was a national hero.

When the resolution was put to vote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already left the chamber and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was absent.  In an election year this will surely have its political consequences.

In stark contrast to the passage of this apology resolution, I was reminded of the several instances of senior officers of the Indian defence forces being convicted by court martial and cashiered/ dismissed from service in disgrace. In quite a few instances the higher courts of appeal have rejected the court martial verdicts and restored the lost honour of these officers. However, there was not a single case of an apology from anyone, not even the concerned service Headquarters to the individual.

At the time when charges were pressed against Vice Admiral Mark Norman, he was the Vice Chief of the Canadian Defence Forces, the Number 2 man in the military hierarchy. For a western democracy, it was perhaps a rare incident of such nature.

What was the case against Vice Admiral Mark Norman?

The Canadian Navy urgently needed a supply ship as HMCS Protecteur, Canadian Navy’s only supply ship was engulfed in a blaze in February 2014, rendering it unserviceable.  The ship had to be towed by a US Naval ship to Pearl Harbour.  The Conservative government in power then placed an order with Quebec-based shipbuilder Chantier Davie Canada Inc (Davie) to convert a civilian cargo ship into a military supply vessel at a cost of $668-million.

Prior to the award of the contract, the Conservative Government changed the federal procurement rules to allow a single vendor contract without competition, which was questioned by the incoming Liberals. The Conservative Defence Minister defended the decision to amend the rules to facilitate the single vendor deal, as the Canadian Navy wanted a Supply Ship urgently and the normal process would involve 30 to 36 months.

In November 2015, the new Liberal Government apparently took a decision to pause and review the deal. The information was leaked to James Cudmore, then a CBC reporter. Following the leak, there was a public outrage in Quebec. The liberal Government then backtracked and quickly approved the deal.  However, furious with the leak, the Government ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to investigate the matter.

In January 2017, Vice Admiral Mark Norman was suspended from service and more than a year later subsequent to raids at his residence, the RCMP charged Vice Admiral Mark Norman with breach of trust, alleging that he leaked cabinet secrets to both an executive at Davie and to a journalist.   In its court brief, it was alleged that Norman ‘knowingly and deliberately’ leaked this information and breached cabinet secrecy on 12 separate occasions between October 2014 to November 2015.

Norman vehemently denied any wrong doing pleaded not guilty to the charges and said that he acted with integrity, ethically and “in the best interests of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Forces and, ultimately, the people of Canada.”

Government’s case against Norman unexpectedly began to collapse in March 2019, partly under the weight of information from several former Conservative cabinet ministers and staffers. The new evidence, gathered by Norman’s lawyers and presented to the court on March 28 included some documents which were not uncovered during the investigation, something Norman’s lead defence lawyer blamed on government obstruction. The independence of the investigation carried out by the RCMP also comes into question.


The case took a turn on its head the moment Liberal MP Andrew Leslie announced his retirement from the federal Liberal caucus and expressed his wish to testify for the defence in Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s trial.  His testimony would have been politically embarrassing for the government, coming from the ruling party MP.  It was a political ‘hara-kiri’ for Leslie who said that he will not be running for re-election in 2019.

Who is Liberal MP Andrew Leslie?  Why was he defending Vice-Admiral Mark Norman?


Veteran Lieutenant General Andrew Brooke Leslie served Canadian Army for over three decades.   He was an artillery officer commissioned in 1981 and rose to the top of the hierarchy to be appointed as Chief of the Land Staff in Jun 2006.  He retired in September 2011 and was elected MP of Liberal Party in 2015. Prior to his retirement, he was assigned the task of making a ‘transformation report‘ of the Canadian Defence Forces. On this task Admiral Mark Norman was his deputy and part of the team that submitted the report. So Admiral Mark Norman was a subordinate well known to the General.

While appearing as defence witness, Leslie would have no specific knowledge about the allegations that led to the charge against Norman, but would have insight into how the case was treated by the Liberal government, both during the investigation and throughout the pretrial phase. The Admiral’s legal defence had often often made the accusation of political interference which may well get substantiated by the General’s testimony. Also, knowing the nuances of the procurement process and probably having faced frustrations similar to the problem of procuring a supply ship may well state in testimony that the Conservative Government decision to amend the procurement rules was well justified.  All these would surely have been politically embarrassing for the government.

The General acted like a General to defend the honour and well being of his subordinate, a comrade in arms, even at the cost of his political future. This is a classic case of military loyalty to the organisation and ultimately to the Canadian nation in a larger sense.  Notice that there was a personal cost involved and therefore becomes all the more praiseworthy

At the end of it, the government was forced to drop all charges against Vice Admiral Mark Norman.  What caused the prosecution to drop the charge is not yet known.  It is obvious that for the conviction to stand, the aspect of personal gain and damage to public interest would both require to be proved. There is no indication of any available evidence towards this.  In the face of mounting public statements from then Conservative cabinet ministers and staffers that the Admiral’s recommendations for single vendor deal with Davies was made only in the best interests of the Canadian Navy, the prosecution was probably left with no alternative but to drop the charges.

The Canadian public will come to know of the reasons that prompted the state to drop the charges only if Norman ever files a civil lawsuit against the government for the ordeal that he faced.  Norman said he has an ‘important story’ to tell Canadians, which he will be sharing in the coming days.

On being exonerated of all charges, Vice Admiral Mark Norman said “I am confident that at all times I acted with integrity, I acted ethically and I acted in the best interests of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Forces and, ultimately, the people of CanadaThe alarming and protracted bias of perceived guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging and the emotional and financial impacts of the entire ordeal have taken a toll.”  Like a true soldier he did not blame anyone for his ordeal and was preparing to get back to work immediately.

Meanwhile, the supply ship that Vice Admiral Norman fought for, MV Asterix (It is not christened HMCS as the ship is only leased by the Canadian Navy.  It is not commissioned by the Navy and is manned by Naval and civilian crew), has been in service for more than a year, refuelling Royal Canadian Navy ships around the world. Many in the Canadian Navy say that conversion of the Asterix from a merchant vessel to a Naval supply ship is a rare example of a defence project that was delivered on time and on budget.

So, in the face of a decision which apparently went right all the way, pressing charges against a man who recommended the course of action probably seemed meaningless.  Was it simply a case of a political squabble between the Liberals and the Conservatives into which a man in uniform was unwittingly drawn? We shall probably never know!

Colonel Kizhakayil Kotiath Arun, Sena Medal


Cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) were divided into four houses named after four Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava. .  I was in Pandya House.  Reminiscing through the good old Sainik School days, a thought came to my mind about my many visits to Chera House dormitory in my Grade 11 days (1978), walking through the back alley of Chola House  dorm.

The most prominent object that would catch my eyes was the wheel of a trolley that lay unmoved in the Chola House back alley.  It was black cast-iron wheels, surely weighing over 80 kilos, from  one of the trolleys used during the construction of Amaravathi Dam.  It had a solid axle with two wheels, akin to the wheels of a railway wagon, but a bit smaller.  It obviously resembled the ‘Barbell with Plates’ used by champion weightlifters.   I used to try moving it and many a time realised that it has not moved an inch since  1975.

These trolleys used during construction of the dam found their resting place behind the old Cadets’ Mess, now the Gymnasium and Cinema Hall on completion of the dam.  The Gymnasium building was the workshop during dam construction days, hence these trolleys were abandoned there.

How did this barbell find its way to the back alley of Chera House dorm?

It was brought in by Veteran Commander Ponnar and his friends who managed to pick up the trolley-wheel from their ‘graveyard’ behind the gym and carried it over a kilometer long trail and brought it to its current resting place in the back alley of Chera House.

The toughest senior cadet I came across during my Cadet days at Sainik School Amaravathinagar was Cadet  KK Arun of 1975 Batch.  He was tall and well built, quiet and unassuming, always with a smile on his face.  I realised he too was a Malayalee who found his moorings at Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu like me.  I hardly ever interacted with him – he was too senior and I belonged to a different House – the Pandyas.

It was a matter of pride, sense of achievement and a dream  for any Cadet at Sainik School to be selected to join the National Defence Academy (NDA).  It involved passing a written examination with a qualifying rate less than a percentile or two.  Then was the five day Services Selection Board (SSB) interview and then a stringent medical examination.  Cadets of the graduating  year (Grade 11 then) used to work out mentally and physically to qualify through this rigorous and grueling procedure.

Cadet KK Arun too had set his aim to join the NDA.  He found the weights and exercises at the gym and the morning Physical Training (PT) inadequate to stress and strain all his muscles.  One often found Cadet KK Arun lifting it with ‘Clean and Jerk’ or a ‘snatch’  in the evenings after the Games Parade.  Whenever I walked past this ‘Barbell’ during my NDA preparation days in 1978, the idea to lift it germinated in my mind.  Obviously, I could only lift it from a side, that too with both my hands. I always had a ‘Hero Worship’ for Arun as to how come he could lift this monster many a times at my age.

Arun joined NDA in 1975 and I followed suit in 1979 January.  We never met since our school days.  Arun remained a fitness freak throughout his Indian Army career.   He was an Instructor at the Commando Wing of Infantry School – an appointment any young officer will even trade his ‘girl friend’ for.

As a senior Major he landed in a coveted appointment – The Adjutant of NDA – an appointment any Cadet who passed out of NDA will sacrifice anything and everything for.  It was a reward for Major Arun’s soldierly qualities, his love for his soldiers, dedication to duty, physical fitness, gentlemanly qualities and so on.

Drill is the bedrock of discipline – thus goes an old saying and it is the Adjutant who meticulously oversees the Drill Training at NDA.  It culminates with  the Passing Out Parade (POP), a spectacular event which marks the  culmination event of another successful semester.  POP parade held at the Khetarpal Parade Ground comprises over one thousand cadets bidding farewell to their senior colleagues and will remain etched in the memory of anyone who has witnessed it.  Passing Out Cadets march past the Quarter Deck to the  haunting strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  The Adjutant on his charger accompany the passing out cadets to their Final Steps.

This entire spectacle is the culmination of five months of rigorous drill training imparted by the Drill Instructors under the watchful eyes of the Adjutant.  It is purely an Adjutant’s show.  Please click here to read more about the Academy Drill Instructors.

Who will ever forget the ‘Josh Pep-talk’ delivered by the Adjutant prior to the commencement of POP, exhorting all cadets to put in their best to make it as spectacular as possible.  A young Officer on commissioning  to our Regiment narrated an anecdote.  He was trained by Major Arun at the NDA.  He said “While delivering the customary Pep-talk by the Adjutant, his Charger, a well built white horse, delivered an anal salute.  Major Arun immediately said ‘SORRY’ and continued.  That was our Adjutant, an epitome of decency.”  I felt very proud of our Alma Mater and did not miss the opportunity  to declare with pride in my voice “I attended the very same school from where Major Arun graduated.”

Major Arun served as a Commando Instructor.  He was a real ‘tough’ instructor and was well known for his teaching abilities with love for his students – A real GURU in all aspects.  Some even say the Nana Patekar’s Hindi movie ‘PRAHAR‘ (please click here for more about the movie) was inspired by him. He was awarded Sena Medal for gallantry.


He rose to the Rank of Colonel and commanded a Rajput Regiment.  There are many anecdotes from his army life worth mentioning.  He hung up his military boots and is now settled with his family at Greater NOIDA near Delhi.

I was lucky to come in contact with him, courtesy Colonel TM Natarajan, our batch mate from Sainik School.  It was a rewarding experience sharing our journey experiences and also relent that we two never met after leaving school.

Pongoes


On 13 January 1979 I joined the National Defence Academy, Pune India as an Army Cadet.  National Defence Academy is a Joint Services academy of Indian Armed Forces, where cadets of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force train together.   This is to ensure jointmanship amongst the three services.

We, the Army Cadets, were often referred to as Pongoes or at times Grabbies, especially by the Naval fraternity – both officers and fellow cadets.  It often intrigued me as to from where these terms originated. In fact, I disliked it, like every other Army Cadet at the Academy.

The word Pongo is seemingly used in a somewhat derogatory sense evoking a sense of both stupidity and a bad smell, something like a ‘stinking moron’.  Although a bit derogatory, the word is often used by the Naval guys in a friendly manner when they refer to the Army guys. It is interesting to go into the etymology of the word.

Pongo is a British slang dating from the mid nineteenth century, meaning soldiers. The word itself stems from expressions used by comedians in theatres and music halls to get a cheap laugh. The two most common quotes were “where the army goes the pong goes”, or “when the wind blows the pong goes” – pong meaning smell. This quickly became pongoes meaning soldiers (plural) and pongo meaning an individual. Another possible explanation is that the soldiers were being likened to a large, hairy, smelly ape called a pongo. The expression is still in use today although not common, confined mainly to those who saw service in World War II or Korea or who did National Service in Britain while this was still compulsory.  (www.urbandictionary.com)

There is another explanation given in a blog post ‘Be Proud to be a Pongo’ at www.theobservationpost.com. During the Napoleonic wars, the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written pão (this could also be the origin of the Indian street bread – the Pav पाव), and pronounced pong. British soldiers coined the term pongo as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of pong. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time was that sailors lived on biscuit while, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting army soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of pong might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – meaning bread eaters.

As per Appendix: Glossary of British military slang and expressions, an  Army soldier is referred to as Pongo meaning “Everywhere the army goes, the pong (stink) goes”; derived from the supposed inferior washing facilities in field compared to those on a navy vessel.

Pongo was also used by members of the Royal Navy or RAF.  Sailors noted the similarity of the sand-apes’ colour to the rough brown (khaki) uniform of the British Army.  They believed that a Pongo was an ape that when alarmed did not climb trees, but would dig holes and hide itself on the ground reminding the onlooker of infantrymen.  They said a pongo dug holes and filled it for no rhyme or reason.  However, the only mention of Pongo – the ape – I could find was in National Geographic website which refers to a new orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutanthe rarest great ape species on the planet – found in the high-altitude Sumatran forests.

The term Pongo comes from the days when soldiers were stationed on board ships to protect the Navy when sailing abroad. Usually the first to be sent ashore when the ship docked, soldiers would carry out all sorts of different tasks.  One important (the most important… surely) task being the setting up of a brewery. The main part of it still being called a pongo. Hence the nick-name given to the soldiers who would be sent to do the job “send the pongos ashore”. The name seems to have filtered down through the years and is used today by the Navy towards members of the Army.  (www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Pongo)

Our childhood adventure series – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – in its fifth volume, Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946), has Pongo as a main character who is a circus chimpanzee.   In David Foster Wallace’s novel – Infinite Jest – refers to Checkpoint Pongo, a border post of the Concavity near Methuen, Massachusetts.

That is all about the poor Pongoes, but how did they get their nickname Grabbie?

It is said that the poorly fed soldiers on boarding a ship would scramble to the Galley – the ship’s kitchen – and would grab anything and everything edible

Here I would quote from The Sea Regiments published in The Navy and Army Illustrated MagazineOctober 1806, where it says ‘ The Marines, in a word, are a military force maintained by the Admiralty for service in the fleet.  “What’s the good of ‘aving leather-necked grabbies aboard ship?”  said an ordinary seaman once to a private of the Royal Marines.  “To keep you flat-footed, ginger-whiskered swamp rats from eating one another!” was the prompt and unexpected reply.’

Another reference to grabbies I found was from the book The Cameronians – A Concise History by Trevor Royle.   ‘Amongst the officers of my Regiment, nice fellows as they were, only a few cared for the Army as a profession.  All were proud belonging to splendidly drilled Light Infantry Battalion – drilled according to the practice of War in the Peninsula, before the introduction of the rifled musket.  They thought themselves to be socially superior to the ordinary Regiments of the Line, which were always spoken of as grabbies.’

In the book Seven Sailors by Commander Kenneth Edwards ‘The history of British Empire is rife with examples of devotion of British sailors to their brothers in army.  These reached their zenith at Dunkirk, not only among the matelots and the grabbies, but all the way down from the Admiral and staff to the over tired infantrymen.

Matelots, a Naval slang, refers to a sailor and originates from 19th century from French, variant of matenot, from Dutch mattenoot meaning ‘bed companion’, because sailors had to share hammocks in twos.

Whatever you call a soldier, especially an Infantry Soldier, Victory is still measured on foot.