OTTAWA — Warrant Officer James Topp says he does not believe people would have paid attention if he had not donned his uniform to publicly oppose the Canadian military’s vaccine requirements.
That decision to speak out while in uniform is ultimately at the heart of the military’s case against the army reservist, who has become a symbol of sorts for Canadians opposed to COVID-19 vaccines, the mandates to get them and perceived government overreach.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Topp said he intentionally wore his military uniform to raise awareness about soldiers, sailors and aviators being forced out of the Canadian Armed Forces for refusing to get vaccinatedagainst COVID-19.
“I wanted to make sure that there were people out there who came to the awareness of what is actually happening within the Armed Forces,” Topp said Wednesday.
“That there are folks being released … because they are not complying with this policy, because they think the policy is wrong.”
Topp was charged by his chain of command in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. It is a broad charge under the National Defence Act designed to enforce discipline in the ranks.
A copy of the charge sheet says one of the charges relates specifically to a video posted to TikTok, in which the army reservist criticized vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees. He was wearing his uniform.
The second charge deals with similar criticisms that Topp made in Surrey, B.C., around the same time, also while in uniform. A professional-looking video of those comments was later published on social media.
Topp now faces a court martial. A conviction could bring a range of potential penalties, including dismissal from the military with disgrace and two years less a day in prison.
Federal employees, including military members, are expected to have what is described as a “duty of loyalty” toward the government. It includes not criticizing the government while identifying themselves in their current roles.
“They're part of the executive branch, and they're there to implement policies and decisions made by democratically elected officials,” defence analyst Jean-Christophe Boucher of the University of Calgary said of federal employees and military members.
“They're not accountable to the public. And so openly challenging and openly criticizing the government, externally, not internally, becomes an issue of trust, and also an issue of where they stand in the political system.”
He added that opening the door to the type of protest that Topp had would allow military members, who are called upon to put their lives on the line for the country, to “cherry pick the kind of policy that you like and don’t like.”
A website created for Topp's four-month march from Vancouver to Ottawa, which culminated in his arrival at the National War Memorial last week, described his decision to “use the uniform as a tool for spreading awareness” as a “huge move.”
Topp himself acknowledged in his first video in February that he did not have authorization to wear his uniform while speaking out against the vaccine mandates. He also said he took full responsibility for his actions and the consequences.
He defended his decision on Wednesday.
“I’m a member of the Canadian Armed Forces being released,” said Topp, whose march from Vancouver to Ottawa was supported by many of the same people who followed the “Freedom Convoy” that gridlocked the capital city for three weeks earlier this year.
“Why wouldn’t I put my uniform on? … If I think the government is wrong, that’s my duty to speak out about something. That’s my training. When I see something wrong, that’s my duty to speak out against it.”
There are provisions for federal public servants to call attention to perceived wrongdoing and illegal orders by their political masters. But Karl Salgo, executive director of the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance, said he was not sure they would apply in this case.
“The democratic mandate belongs to ministers,” said Salgo, who specializes on public sector accountability and oversight. “Your role as a public servant is to support them.”
Salgo said he is not specifically versed in the rules guiding military members, but “a public servant who publicly criticizes government policy is on pretty shaky ground.”
Asked about military members speaking out in uniform when it comes to overseas missions such as Iraq or Mali, Topp said: “That’s a completely different situation. … That’s what we signed up for. This is a questionable medical procedure.”
Health Canada has said only vaccines that meet strict safety, efficacy and quality standards are approved for use in the country, and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines continue to outweigh the risks of the disease.
Defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre is currently reviewing the Canadian military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which remains in effect even though a similar requirement for most other federal employees has been suspended.
Eyre first ordered all troops vaccinated against COVID-19 in October, saying the requirement was intended to protect the Armed Forces and “demonstrate leadership” as the Liberal government adopted vaccine mandates across the federal public service.
While most service members complied with the order, with the Defence Department reporting more than 98 per cent of Canadian troops had been vaccinated, hundreds of others did not and have been — or are in the process of being — kicked out.
More than 1,300 Armed Forces members have applied for an exemption from the requirement for medical or religious reasons, but only about 150 have had their requests approved.
Topp says he wants to continue drawing attention to the fact military members are still being kicked out of the Armed Forces by continuing his march to Newfoundland starting on July 18.
Since speaking out while in uniform, Topp has been venerated by many of those opposed to vaccines, COVID-19 vaccine mandates and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, including presumed Conservative leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre.
He has also been accused by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and others of associating with and representing right-wing extremists.
Topp, who delivered a speech to hundreds of people upon arriving in Ottawa last week, dismissed links to any specific group or political affiliation, insisting he is fighting for other unvaccinated members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“My name is James Topp, I’m a warrant officer in the Canadian Forces,” he said in the interview. “I saw something wrong, and I said something about it and I’m doing something about it. And what I’m doing is entirely legal.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press