A reservist’s fight against Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the Armed Forces came close to mutiny and could have spurred protests similar to the storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021, a court martial in British Columbia heard Wednesday.
Warrant Officer James Topp, a former soldier with more than 30 years of service for Canada, including multiple deployments to Croatia, Afghanistan and other war zones, should face severe punishment for using his military rank and uniform to publicly challenge the Armed Forces’ COVID-19 vaccine mandates, prosecutor Major Ben Richard told the court martial.
“We call on this court to order a robust sentence,” said Richard. “This is a case about an experienced and seasoned warrant officer leveraging his rank and uniform to publicly challenge his chain of command and his democratically elected government.”
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Topp, 52, who refused to be vaccinated, is expected to be sentenced Thursday.
He pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two charges of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline in relation to two videos he posted to social media while in military uniform, criticizing the pandemic vaccine requirements for military personnel.
Topp faces a maximum punishment of dismissal with disgrace, but his lawyer, Phillip Millar, said his client should be granted an absolute discharge from the military or the “lowest fine possible.”
“I understand there’s pressure to make an example of this man from the (reserve) unit, from the Canadian Armed Forces,” said Millar. “My job is to bring some compassion to the table and understanding of context. If I fail to convince you of the suitability of an absolute discharge, I would ask you to give Warrant Topp the lowest fine possible.”
Topp testified he was close to committing suicide in November 2021 after being suspended with pay from his federal public service job with the RCMP while he was facing charges for his anti-vaccine stance from his reserve unit, the Royal Westminster Regiment in New Westminster, B.C.
He said he decided he would publicly speak out against the vaccine mandates, culminating in the posting of two videos on social media and undertaking a months-long march to Ottawa.
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Richard said all members of the Canadian Armed Forces are duty-bound to follow orders unless they are “manifestly unlawful.”
“That is the legal standard all CAF members are expected to know,” he said. “There’s no room for interpretation. The CAF is about more than one person’s personal views. The CAF is about putting country before self. It is about serving Canada in times of crisis, which the COVID-19 pandemic definitely was.”
Richard said Topp’s calls to forces members and the public to join his protests against COVID-19 vaccines were “getting very close to the legal definition of a mutiny.”
He asked the court martial to consider the possibility of Topp convincing members of the military to support his defiance, saying the result could have been similar to the attack by protesters on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Richard rejected suggestions that Topp’s court marital was about the issue of free speech.
Topp was free to protest as a civilian citizen, but not as a forces member wearing military uniform, said Richard.
“He knew what he was doing would bring significant consequences and he was ready to face them,” he said. “An absolute discharge is not a consequence.”
Millar said Topp admitted he made videos, questioned policies and encouraged people to protest, but he also came to represent the concerns of countless Canadians who were frustrated about the vaccine mandates.
“There’s context that can be factored into this particular scenario because I think Warrant Topp is a very unique individual,” said Millar. “And that time was a very unique time.”
It was “kind of offensive” to compare Topp’s anti-vaccine protests with “the anger and vitriol and the lack of thoughtfulness,” of the Jan. 6 U.S. protests, he said.
© 2023 The Canadian Press