OTTAWA—A disgraced army officer is suing the Canadian Forces after he was stripped of his command in Haiti for allegedly starting an inappropriate relationship with his civilian secretary.
Col. Bernard Ouellette, a once up-and-coming officer from Quebec, is now seeking an apology and compensation from three Canadian members of his former staff in Port-au-Prince, the Defence Department, and a military ethics instructor, who has used him as an example of improper conduct before a class of 57 students in Toronto.
He says rumours of an affair with his Albanian secretary, Vlora Merlaku, at the United Nations compound in post-earthquake Haiti were false allegations that have effectively killed his career.
Ouellette, commander of the Canadian Task Force and chief-of-staff to the UN mission, survived the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit on Jan. 12, 2010, but the slander and gossip that was passed back to his superior officers in the months that followed left his life in pieces, he says in his statement of claim.
They included reports of his nightly “frolicking” in the compound pool with Merlaku, sleeping with her in his office, holding hands, spending Sundays at the beach and being caught with lipstick on his mouth in the middle of the work day.
“It is common knowledge among UN staff that the colonel is having an affair; they refer (behind his back) to the colonel AS the colonel and his bride, the colonel and his queen,” says one email quoted in the lawsuit.
The $6-million lawsuit was filed in Ontario Superior Court in January, but came to public attention only this week after months of silence from the Canadian Forces.
Ouellette, who has been given an administrative job in National Defence headquarters, filed a complaint with the Canadian Forces Grievance Board saying he was not made aware of the specific allegations made by his subordinates before he was sanctioned and was unable to properly defend himself.
The board ruled last December that Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, should compensate Ouellette for his lost benefits, take steps to restore his reputation and put him back on his previous career path.
Ouellette, 51, first heard of the decision to strip him of command responsibilities on June 9. The decision cited his “personal relationship” with his secretary and the fact that she lived in his personal quarters for two months.
The written warning did not include the litany of salacious reports from two female majors and a male lieutenant-commander working under Ouellette’s command.
Ouellette, writing in his own defence, said Merlaku moved in to his lodgings “for reasons of safety and health” after her own residence in Pétionville was deemed inhospitable.
“I have been married for 28 years and I have never deceived my wife. I have deep values. I acted in good faith and without ulterior motive,” Ouellette wrote to the head of the Canadian Forces Expeditionary Command.
The lawsuit states that while Merlaku stayed in his bed, Ouellette slept either in his office or in other locations.
On June 28, 2010, two weeks before he was to end his posting in Haiti, Ouellette was formally relieved of his command in Haiti. The media were alerted and the tawdry headlines spread around the world.
Ouellette returned to Ottawa under a cloud and became subject to a military investigation to see if he had violated any disciplinary standards. In November 2010, military police found “insufficient evidence to support the charge,” the statement of claim notes.
In a confidential report, which Ouellette’s lawyers have not made public, the Grievance Board’s chair, Bruno Hamel, professes to be “shocked” at how the officer was treated and urges Natynczyk to “personally fix this situation.”
Natynczyk, who was not available for comment, has not yet responded to the grievance board’s recommendation.
Meanwhile, Ouellette says he has suffered from health issues, personal embarrassment and humiliation. His family has also received two anonymous letters, in 2011 and 2012, condemning his actions. The lawsuit says they were sent from the military base in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.
He has also missed out on decorations for his work co-ordinating the UN rescue and relief effort during the Haiti earthquake, and was passed over for the job as chief of staff for the army in Quebec.
A similar fraternization scandal to Ouellette’s led to the downfall of now retired Brig.-Gen. Daniel Ménard. In that May 2010 case, Ménard was alleged to be in a sexual relationship with a female subordinate in Afghanistan.