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Canadian military veteran who criticized COVID-19 vaccine mandate pleads guilty

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A former Canadian soldier who protested the federal government's COVID-19 vaccine requirements is facing a maximum punishment of dismissal with disgrace after pleading guilty in a military court Tuesday.

Former warrant officer James Topp criticized the vaccine mandate for military members and other federal employees while in uniform in February 2022.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline at the start of his court martial in New Westminster, B.C.

Two additional charges related to improperly wearing his uniform were withdrawn by the prosecution after Topp pleaded not guilty to both at the start of the proceedings.

The charges stemmed from statements Topp made in two videos recorded in and around Abbotsford, B.C., that were later posted to social media.

In the videos, Topp appeared in the uniform of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, where he had previously served.

The Fraser Valley resident went on to lead a months-long march from Vancouver to Ottawa, and became a symbol for Canadians opposed to vaccine requirements and perceived government overreach.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who was then a leadership candidate, joined Topp on the final leg of his march through the national capital, saying he supported the soldier's advocacy for personal freedom.

Army reservist James Topp speaks to a protester during a protest against COVID-19 health measures at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Thursday, June 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Topp, who was released from the military earlier this year, joined the regular forces in 1990, deploying to Bosnia, Macedonia and Afghanistan, before transferring to the army reserves in 2019.

Judge Catherine Julie Deschenes heard that Topp had attended briefings about the COVID-19 pandemic and the military's vaccine policy but he failed to attest to his own vaccine status.

One of Topp's commanding officers as a reservist testified that Topp's protest of the vaccine mandate set a poor example for his fellow soldiers.

Lt.-Col. Greg Chan, who has commanded the Royal Westminster Regiment since June 2021, told the court that Topp's conduct eroded trust within his unit and tarnished the image of the military in the community.

TOPP TESTIFIES

The master warrant officer who investigated the videos when they surfaced on TikTok and YouTube told the court he was frustrated and saddened when he saw such a highly decorated soldier opposing the government's public health measures.

"Based on the production value, he was becoming a tool of people who were already putting a lot of stress on our society when our society was already going through a huge medical crisis," Christopher Baird Hennebery testified.

The videos also "created a huge problem with morale within the Canadian Armed Forces," he said.

Despite his guilty plea, Topp took the stand to lay out his reasons for publicly defying the vaccine requirement, speaking carefully and at times emotionally about his mental state during the pandemic.

"I had a very hard time with it because of the way that I felt that it was coercive, that it was done in haste and I felt that it was going to open the door on other practices that were going to just inhibit the way we live our lives," Topp said of the mandate.

Both videos were created the same day; one using his niece's cellphone at a home in Abbotsford, and the other with the help of a videographer at the Sumas border crossing, he said.

'I DID NOT WANT TO LIVE ANYMORE'

The career soldier, who was by then a reservist, testified that he was temporarily suspended without pay from his regular job as a facilities manager at the RCMP's Pacific Region Training Centre in Chilliwack, B.C., due to his refusal to attest to his vaccination status.

"I was concerned with the safety of the product," he continued. "It seemed it was something that was being done in a state of fear and very hastily."

When Topp's reserve unit was called to assist with the November 2021 flooding in Hope, B.C., his vaccine status prevented him from joining the disaster response, he said.

"I got to a point where I did not want to live anymore," Topp told the court. "So I thought about it and in February I decided I needed to do something, so I did."

The former soldier claimed he was not seeking attention or trying to spearhead a movement when he made the videos. He said he donned his uniform from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry because the unit "contributed to the type of person that I am."

"I made those videos because what I thought was happening to me, and what was happening to others, was wrong," he added.

Eva Kouwenhoven testified on her brother's behalf, saying she felt the army "abandoned" Topp over his vaccine refusal.

The start of the "Freedom Convoy" to Ottawa in January 2022 lit a "spark" in her brother and inspired him to march to the capital the following summer to call for an end to the vaccine mandate and the reinstatement of employees who lost their jobs for refusing to be immunized, she said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday. 

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