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Former Canadian soldier fined $4K, given severe reprimand for anti-vax videos

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A former Canadian soldier and veteran of the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan was fined $4,000 and given a severe reprimand Thursday for publicly defying the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Armed Forces members.

James Topp, a 53-year-old former warrant officer, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for posting two videos on social media in which he criticized the military's vaccine requirements while in uniform.

The Hope, B.C., 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.

Military prosecutor Maj. Ben Richard argued Topp's actions came "very close to the legal definition of mutiny," and could have triggered protests reminiscent of the attack on the United States Capitol in January 2021.

He accused the former soldier of trying to undermine the federal government when he made the videos in February 2022, and asked the military judge for "a robust sentence" of a severe reprimand and a $5,200 fine.

"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," he said.

Defence lawyer Phillip Millar countered Topp should be granted either an absolute discharge from the military or a minimal fine, saying his client's decision-making was misguided by emotional and financial turmoil when he appeared in the videos.

"He was not a bad soldier," Millar told the court. "He made an error, but for the right reasons."

Topp, who transferred from the regular forces to the army reserves in 2019, will not have a criminal record as a result of the sentence, something Judge Catherine Julie Deschenes said would allow him to maintain his employment as a facilities manager with the RCMP.

James Topp speaks to the crowd during a protest against COVID-19 health measures at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Ont., on Thursday, June 30, 2022. Topp, a Canadian reservist, has pleaded guilty to two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline in relation to videos posted on social media criticizing COVID-19 vaccine requirements for military personnel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

The court heard that Topp had attended briefings about the COVID-19 pandemic and the military's vaccine policy but he refused to attest to his own vaccine status.

Topp had testified that he contemplated ending his life before making the videos, saying his refusal to get vaccinated had not only put him at odds with the military but had earned him a suspension from his job at an RCMP training centre.

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 said. "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."

Eva Kouwenhoven testified on her brother's behalf, saying she felt the army "abandoned" Topp, and that he was "backed into a corner," 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.

In October 2022, the Canadian Armed Forces suspended its requirement that all uniformed personnel be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The new directive instead requires proof of vaccination for certain roles and responsibilities, including high-readiness units and those in remote regions where access to medical care is limited.

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