A former soldier who defied federal government and Canadian Armed Forces COVID-19 vaccine mandates says he was close to killing himself before deciding to post anti-vaccine videos on social media and launch a protest march to Ottawa.
Warrant Officer James Topp, who joined the military in 1990 and served overseas in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Afghanistan, testified Tuesday at his court martial that he felt “cast out and turned away” following his refusal to be vaccinated in November 2021.
“I got to the point where I did not want to live anymore,” he said. “So, I thought about it, and in February 2022 I decided to do something. So, I did.”
Topp, 52, pleaded guilty Tuesday to two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline in relation to videos he posted on social media criticizing COVID-19 vaccine requirements for military personnel.
“I need to hear if you formally admit the facts,” Military Judge Cmdr. Julie Deschenes asked Topp. “Are these facts as they are summarized here, accurate?”
Topp, who faces a maximum punishment of dismissal with disgrace, told the start of his court martial in New Westminster, B.C., that he was making his guilty pleas voluntarily.
He testified at the hearing for about 90 minutes, pausing several times to compose himself.
“I had a very hard time with it,” said Topp about the vaccine mandate.
“I felt it was coercive,” he said. “I felt it was done in haste. I felt it was going to open the door on other practices. It didn’t ring right with me.”
The Armed Forces reservist from Vancouver had faced six charges under the National Defence Act over the videos posted in February last year where he criticized pandemic vaccine requirements for military personnel and federal employees.
Topp, a reservist with the Royal Westminster Regiment, appeared in the videos in a uniform for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, where he previously served.
“The question of why I wore my PPCLI (uniform) was because I had my formative years in the army with the PPCLI,” he said. “They contributed to the type of person that I am. I wore my uniform and made those videos because I believed what was happening to me and others in the military was wrong.”
But senior officers in the Royal Westminster Regiment testified Topp’s public defiance of the vaccine mandates took a toll on the regiment.
“It created a huge problem with morale,” testified Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Henneberry, the regiment’s sergeant-major. “It was demoralizing. It brought a lot of dishonour to our regiment.”
Videos shown at hearing
The two videos, which received thousands of views and comments, were shown during the hearing.
The court martial heard one of the videos uploaded on social media was taken at a home in Abbotsford, while the second was at a “Freedom Convoy” protest at the Sumas border crossing near Abbotsford.
The regiment’s Lt.-Col. Greg Chan testified that Topp was a senior leader and his opposition to the vaccine mandates clashed with their “ethos to respect lawful authority.”
“His actions served to create a dissonance among members of the regiment and were contrary to the aim of creating and maintaining strong teams based on mutual trust,” said Chan.
The court martial heard that Topp received military briefings about the COVID-19 pandemic and the military’s vaccine policy but he failed to attest to his vaccine status.
Topp testified his life was at a low point in November 2021. He was suicidal, suspended from his public service job at the RCMP and working as a tow-truck driver in Hope, B.C.
But he decided to speak out, which resulted in the video and a march to Ottawa, where he was supported by many of the organizers of the “Freedom Convoy.”
“I knew exactly what I was doing and why. I was prepared to weather the consequences of it,” Topp said.
He embarked on a months-long walking journey from Vancouver to Ottawa and arrived in the capital in July of 2022.
Topp’s sister Eva Kouwenhoven testified at the court martial, saying her brother was “backed into a corner” but his march and his public campaign “brought people together.”
Lawyer Rory Fowler, a retired lieutenant-colonel who now specializes in military law, said in an interview that Topp has been given the chance to state his case, while other Armed Forces members have not.
“Warrant Officer Topp got to defend himself and got the opportunity, even though he pleaded guilty, got the opportunity to resolve this matter before a court martial,” Fowler said. “There have been other members of the Canadian Forces who did something similar … who were not given an election for court martial.”
The hearing continues on Wednesday.
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