OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took direct aim at military commanders on Wednesday, declaring they “don’t get it” following a whirlwind 48 hours involving a senior officer who provided a reference for a convicted sex offender.
Speaking at a news conference where he was announcing mandatory vaccine rules for federal public servants as well as train and plane passengers, Trudeau said he was “stunned and dismayed” at recent revelations about Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe.
“It is obvious that despite the work that the military has done, despite the work that we've done, the military still doesn't get that survivors need to be at the centre ... of everything in regards to sexual misconduct and harassment in the military,” the prime minister said.
“And this shows they simply still don't get it.”
Yet despite repeated calls from survivors and experts for more oversight and accountability of the military, Trudeau stood by his decision to have a retired Supreme Court justice conduct a review of military sexual misconduct and find ways to fix it.
“We have an awful lot of work to do, we know that,” he said. “Which is why we've brought in people like justice Louise Arbour to look at how we completely transform the military’s culture and the way our Canadian Armed Forces operate.”
Dawe was removed as commander of Canada’s special forces in April following revelations he provided a character reference four years ago during the sentencing of a soldier who was convicted of sexually assaulting a comrade's wife.
Acting defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre at the time said Dawe's actions had caused “division and pain,” and that he would take his time deciding the senior officer’s next posting.
While the Department of National Defence had said as recently as July that Dawe remained in limbo, and that it would announce any decision on his future, the Ottawa Citizen revealed this week that he had been quietly tasked with a new job.
That new position involved working with the military’s second in command, vice-chief of the defence staff Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, in co-ordinating the different efforts currently underway to change the military’s culture, including on sexual misconduct.
Following an uproar from survivors and experts on military sexual misconduct, and despite Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan having stood by the appointment, Allen announced in a statement late Tuesday that Dawe was being removed from his new position.
“Following an honest discussion with members of the survivor community, I have decided that for now, Maj.-Gen. Dawe will be undertaking the important task of engaging with that community, as other members have done, to better understand how he can contribute to meaningful culture change," she said.
Allen also apologized for the lack of transparency around Dawe’s appointment, but underscored both the need for accountability and the allowance for people to learn and grow from their mistakes.
"Maj.-Gen. Dawe’s willingness then and now to engage with stakeholders and affected persons, to continue his personal and our institutional growth, is I believe, an act of accountability and a commitment to change," she said.
The sudden about-face from top commanders, and the accompanying tough words from the prime minister, represent the latest chapter in a months-long reckoning over sexual misconduct in Canada's military.
The Liberal government has been accused of not having done enough to address sexual misconduct in the ranks, with much of that criticism centring around its handling of an allegation against then-defence chief Jonathan Vance.
Global News first reported the allegation's existence in February, and the fact it was first flagged to Sajjan three years earlier, setting off a chain of events that saw the actions of other senior officers — as well as the government — come under the microscope.
The government tapped Arbour in April to review the issue over the next year or so and provide recommendations on how to fix it, while the military created a new section devoted specifically to the issue of culture change.
However, survivors and experts have criticized the launch of another review and instead called for the government to act on recommendations already made by two other retired Supreme Court justices, Marie Deschamps and Morris Fish, including creating an external oversight body over the military.
Many have also called for Sajjan to be replaced as defence minister, saying he has lost all credibility on the file.
Trudeau, who has yet to reveal his new cabinet, refused to say Wednesday whether Sajjan would return to the position he has held for the past six years.
“The reflection that goes into every single job in cabinet is: Who is the right person to serve Canadians?” he said. “And I can assure you that there is serious reflection going into every single role in cabinet.”