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The Globe and Mail

Murder charges may unfairly tarnish military's reputation

Colonel Russell Williams, Wing Commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, is pictured in this September 20, 2009 handout photo.


Although many in the military will consider it unfair, murder charges against Colonel Russell Williams could damage the reputation of the Canadian Forces, whose image in the eyes of Canadians has been transformed in recent years.

"If things drag out and new revelations come to light, the potential for damage to the Forces reputation will increase," said Allen Sens, an expert in defence policy at the University of British Columbia.

"This is what Canadians will be watching for: will the military close ranks around this, as perhaps we've seen in the past, or will they openly co-operate" with the investigation, said Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa think-tank that examines, among other things, the military and defence policy.

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As the Defence establishment seeks to preserve its elevated level of funding, even as the federal government grapples with deficit and the mission in Afghanistan prepares to wind down, the timing couldn't be worse.

A decade ago, Canada's military was an embarrassment - underfunded and underequipped, its reputation stained by a series of botched or ineffective deployments: in Somalia, in Rwanda, in Bosnia.

But as federal finances improved, and Canada's commitment in Afghanistan deepened, the Forces became increasingly capable. And as one senior military figure recently observed, "Canadians took ownership of their military," publicly mourning the losses of soldiers in Afghanistan, and taking pride in the swift response to the disaster in Haiti.

And then this happened.

Douglas Bland, who holds the chair in Defence Management Studies at Queen's University, hopes and expects that Canadians will differentiate between allegations against one senior officer and the overall integrity of the military's command structure.

"There is a separation between an institution and the acts of an individual," he said in an interview. There is no suggestion that the culture of the Canadian military generated a character who would commit the kind of acts of which Col. Williams is accused. Rather, he believes, Canadians will see the charges as an aberration.

Unless …

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Unless other allegations emerge from other incidents in other places where Col. Williams lived. Unless any evidence emerges of concerns about Col. Williams that were ignored. Unless the charges prompt allegations that latent sexism can still be found in the senior ranks of the military. Unless the military appears to throwing up defensive walls.

"If it turns out that other senior officials were aware of a pattern in his behaviour, or if past incidents occurred that were ignored or not appropriately addressed, then the impact could be quite damaging," Prof. Sens said.

But unless and until such evidence emerges, the military, like the accused, should be presumed innocent.

Canadian politicians, too, need to avoid ducking for cover. There are too many pictures of Col. Williams with people like Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

"This man was part of the elite, the inner circle," Mr. Staples observed. That elite is exposed and vulnerable, too.

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