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Commander of the Special Forces, Major-General Peter Dawe stands in front of an Ultra-Light Combat Vehicle at a Canadian Special Operations Forces Command change of command ceremony in Ottawa on April 25, 2018.PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

Canada’s top soldier apologized Sunday over his handling of a high-profile departure within the ranks of the country’s military, which he acknowledged was “increasing the pain” within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Acting chief of the defence staff Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre said in a statement that “it has become increasingly clear to me” that actions by the commander of the Special Forces, Major-General Peter Dawe, four years ago “are causing division and anger within the CAF.”

Maj.-Gen. Dawe was supposed to rotate out of the job this summer into a new position as director-general of international security policy. But on Friday, the Department of National Defence said his departure would take place next week. Now, he is being immediately relieved of his command and placed on leave, Lt.-Gen. Eyre said.

Ottawa working to ensure counselling supports urged by advocates for victims dealing with military trauma

The hastened departure stemmed from a CBC News report last week that revealed a retired military couple, Annalise and Kevin Schamuhn, had learned in 2017 that Maj.-Gen. Dawe had provided a written character reference for Major Jonathan Hamilton. This was after the major had been convicted of illegally entering the couple’s home in Kingston and sexually assaulting Ms. Schamuhn and physically assaulting her husband.

Ms. Schamuhn told the CBC “we were basically betrayed by our military family” and said she had faced years of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying while employed by the military. Mr. Schamuhn said that through his actions, Maj.-Gen. Dawe had lost the moral authority to lead the military’s elite forces.

Maj.-Gen. Dawe apologized last week to his subordinates for actions intended to help Major Hamilton get a more lenient sentence. He said they were “profoundly harmful to the victim and her spouse” and that he didn’t consider how it “would be viewed by other silent survivors” of sexual assault, according to a document obtained by the CBC.

Still, Lt.-Gen. Eyre initially said he had full confidence in Maj.-Gen. Dawe, saying he had accepted full responsibility and had learned from the case. In the face of growing anger within the ranks, Lt.-Gen. Eyre said in a second statement Friday that Maj.-Gen. Dawe would move to his new job sooner than expected.

On Sunday, in his third statement on the matter, Lt.-Gen. Eyre said: “These are difficult times for us as an institution, and for many who continue to suffer. That suffering is inflamed through a sense of betrayal, and I recognize that is real.”

He reiterated his earlier statement that he had confidence Maj.-Gen. Dawe “has accepted full responsibility and has learned from this tragic case. However, the needs of the institution must take priority.”

The top soldier said he had requested “that clear direction be made available regarding character references for cases of legal proceedings. … We must keep learning and ensure such situations are not repeated going forward.

“In doing so, we must always have the victims’ perspective at the forefront and be accountable for our actions. We must do better.”

The military’s fumbled response to the matter took place after the government’s appointment of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour last Thursday to lead a review of sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian Armed Forces and make recommendations on an external reporting system for victims. The announcement followed allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the military’s top commanders, including former defence chief Jonathan Vance.

Opposition leaders said last week that the government had largely failed to act on a 2015 report by former justice Marie Deschamps that also called for an independent reporting process and reforms to military culture. The government, including the Prime Minister’s Office and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, has also been accused of mishandling a sexual-misconduct allegation against Mr. Vance.

On Friday, the Prime Minister said the purpose of the review is to fix the “failing of the entire system,” adding that measures brought in by the government to date “have all been inadequate” and have left victims feeling that they had not been appropriately supported.

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