Experts are questioning the Canadian Armed Forces‘ (CAF) willingness to tackle sexual misconduct within its ranks after Maj. Gen. Peter Dawe, who wrote a positive reference letter for a sex offender, returned to work and was tasked with working on a number of reviews related to sexual misconduct within the forces.
“I’m honestly at a loss for words. It’s so hard to understand why this individual would be put in this position,” said Megan MacKenzie, who studies military sexual misconduct at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University.
“To put someone in a position of power over this issue who has made really poor judgment, I think really signals to the forces that this isn’t going to be a moment of change.”
Dawe was directed to leave his post “immediately” in early May, following reports he wrote a character reference for another service member who had been convicted of six criminal counts, including sexual assault.
Now, Dawe has been tasked with compiling and scrutinizing materials from multiple sexual misconduct reviews.
The reviews in question include a June report from former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish, which found that sexual misconduct remains as “rampant” and “destructive” in 2021 as it was in 2015, and another from former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour.
Arbour’s review is aimed at providing advice to the government on creating an independent reporting system.
“You have victims coming forward and really making themselves vulnerable, and then this…is just further traumatizing victims who are already in such a difficult position coming forward,” MacKenzie said.
“Again, I’m just at a loss.”
Colten Skibinsky, a former military member and survivor of sexual assault, was also confused by the decision to put Dawe in such a role.
“My initial thoughts, and the thoughts of the community, were that this is the wrong person for this position. Entirely the wrong person,” Skibinsky said, speaking on behalf of It’s Not Just 700, a support group set up to help current and former military members traumatized by sexual misconduct while serving in uniform.
“I really want to know how this benefits Canada and Canadians. Nobody’s saying General Dawe can’t return to work. But why is he returning to work in this role? How does this better serve Canada? I really don’t think this is the time or position for a man like Pete Dawe to have a learning experience.”
In a statement sent to Global News, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government is “working to deliver reforms that will bolster CAF members’ confidence in the military justice system.”
“Our members and employees deserve institutions in which they can have full confidence,” wrote Sajjan’s spokesperson Daniel Minden.
Minden added that the Acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen Wayne Eyre is the one responsible for the chain of command, and that he was the one who made the decision to allow Dawe back to work.
“Our government remains committed to a complete institutional culture change in the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces,” he said.
The prime minister’s office refused to comment, deferring instead to Sajjan’s spokesperson.
The Canadian military is in the grips of an institutional crisis over its handling of sexual misconduct and, in particular, the conduct of its senior leaders — some of whom now face allegations of misconduct.
On Feb. 2, the issue burst into the spotlight after Global News reported on allegations against now-retired Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff. Vance has denied the allegations.
In the weeks that followed, military police have opened investigations into Vance as well as Adm. Art McDonald, Vance’s successor as chief of defence staff. Vance was subsequently charged with one count of obstruction of justice on July 15.
Multiple women have also spoken out publicly, sharing allegations of high-level sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces.
The allegations also led to the launch of two studies by parliamentary committees.
Both Skibinsky and MacKenzie say that it’s going to take intervention from outside of the armed forces to ensure there’s real change in how the military handles sexual misconduct.
“We have had a minister of defense who’s been absent on this file, who keeps deferring back to the institution. And we have clear signals that this is an institution that can’t handle this problem,” Mackenzie said.
“And so for me, the responsibility lies at the foot of the minister, who has been absolutely unaccountable on this file and has had zero leadership. I think the government on the civilian side needs to say this is a problem that is not being handled well internally.”
“I don’t think the military can change on its own. This just really is going to take the military and Parliament working together,” he said.
“It’s not enough to just manage the institution and keep it running day to day. We need reform. So I really think government and the armed forces are going to have to come together.”