Commander of Special Forces to be replaced early after apologizing for handling of sexual assault case

The commander of Canada's Special Forces will be leaving his post early after it was revealed this week that he wrote a letter in support of another soldier convicted of sexual assault and failed to support the victims.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe said he has learned from experience and vows to 'do better'

Commander of the Special Forces Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe wrote a positive character reference to a judge for a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting the wife of another member in his chain of command. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

The commander of Canada's Special Forces will be leaving his post early after it was revealed this week that he wrote a letter in support of another soldier convicted of sexual assault and failed to support the victims.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe was set to be rotated out of his current position — leading the country's elite commando unit — this summer.

The Department of National Defence announced late Friday that acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre has moved up the change of command to next week. 

DND said Dawe will be moving into the job he was set to take after leaving his current command: director general of international security policy.

The move followed a meeting today between Eyre and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

"The acting CDS, as well as the DM, retain confidence in [Dawe's] ability to continue to serve Canada," said a DND statement sent to CBC News. "However, the pain of his letter of four years ago persists for those impacted."

"We must always put victims' considerations first ... MGen Dawe has taken full responsibility for not taking the victims' perspective into account."

Dawe apologized to the members under his command last night for failing a major under his chain of command after his wife, who is a retired member, was sexually assaulted by another soldier.

"As all of you have likely read, I failed a member of our Command," Dawe wrote in an open letter obtained by CBC News. "Instead, when approached by the perpetrator in this case, I recognized empathy with his personal struggles and responded emotionally.

"And while my intent was purely driven, it is clear that the impact of my actions was profoundly harmful to the victim and her spouse. Moreover, I did not consider how my actions would be viewed by other silent survivors or sexual assault in our ranks."

The apology came on the heels of a CBC News story about retired Armed Forces members Kevin and Annalise Schamuhn, who said they felt betrayed after Dawe wrote a character reference for a convicted offender to help him get a more lenient sentence in court and offered no support to them, the victims.

In a media statement, Sajjan said he had "serious concerns" about how this case was handled and questioned "the decision made to supply character references in this matter."

"I have spoken with the Acting Chief of the Defence Staff about consequences and next steps for the serious lapse in judgment," Sajjan said. "All forms of sexual misconduct are unacceptable. We must always recognize the pain and suffering of those who have experienced sexual assault."

The Schamuhns said they felt Dawe lost his moral authority to lead the Special Forces after mishandling their case.

WATCH: Retired military couple describes 'painful betrayal' following sexual assault:

Sexual assault victim feels betrayed by high-level military personel’s support of her attacker

2 years ago
Duration 2:55
A retired military couple says they feel betrayed by the Canadian Armed Forces because it supported a soldier found guilty of sexual assault — while offering the victims no support.

Soldier found guilty on 6 criminal counts

Retired Major Kevin Schamuhn said he was blindsided in 2017 to learn Dawe, his superior in his chain of command as deputy commander of the Special Forces, had written a character reference for Maj. Jonathan Hamilton after he was found guilty on six criminal counts in civilian court.

An Ontario justice found Hamilton guilty of unlawfully entering the Schamuhns' Kingston home and sexually assaulting retired Captain Annalise Schamuhn on two separate occasions. Hamilton also was found guilty of physically assaulting Kevin Schamuhn twice.

Schamuhn said Dawe admitted to him on a phone call on Sept. 30, 2017, that his "motive" was to influence sentencing, and was unapologetic.

"Given all that [Hamilton] had been subjected to in terms of his experience overseas, how frankly he was mistreated by the institution, I thought he deserved a break," Dawe said, according to detailed notes Kevin Schamuhn took during the call. "I certainly don't see him as a threat to society for just a second. I think on the whole he's a pretty good guy."

The judge noted during sentencing that letters from high-level military personnel described Hamilton as "a man of great character and leadership before being engulfed in PTSD" resulting from multiple deployments to Afghanistan. The judge then gave the accused probation rather than jail time.

In 2018, Hamilton was sentenced to jail after a second, unrelated sexual assault trial. 

Kevin Schamuhn said he later learned from another senior officer of another instance when Dawe tried to defend a soldier from consequences in a sexual misconduct case.

In a statement to CBC News on Wednesday, Dawe said he went through mediation sessions with Kevin Schamuhn. But Dawe said it's clear to him now that he should have "acknowledged the significant burden the victims were carrying and would continue to carry."

Story 'struck a deep nerve,' Schamuhns say

Annalise and Kevin Schamuhn have read Dawe's apology letter and say they stand by their comments. The couple said their story has "struck a nerve within the Special Forces community and beyond."

"We have received responses from women and men who are not only experiencing the shock of the betrayal on our behalf; they are also experiencing it personally," said the Schamuhns in a written statement to CBC News. "If someone of our level of status and privilege is treated this way, how can anyone feel safe?"

The couple said "people might expect that changing a key leadership position will bring closure to emotional trauma."

"It could be an important symbolic gesture; however, we believe that a more meaningful immediate response from leaders is to provide a safe venue for people to be truly heard."

WATCH | Full interview with the Schamuhns, who say high-level military members failed to support them:

Retired military couple describes ‘painful betrayal’

2 years ago
Duration 7:46
Kevin and Annalise Schamuhn describe what it was like when high-ranking military officers chose to support a convicted sexual offender who had assaulted Annalise, and explain why they are speaking out now.

The Schamuhns told CBC News their story exposes a deep-seated problem in the military chain of command and shows the military is promoting individuals for the wrong reasons.

Dawe was given the job of commander after the Schamuhns complained to the chief of defence staff at the time, Gen. Jonathan Vance. Vance agreed their issue had merit and was inconsistent with Operation Honour, the military's campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks, according to a letter from Vance.

"It showed me that the organization promotes people based on key positions that they've held in the past," said Kevin Schamuhn in an interview with CBC News. "It promotes people based on their ability to accomplish tasks. But it doesn't take into consideration the individual's moral courage or how well they take care of the people under their command."

Sajjan promises 'bold' action

Dawe's apology letter was released the same day that top government and military officials held a lengthy press conference to describe their plans to confront the problem of sexual misconduct in the military. 

Sajjan apologized to victims who have felt unsupported and promised to take "bold" action. 

"To every member in the [Canadian Armed Forces], to every person in [the Department of National Defence] who has been affected by sexual harassment and violence and felt that we were not there to support you — I'm truly sorry," Sajjan said yesterday.

The government has tasked former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour with leading an external review into sexual harassment and misconduct. The Department of National Defence will also establish a new in-house position — a chief of conduct and professionalism — to be held by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.

Read Dawe's full letter:

Mobile users: View the document
(Text KB)
CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

With files from Kristen Everson