Trudeau, Freeland criticize decision to keep embattled navy chief on the job

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his deputy Chrystia Freeland have issued rare public rebukes of the decision by the country's top military commander to retain Vice-Admiral Craig Baines as commander of the navy.

Deputy PM says the military's decision sends wrong signal to women in the ranks

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland issued rare public rebukes of the decision by the acting chief of the defence staff to give the head of the navy a chance to redeem himself after a controversial golf game. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his deputy Chrystia Freeland today issued rare public rebukes of a decision by the country's top military commander to retain Vice-Admiral Craig Baines as commander of the navy.

They publicly questioned whether it was a good idea for the acting chief of the defence staff, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, to allow Baines to remain in his post after he took part in a golf game with former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, who is under military police investigation following allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

"Many women and people I talk to are disappointed," Trudeau told reporters today. "This further demonstrates the work that the military and the military's leadership needs to do to regain the trust of Canadians, because there is such a deep need for real and substantive culture change and change in actions."

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to decision to retain Vice-Admiral Baines

'Many women and people I talk to are disappointed'

1 year ago
Duration 2:38
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rebuked the acting top military commander's choice to give the head of the navy, Vice-Admiral Craig Baines, a second chance after his controversial golf game with retired general Jonathan Vance while he was under investigation.

"I was surprised and disturbed by the decision," Freeland told a press conference today. "My immediate thought was, 'How would I feel if I were a Canadian woman in the Armed Forces?'

"What would that decision tell me about how seriously my bosses were taking the essential work of transforming the world of the Canadian Armed Forces?

"I know, and I think every single woman in Canada knows after the revelations of recent months, that Canadian women in uniform work in a toxic culture. They work in a toxic system which must be changed."

WATCH: Chrystia Freeland 'disturbed' by decision to retain Baines

Chrystia Freeland says she's disturbed by decision to allow navy commander to stay on the job

1 year ago
Duration 1:50
The deputy prime minister told reporters Wednesday she was disappointed and disturbed by the decision to allow Vice Admiral Baines to continue to serve as the commander of the navy.

Ten senior leaders have been swept up in the military's sexual misconduct crisis over the past six months and have left top posts. Eyre has said the military needs to show humility and "truly change our organization."

But his handling of Baines' case is drawing fire from military experts who say it sends the wrong signal to sexual assault survivors. Eyre had to backtrack and publicly apologize once before over his handling of another senior leader's case, after he was accused of giving him an institutional pass

CBC News asked Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office if Eyre consulted Sajjan about the decision to keep Baines in the post, but did not receive an answer. Instead, a spokesperson said "the Minister agrees with the Acting Chief of the Defence Staff that the recent golf game showed a lack of judgment."

"The Minister expects regular updates on the steps that the Commander of the Navy will be taking to rebuild the trust of those who serve and Canadians," wrote Sajjan's spokesperson Todd Lane in a media statement.

CBC requested a comment from Eyre and did not receive one.

Defence expert Stefanie von Hlatky questions how Baines can stay on as commander of the navy when Eyre's own statement acknowledges he's lost trust and "moral authority."

"The poor decision is related to the very crisis military leaders should be focused on solving as an urgent priority," said von Hlatky, an associate professor at Queens University. "If leaders do not model those values, then culture change cannot take place and the [Canadian Armed Forces] remains in this state of crisis."

Vice-Admiral Craig Baines, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, issued a second apology recently about his golf game with retired general Jonathan Vance, saying he "failed to recognize how this choice would affect victims, result in further erosion of trust, and affect the credibility of our institution." (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Conservatives call Freeland's comments 'hypocritical'

The Conservatives, who have been calling for Sajjan's resignation for weeks, are fuming over Freeland's comments.

"These comments by Minister Freeland are extremely hypocritical given her repeated defence of (Sajjan)," wrote Conservative MP and defence critic James Bezan in a media statement.

"If Minister Freeland truly cares about our women and men in uniform, she will join the countless Canadians calling for Minister Sajjan's immediate resignation."

Trudeau defended Sajjan and said he continues to be the person he trusts to transform the military's culture. 

He said Eyre, not Sajjan, made the decision to retain Baines.

Sajjan stands against the 'old boys network': Trudeau

"Minister Sajjan, through his service as a police officer and member of the armed forces, has stood against the old boys network every step of the way, and has had regular challenges with them throughout his career," said Trudeau.

The prime minister has the power to dismiss Eyre and appoint a new chief of the defence staff because the position is a governor-in-council appointment.

The government has tasked former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour with leading an external review of sexual harassment and misconduct in the military. Freeland worked with Arbour when she was the minister of Foreign Affairs. 

"She does not pull her punches and I have a lot of confidence that she will be one of the people who helps drive the real transformation that we need," said Freeland.

The Department of National Defence also created a new position of chief of conduct and professionalism, now held by Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.


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 earned the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the past toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the military. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/