A sea change: Canada's new top military commander apologizes to victims of racism

Canada's new top military commander officially took charge on Thursday in bare-bones virtual ceremony that marks a sea change in leadership for the Armed Forces. Admiral Art McDonald began his tenure by offering a personal apology to victims of racism and hateful conduct.

Admiral Art McDonald said he is 'deeply sorry' to members of the Armed Forces who experienced racism

Canada's new defence chief explains why he apologized for racism in the Canadian Armed Forces in his first speech.

2 years ago
Duration 2:09
Admiral Art McDonald spoke with the CBC's Murray Brewster after the change-of-command ceremony in Ottawa on Thursday.

Canada's new top military commander offered an apology to victims of racism as he officially took charge during a bare-bones virtual ceremony that marked a sea change in the leadership of the Armed Forces. 

Admiral Art McDonald becomes the first naval officer in more than two decades to hold the post of chief of the defence staff. The last sailor to hold the position, on an acting basis, was retired vice-admiral Larry Murray almost 25 years ago.

McDonald replaces Gen. Jonathan Vance, the longest-serving defence chief in modern times, who announced his retirement last summer after more than five years on the job.

The physically distanced ceremony took place in the room usually set aside for press conferences at the National Defence Headquarters building in downtown Ottawa.

It was a far cry from the military pomp and circumstance, brass bands, fighter jet flypasts and rumbling armoured vehicles that traditionally accompany such a high-profile change of command. 

WATCH | Vance wipes away a tear during his final address:

Gen. Jonathan Vance reflects on fallen soldiers

2 years ago
Duration 1:02
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance gets emotional when thanking the sacrifices of families who lost loved ones.

Almost everything, with the exception of the direct participants, was virtual.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Veterans Minister Lawrence MacAuley participated via video call.

The six-piece military band played virtually, and recorded videos of ships, planes and tanks took the place of the real ones.

It was, however, McDonald's recognition and heartfelt apology to victims of racism, hateful conduct and sexual misconduct that stood out in a speech full of congratulations and appreciation for family and comrades.

"Our journey of self improvement has many steps remaining," McDonald said. "I apologize to you my teammates, our teammates who have experienced racism, discriminatory behaviour and — or — hateful conduct. I am deeply sorry. I want you to know I will do all that I can to support you; to stop these unacceptable acts from happening; and to put into practice our guiding principle: Respect and dignity for all persons." 

Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, McDonald said he felt it was important offer a personal expression of contrition because of the personal stories he's heard.

He also signalled in his speech that he will take a steady-as-she-goes approach to managing the Armed Forces with no major deviation from the program laid out by Vance.

The ceremony was also marked by Vance's typically stoic demeanour cracking ever so slightly as he wiped away a tear while thanking families of fallen soldiers during his final address.

From them, he said, he "learned the very definition of grace," adding that he wears "every loss of your loved ones on my heart and always will."

Payette, Trudeau and McDonald all heaped professional praise on Vance.

It was left to Sajjan to deliver a more personal tribute, acknowledging their shared service in Afghanistan and how Vance, at the time a brigadier-general, lost one of his security detail to a roadside bomb attack in July 2009.

Cpl. Nick Bulger died in the bombing.

While the headquarters team waited for a medevac helicopter, Vance, rifle in hand, took up position on the security perimeter.

"Given your rank, you didn't have to do that, and some would even say, given your rank, you shouldn't have," Sajjan said. "But you did because that's what good leaders do. And I want Canadians to know you shared the same risks with your crew." 

McDonald becomes the 20th chief of the defence staff, a position formally created in the 1960s. Originally from New Waterford, N.S., he served in frigates throughout much of career, rising to command HMCS Halifax. He was the component commander for the navy's deployment when it responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

After that, McDonald took charge of the country's Pacific fleet.

While serving as a senior staff officer in Ottawa, the defence chief was intimately involved in the development of plans for the navy's new frigates, which are about to hit the drawing board.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.