Move to assign general who supported sex offender to role reviewing sexual misconduct 'tone deaf': survivors

Survivors of sexual assault and former soldiers say the Canadian Armed Forces needs to explain why it has assigned a senior leader who once wrote a positive reference letter for a sex offender to a role helping the military respond to sexual misconduct reviews. 

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe gave positive character reference to a convicted sex offender

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe wrote a positive character reference to a judge ahead of a sentencing hearing for a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting the wife of a fellow soldier. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Survivors of sexual assault and former soldiers say the Canadian Armed Forces needs to explain why it has assigned a senior leader who once wrote a positive reference letter for a sex offender to a role helping the military respond to sexual misconduct reviews. 

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe has been tasked with reviewing recommendations from an ongoing external review into military sexual misconduct by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.

In 2017, Dawe submitted positive character references to a judge ahead of the sentencing of Maj. Jonathan Hamilton, who earlier that year was found guilty of sexually assaulting a retired military officer and physically assaulting her husband.

"The main feeling behind it is just one of confusion and surprise and shock," said Annalise Schamuhn who was sexually assaulted by Hamilton. 

"The people who are genuinely hurting, who have lost a lot of faith in the system, they can look at this and just see how potentially tone-deaf it comes across."

The military is in the midst of a sexual misconduct crisis, with several senior leaders on leave with pay amid allegations. Canada's former top military commander, retired general Jonathan Vance, is charged with one count of obstruction of justice in relation to an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct that he denies. His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, was placed on leave amid an investigation into sexual misconduct claims that he denies and which didn't lead to criminal charges. 

WATCH | Maj.-Gen. Dawe assigned to review sexual misconduct policy:

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe put in charge of military sexual misconduct policy

1 year ago
Duration 2:02
A senior Canadian military officer who was put on leave earlier this year after he wrote a letter in support of a soldier convicted of sexual assault is now working on military sexual misconduct files. Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe is now tasked with reviewing, compiling and collating recommendations from external sexual misconduct reviews, leading to questions and concern from some sexual assault survivors and experts.

Megan MacKenzie, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies military culture, said Dawe's appointment has sowed fresh doubt over the forces' ability to clean up misconduct within its ranks. 

"I don't even know if I have the right words to express how disgusted and disappointed I am," said MacKenzie.

"I have very low expectations at this point, quite frankly — but even for my low expectations, it's so disappointing," MacKenzie said.

"There is no rationale for putting someone in this position other than doubling down and showing the defence force is going to protect their own, they're going to protect their senior leaders."

The federal government announced in April that Arbour would lead an external review into sexual assault and misconduct within the military. It is one of three external reviews into the military that Dawe is reviewing, according to the defence department.

'Reviewing, compiling and collating' recommendations

The Department of National Defence (DND) did not issue a media release or make any announcement about Dawe's appointment. News of Dawe's position reviewing the recommendations was first reported by the Ottawa Citizen.

CBC News has also confirmed that he has returned to work and been tasked with "reviewing, collating and compiling recommendations from each of the military's external reviews.

"This work will enable decision-making and help ensure these recommendations are implemented in a timely, deliberate manner," wrote DND spokeperson Daniel Le Bouthillier in a statement.

Dawe had been on paid leave since May, after CBC News reported on the Schamuhns' case. Division and anger had mounted in the ranks after the acting chief of defence staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre, allowed Dawe to continue working. Eyre later apologized for his handling of the case and placed Dawe on leave.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he didn't make the decision, the acting chief of defence staff did. 

"The Acting Chief of Defence Staff has decided that Maj.-Gen. Dawe return to work, reporting directly to the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, [Lt.-Gen.] Frances Allen," wrote Sajjan's press secretary Daniel Minden who added that the government remains committed to a complete institutional change.

Risks 'corroding' recent work

Dawe himself has not yet responded to a request for comment from CBC News.

Kevin Schamuhn, the husband of Annalise Schamuhn and a retired major, said the military needs to offer a complete explanation of the decision to choose Dawe for the role. Schamuhn served in Dawe's chain of command when he wrote the letter.

"I think that absent an explanation, the military's at risk of losing even more credibility on this issue," he said.

WATCH | Retired military couple describes 'painful betrayal': 

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.

Kevin Schamuhn said he has been encouraged by some recent efforts to address sexual misconduct in the military, which Dawe's appointment could undermine.

"This decision that we found out about today, it risks causing a lot of damage and corroding a lot of the work that has been done in recent months," he said.

Support group says survivors have lost trust in Dawe

Leah West, who also experienced sexual assault during her 10-year military career, said she too was surprised by his new role.

"I think to just put him in this position without any kind of explanation or any kind of statement from him, without why he feels that he's overcome those blind spots or is now the right person for this job, is somewhat tone-deaf," said West, who is now an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

Leah West, who served for 10 years in the Canadian military, said Eyre should explain his decision to put Dawe in this new role. (Submitted by Leah West)

West said she knows Dawe from the past and believes he is someone who could have taken the last several months and reflected on his actions and how they hurt victims of sexual assault. She suspects he's taken those lessons aboard but said without an explanation the move doesn't send confidence to sexual assault survivors that the military is listening. 

Dawe apologized in April  to the members under his command for failing Annalise Schamuhn and Kevin Schamuhn who was under his chain of command at the time of the incident. 

A peer support group for those who've experienced military sexual trauma — called It's Not Just 700 — said Dawe's new role "further erodes trust." 

"As a community, we have no choice but to wonder how [Maj.-Gen.] Dawe can possibly make unbiased report recommendations," wrote the group's co-chair Sam Samplonious. 

"The plethora of messages we have received, and tweets posted indicate that he does not have the trust of those still serving, and he certainly does not have the trust of those that have been traumatized from military sexual misconduct."