Special Forces commander put on leave as acting top soldier apologizes for handling of situation

The acting chief of the defence staff has placed the military's Special Forces commander, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, on leave with pay after revelations that he wrote a letter supporting a soldier convicted of sexual assault in 2017.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe wrote letter supporting soldier convicted of sexual assault

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, head of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, 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. He's been placed on leave. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

The country's top soldier has placed the commander of Canada's Special Forces on leave indefinitely with pay following revelations that he wrote a letter in support of a soldier found guilty of sexual assault.

Amid mounting anger, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, apologized for his handling of the situation and said Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe will immediately turn his command over to the Special Forces unit's deputy commander and proceed on leave, according to a statement released Sunday.

Eyre said a "sense of betrayal" was intensifying the suffering of many in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

"It has become increasingly clear to me that MGen Peter Dawe's actions four years ago around sending a character reference are causing division and anger within the CAF," Eyre said.

"I apologize for increasing this pain."

The move comes just days after Eyre announced Dawe would be rotated out of his role leading the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) next week, in advance of his original departure date this summer.

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, is shown at a parade on Parliament Hill in August 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But there has been outrage from within the ranks of the Armed Forces and on social media that Eyre didn't go far enough by allowing Dawe to move on to his new position early as director general of international security policy. 

The decision was seen as a difficult one for Eyre because of Dawe's stature in the military. Eyre said in the statement that he's taking further action to help morale.

"In the interests of CAF cohesion and morale, and to maintain the operational focus of CANSOFCOM, both national imperatives, yesterday I directed that MGen Dawe immediately turn command over to BGen Steve Boivin, the current deputy commander, and proceed on leave," Eyre's statement reads.

Outrage over character reference

Scrutiny of Dawe's leadership was sparked by revelations in a CBC News story that he had written a letter in support of a soldier who had been convicted of sexual assault, while offering no support to the victims themselves. Retired major Kevin Schamuhn and his wife, retired captain Annalise Schamuhn, spoke out publicly for the first time this week to express their lack of confidence in Dawe's continuing leadership.

Kevin Schamuhn said he was shocked to hear that Dawe, who at the time was his superior in the Special Forces, had written the character reference letter for Maj. Jonathan Hamilton, a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting Annalise Schamuhn on two separate occasions. Hamilton was also found guilty of physically assaulting Kevin Schamuhn twice.

During the sentencing hearing, the judge noted that letters from high-level military personnel described a man of great character before being engulfed in post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple deployments to Afghanistan. Hamilton was sentenced to probation rather than jail time. But the next year, he was sentenced to three years in prison after a second, unrelated, sexual assault trial.

"I believe that through this experience, Gen. Dawe lost his moral authority to lead the Special Forces," Kevin Schamuhn said in the original interview with CBC News.

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

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.

Dawe penned an open letter earlier this week apologizing for his handling of the case.

"As all of you have likely read, I failed a member of our Command," he 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 of sexual assault in our ranks."

Eyre's statement said Dawe's "return and future employment will be determined and communicated in due course."

"I have confidence in MGen Dawe as an officer who has accepted full responsibility and has learned from this tragic case. However, the needs of the institution must take priority."

Eyre also promised to examine the practice of character reference letters in legal proceedings. It's not unusual for a military member accused of sexual assault, or their defence counsel, to seek and obtain character references from commanding officers for the purposes of sentencing. 

"While I do not expect these measures to right the wrongs of the past, or ease the sense of betrayal felt by the Schamuhn family, we must keep learning and ensure such situations are not repeated going forward. In doing so, we must always have the victims' perspective at the forefront and be accountable for our actions," the statement concludes.

"We must do better."

Directive promised by Vance doesn't appear to exist

Kevin Schamuhn complained about the handling of his case in 2017 to the chief of the defence staff at the time, Gen. Jonathan Vance. In a letter viewed by CBC News, Vance wrote that he had looked into the matter and found Schamuhn's objection "has merit" and was "inconsistent" with his efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct in the military.

Vance wrote that action would be taken so that "incidents of this nature will not be repeated without severe repercussions." He promised to include direction and training materials explaining how support should be provided to military members awaiting trial and sentencing for sexual misconduct. 

However, when CBC News asked for a copy of that directive, the Department of National Defence said it does not "have a copy of a directive or any other information to provide at this time," suggesting Vance didn't follow through with the promise.

Government open to significant changes: Sajjan

The move to place Dawe on leave comes days after the federal government announced yet another external review, led by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, to look into the issue of sexual misconduct in the military.

The previous report on the subject, by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, recommended an agency independent of the chain of command for reporting misconduct. That agency was never created, and instead a sexual misconduct response centre was formed that is independent but only provides advice to victims.

WATCH | 'We have to get this right,' defence minister says:

'We have to get this right,' Sajjan says

2 years ago
Duration 10:31
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told CBC's chief political correspondent, Rosemary Barton, that the federal government will not wait for the completed report into sexual misconduct in the Canadian military to start implementing changes.

In an interview airing Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government is prepared to make major structural reforms to how the military handles sexual misconduct.

"It's possible changes are going to happen in organizational changes, where authorities will need to change. There possibly might be legislative changes as well," he told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

Sajjan also said he would act on interim recommendations put forward by Arbour rather than wait for a final report.

A Canadian Forces Reddit page garnered more than 230 comments on Saturday in response to a CBC story about Eyre allowing Dawe to move to his new job early. Some expressed outrage and disappointment that Eyre wasn't taking a stronger stance. Others wrote that being rotated out of a command post was a serious enough penalty.

With files from Kristen Everson