New defence chief apologizes to victims of military sexual misconduct, hate

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OTTAWA — Admiral Art McDonald used his first address as Canada’s new chief of the defence staff Thursday to apologize to Canadian Armed Forces members who have faced any type of discrimination or harassment while serving in uniform.

McDonald was officially sworn in as defence chief during a low-key ceremony in a mostly empty room at National Defence Headquarters as dignitaries such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Julie Payette attended virtually due to COVID-19.

The pandemic loomed large during the event, which saw McDonald take over from Gen. Jonathan Vance. The two senior officers sported masks and many of the trappings of such change-of-command ceremonies were scaled back or omitted entirely.

It also figured prominently in the many speeches delivered during the ceremony, in which the pandemic was listed as one of many challenges at home and abroad that Canada and its military are facing as McDonald takes command.

Yet while that list also included such threats as climate change and growing geopolitical instability, those in attendance — including McDonald — repeatedly went back to one theme: the need for culture change in the Canadian Armed Forces.

It was in that context that McDonald promised to continue the work launched during Vance’s five-year tenure as defence chief, including efforts to root out sexual misconduct and hate from the ranks. He apologized to those who had suffered from such scourges.

“I apologize to you, my teammates, our teammates, who have experienced racism, discriminatory behaviour and or hateful conduct. I'm deeply sorry,” McDonald said.

“I want you to know that 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 the dignity of all persons. Creating a respectful environment is a responsibility that we all share.”

The new defence chief later told reporters he felt he needed to make the apology one of his orders of business.

McDonald wasn’t the only one to reference the need for culture change in the Canadian military, which has been battered by revelations of some members’ links to right-wing extremism groups and hate even as it works to eliminate sexual misconduct from the ranks.

Trudeau, who told The Canadian Press last month that he expected Canada’s new chief of defence staff to make eliminating hate from the military a top priority, specifically referenced McDonald’s efforts as commander of the Royal Canadian Navy to make that force more inclusive.

Those included a high-profile campaign last year that saw "seaman" dropped from the rank titles of junior sailors in favour of more gender-neutral terms.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press