Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Craig Baines admits he made a mistake by golfing with retired general Jonathan Vance last summer while the former chief of the defence staff was being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct.
But in his first interview since current defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre’s controversial decision not to fire him, Baines says he has tried to make the most of his second chance by connecting with victims and survivors of military sexual misconduct.
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Those connections have been personal, as Baines has sat down with former service members who experienced inappropriate and illegal sexual behaviour while in uniform to listen and learn why his decision was wrong.
He has also worked to connect senior officers across the navy with It’s Not Just 700, a support and advocacy group specially created six years ago for victims of military sexual misconduct, and pledged to be an agent for change.
Global News first reported on the Canadian Forces’ mishandling of sexual misconduct in February 2021, leading to the forcing out or resignation of several members of the military’s top brass due to allegations of improper conduct.
On Feb. 2, the issue burst into the spotlight after Global News reported that now-retired Gen. Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff, was facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour from two female subordinates. He has denied the allegations.
Since Global News’ exclusive reporting, the military has been embroiled in what leaders say is an existential “crisis” for the Canadian Armed Forces.
“The biggest thing for me, and what I’ve committed to when dealing with the different groups that I have talked to, is that we’re going to keep this on the agenda,” Baines told The Canadian Press.
“We’re not going to allow this just to be a spike of activity, and then once everyone stops looking, we’re just going to go back to the way it was. That’s not what we’re going to do. We are going to change the navy for the better.”
It’s Not Just 700 co-chair Lori Buchart says while Baines made a bad decision in golfing with Vance, that mistake has since opened the door to a real dialogue between victims and survivors and the military’s top brass.
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And while she acknowledges not everyone will be happy the group is working with Baines and other military commanders, Buchart says the discussions have been healing for some participants. She’s also hoping they lead to real change in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“We really need to find a pathway forward for conversation and for good leaders to reconcile and start a restoration process with those people that are harmed,” Buchart said. “When we start doing that, we’re starting to rebuild trust with the community.”
The birth of the current partnership started with Eyre’s announcement in late June that he had decided to keep Baines on as commander of the Royal Canadian Navy despite his having golfed with Vance and another senior officer, Mike Rouleau.
Baines blames a “blind spot” for his decision to hit the links at Ottawa’s Hylands Golf and Country Club on June 2, saying he was there out of friendship with Rouleau and not to support Vance, who was charged in July with one count of obstruction of justice. Vance has denied any wrongdoing.
Rouleau at the time was vice-chief of the defence staff, the military’s second in command, to whom military police are administratively responsible. He resigned two weeks after the golf game, and took the blame for Baines having been there in the first place.
“There were many different ways I could have supported my colleague, general Rouleau, and that just wasn’t the right way to do it,” Baines said when asked about the golf game. “And I felt terrible that in trying to do that, I caused harm to survivors.”
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In announcing his decision to keep Baines, Eyre said he had consulted a number of people, including victims and survivors, and was giving the navy commander a chance “to redeem himself and show us how to learn, grow, and help the healing process.”
The decision was controversial, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland saying it sent the wrong message to women in the military.
Buchart had similar questions about Eyre’s decision, recalling: “I’m like: `Well, who did you consult in the community? And you’re saying why it’s good for Craig, but you’re not saying why it’s good for the Canadian Armed Forces and the people who served.”’
A former university professor and retired lieutenant-commander who was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions during her 14 years in the naval reserve, Buchart at the time had only recently taken over as co-chair of It’s Not Just 700, known previously as It’s Just 700.
The all-volunteer group was founded in 2015 after the release of an explosive report by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps that for the first time detailed the extent of the military’s problem with sexual misconduct.
While INJ700 has been at the forefront of calls for accountability and action, Buchart says she arrived with a slightly different mindset: “If we were going to help bring about change, we had to have different types of conversations.”
So Buchart wrote an email to Eyre expressing her questions and concerns. Less than an hour later, Baines messaged back asking if they could talk. Buchart says she agreed only after checking with some other officers she knew who vouched for him.
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When they finally talked by phone a few days later, Baines admitted to having made a mistake.
“I said: `Look, you made a really bad decision,”’ Buchart recalls. “But I’m not the one who has to forgive what you did.”’
Baines agreed to a roundtable between himself and other members of the navy with INJ700’s leadership team, who have since met with senior leaders of the air force leaders as well, with more meetings planned in the coming weeks.
The navy commander also sat down with victims and survivors for two “restorative engagement” sessions to better understand why his decision on June 2 hurt them and others. A similar session has been held with Eyre.
Buchart says those meetings, which were set up with assistance from the military’s internal conflict unit, have proven cathartic.
“One of the individuals got up and said: `I’ve done 25 years of psychotherapy and 25 years of drugs, and that hasn’t done for me what six hours engaged in this restorative session with Admiral Baines has,”’ Buchart recalls.
Baines says his eyes have been opened to the pain he caused, and that he is committed to championing change.
Buchart knows not everyone will approve of INJ700’s work with Baines and the rest of the military, which has a long history of promising to root sexual misconduct from the ranks and then failing in that commitment.
But she says not only does the group continue to press for accountability, she has also seen the benefit to individual victims and survivors – and is cautiously optimistic dialogue will lead to real change.
“To move this train wreck forward, this whole conversation piece, there just had to be some swimming upstream,” she says. “If we can engage in conversation, engage in critical dialogue and get these folks to start chatting … then we can shift what’s happening.”
— with files from Global News
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