Defence minister positions himself opposite Trudeau, Freeland over decision to keep navy commander

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he has full confidence in Canada’s acting top soldier, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, and agrees with his decision to retain the navy’s commander — despite criticism from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his deputy.

Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland have both questioned whether it was a good idea for Eyre to allow Vice-​Admiral Craig Baines to remain in command after he took part in a golf game with former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, who is under military police investigation following allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

Sajjan now appears to have positioned himself opposite Trudeau and Freeland by standing behind Eyre — who he says will be making sure Baines rebuilds lost trust — in an interview Thursday with CBC News: Canada Tonight.

“I have the utmost confidence in him, as we know that he’s going to be monitoring the progress very closely,” Sajjan said of Eyre. “He’s absolutely committed to making sure that we create that culture change that’s absolutely necessary.”

“I’ve agreed with the acting chief of defence staff’s assessment on this. There was a lack of judgment by the commander of the navy.”

Sajjan is in the midst of a political firestorm over his handling of the sexual misconduct crisis. For weeks, the Conservatives have been calling on him to resign or for the prime minister to fire him. In a symbolic move, a majority of MPs voted last month to censure Sajjan over his perceived failings on a number of files during his six years in office.

Defence minister positions himself opposite Trudeau, Freeland over decision to keep navy commander
Sajjan, left, said he agrees with Eyre’s decision to retain the head of the navy despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland’s public criticism of the decision. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Freeland ‘surprised and disturbed’ by Eyre’s decision

In contrast to Sajjan’s comments, Freeland had said Wednesday she “was surprised and disturbed” by Eyre’s decision to allow Baines to stay in his job.

“My immediate thought was, ‘How would I feel if I were a Canadian woman in the Armed Forces?'” said Freeland. “What would that decision tell me about how seriously my bosses were taking the essential work of transforming the world of the Canadian Armed Forces?”

Defence minister positions himself opposite Trudeau, Freeland over decision to keep navy commander
Eyre issued a memo to military members Tuesday saying Vice-Admiral Craig Baines showed ‘poor judgment’ by golfing with former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, who is under military police investigation following allegations of inappropriate behaviour. But Eyre believes Baines can learn from his error and become a better leader. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau said many women and people he has spoken with are disappointed by Eyre’s choice. 

“This further demonstrates the work that the military and the military’s leadership needs to do to regain the trust of Canadians, because there is such a deep need for real and substantive culture change and change in actions,” the prime minister said Wednesday.

The prime minister has the power to dismiss Eyre and appoint a new chief of the defence staff because the position is a governor-in-council appointment.

Eyre said he consulted widely about decision

Eyre has not publicly commented since Trudeau and Freeland’s public rebukes. In his original memo to members about his choice, Eyre said he consulted victims, senior public servants and academics about his decision to allow Baines to redeem himself.

But it’s unclear whether Eyre consulted with Sajjan. CBC News put that question to Sajjan’s office but has not yet received a direct answer.

“There is no perfect answer and I accept that not all will agree regardless of the decision,” Eyre said in the memo. 

“To his credit, Vice-Admiral Baines sincerely and readily admitted his error in judgment and publicly apologized,” he wrote.

“Knowing his moral authority has diminished, he is determined to regain the trust and confidence of all through humility and showing us how to learn, reconcile error, and become a better leader.”

Baines issued another apology on Wednesday after his first one upset sexual trauma survivors in the military who said it was a show of support for Vance. 

“For those of you that wonder about how I could have had such a blind spot, I may be tempted to give you an explanation, but the fact is that I made a profound mistake and hurt many people along the way,” wrote Baines in a statement Tuesday.

Baines said he’s committed to pursuing change within the military and that while his “actions have been a setback,” he is “grateful” to have a chance to “atone.”

Defence minister positions himself opposite Trudeau, Freeland over decision to keep navy commander