The Canadian Armed Forces seeks to distance itself from senior military leaders who offer positive character references to soldiers convicted of criminal offences.
After a nearly year-long review fueled by CBC News, the military recently released new internal guidelines on character references submitted to court for consideration by judges during sentencing.
The guidelines say that while members of the military have the legal right to provide character references to those found guilty of crimes, that is a personal choice — and members of the military cannot provide references such as those from the Canadian Armed Forces itself.
“CAF members providing character references do so as individuals… [and] must not use letterhead representing any CAF organization,” the new guidelines said.
The military appears to be trying to avoid a repeat of what happened in a criminal court in Ottawa nearly two weeks ago when retired general Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defense staff, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct — a charge Vance denies.
The judge granted Vance parole with one year of probation—and no criminal record. The judge said he did not feel it was “necessary to burden” Vance with a criminal sentence. Among the factors the judge said he considered were seven positive character references written by military retirees. The letters praised Vance’s leadership skills, performance and timing in combat, including in Afghanistan.
Official letterhead used without permission
Major General Guy Chapdelaine wrote his character reference for Vance on official letterhead from the Office of the Chancellor General of the Canadian Armed Forces, although he left the office nearly four months earlier and is no longer serving in that role. Chapdelaine is in the process of retiring and has not held a position in the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service since May 2021, the defense department confirmed. The letter also has the official National Defense logo stamped on it.
Chapdelaine’s letter, which was read out in court, described Vance as a “great leader” with “significant vision” and said he was “honored to work with” the former high-ranking soldier. Chapdelaine noted he was also “close friends” with Vance’s wife.
Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and expert in military law, called the reference to Chapdelaine’s character a misrepresentation of his current status. His use of official letterhead made it appear as if he was speaking in an official capacity on behalf of all the military chaplains who worked under his leadership, Drapeau said.
“You don’t write a formal letter in court on letterhead from the office you’ve been in,” Drapeau said. “This is a clear example of misrepresenting yourself.”
The defense department said although the letter predates the new guidelines, it is now “collecting and reviewing information related to this particular issue to determine what action may be required.”
Chapdelaine declined to comment to CBC News, according to the defense department. He is also connected to fifth plantation reported on a military complaint of mishandling a case involving a former military chaplain.
‘Good people syndrome’
Megan MacKenzie, professor and Simon Chair in International Law and Human Security at Simon Fraser University, said civilians tend to be particularly impressed by military accomplishments, giving character references from senior military leaders extra weight in court. He said such references have been shown to lead to lighter sentences.
“These letters can really paint a picture of what I call the ‘good guy syndrome’,” said MacKenzie, who led an international study of sexual misconduct in militaries around the world.
“These references can really distract from the victim and focus on the apparent good nature or good character of the perpetrator.”
Retired captain Annalize Schamuhn and her husband, retired major Kevin Schamuhn, know firsthand the impact character references from senior military leaders have on sentencing — and their experiences are driving new guidelines.
Former regiment Kevin Schamuhn and a deputy commander in his chain of command — Major General. Peter Dawe — turned over a positive character reference to a judge in 2017 in a criminal court after a soldier was found guilty of sexually assaulting Annalise Schamuhn.
Kevin Schamuhn said that when he confronted Dawe about it, the commander said he felt Hamilton was a “good guy” who deserved a break. The judge sentenced the perpetrator to three years probation rather than imprisonment. Dawe has since publicly apologized and was dismissed from his job as Special Forces commander.
“The sense of betrayal I experienced is something I’m not sure will ever go away,” said Kevin Schamuhn. “It’s much more difficult for me to process the injuries I suffered morally through our experience in court than anything I’ve ever experienced in combat.”
Leaders urged to consider impact on victims
The Canadian Armed Forces said it had consulted with Schamuhns before releasing a new military guide on character references.
The document addresses their case by instructing those who wrote character references to consider the possible impact on victims, to decide whether writing references would place them in a real or perceived conflict of interest, and to consider the effects on the “morale and cohesion” of the organization.
The guide asks character reference writers to present “the facts they know and give their true opinion.” It invites members of the military to consult a lawyer or military sexual offense response center before writing character references.
The military does not prohibit its members from writing character reference letters, as they are protected by the Constitution. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that it provides “constitutional guarantees intended to ensure the conduct of a fair trial,” which includes “the opportunity to present evidence of character during the sentencing phase.”
When the CBC asked the defense department whether military personnel should use off-hours writing these letters, a spokesperson said “we expect members to follow guidelines at all times, whether at work or at home.”
The military said it would judge on a case-by-case basis if there would be consequences for members of the military not following the new guidelines.
In its guidelines, the military “goes as far as it can legally,” says Annalise Schamuhn.
“But that doesn’t stop at explaining the difference between legal justice and moral judgment … because it’s important for us to hold people, especially senior military leaders, to a higher standard than simply not breaking the law.”
VIEW | The military couple’s painful experience prompts new guideliness:
Annalise Schamuhn, who is a culture and leadership consultant, has done some consulting work for the navy and received payments in one instance last year.
Debate about character references in sexual assault cases
MacKenzie said the military should only ban members from providing character references to those guilty of sexual assault and other serious crimes.
He said the military believes it is taking a victim-centered approach and has publicly vowed to change its culture in response to the sexual abuse crisis that has sidelined the careers of an unprecedented number of senior military leaders. The approval of these letters, he said, was not in line with the public’s commitment.
“I don’t think they’re inherently victim-centered,” MacKenzie said of the character reference. “The aim is to distract from the incident, the crime and the victims.”
VIEW | Military hasn’t taken a ‘victim-centered’ approach, say expert:
Ottawa defense attorney Lawrence Greenspon argued that character references are an important part of the legal system and should remain in place.
“If the person has a life of national and international accomplishment and leadership and guidance, the judge wants to know,” Greenspon said. “That’s part of the Criminal Code. The judge must also get input from the victim and that is taken into account when making the appropriate sentence.”
Greenspon said he believes character references do play a major role in Vance’s line. But his admission of guilt for obstruction of justice is “something that will follow him for the rest of his life,” he added.
“In fact, in today’s world, there is a Google record,” said Greenspon. “And it will never go away.”
Greenspon said the military’s new guidelines do not provide troops with legal protection against future lawsuits.
VIEW | Ottawa defense attorneys say character references are only one part of the sentence:
Balancing the ‘needs of the survivors’ and the ‘rights of the accused’
When the military issued its new guidelines, it took a “thorough approach” and underwent “many consultations” as it had to “balance the needs of survivors, the rights of accused members and the rule of law,” the Department of National Defense said.
“We will continue to work to change our culture as we make our entire Defense Team stronger and our military forces more operationally effective and combat ready,” defense department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier wrote in a statement to CBC News.
Dawe has not returned to work and continues to report to the deputy chief of defense staff, and is “engaging with affected communities to better understand how he can contribute to meaningful cultural change when he returns to work,” Le Bouthillier wrote.
“Geek zombie. Subtly charming social media scholar. Beer enthusiast. Lifelong bacon pioneer.”