A sea change: Canada’s new top military commander apologizes to victims of racism

Canada’s new top military commander offered an apology to victims of racism as he officially took charge during a bare-bones virtual ceremony that marked a sea change in the leadership of the Armed Forces. 

Admiral Art McDonald becomes the first naval officer in more than two decades to hold the post of chief of the defence staff. The last sailor to hold the position, on an acting basis, was retired vice-admiral Larry Murray almost 25 years ago.

McDonald replaces Gen. Jonathan Vance, the longest-serving defence chief in modern times, who announced his retirement last summer after more than five years on the job.

The physically distanced ceremony took place in the room usually set aside for press conferences at the National Defence Headquarters building in downtown Ottawa.

It was a far cry from the military pomp and circumstance, brass bands, fighter jet flypasts and rumbling armoured vehicles that traditionally accompany such a high-profile change of command. 

WATCH | Vance wipes away a tear during his final address:

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance gets emotional when thanking the sacrifices of families who lost loved ones. 1:01

Almost everything, with the exception of the direct participants, was virtual.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Veterans Minister Lawrence MacAuley participated via video call.

The six-piece military band played virtually, and recorded videos of ships, planes and tanks took the place of the real ones.

It was, however, McDonald’s recognition and heartfelt apology to victims of racism, hateful conduct and sexual misconduct that stood out in a speech full of congratulations and appreciation for family and comrades.

“Our journey of self improvement has many steps remaining,” McDonald said. “I apologize to you my teammates, our teammates who have experienced racism, discriminatory behaviour and — or — hateful conduct. I am deeply sorry. I want you to know 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 and dignity for all persons.” 

Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, McDonald said he felt it was important offer a personal expression of contrition because of the personal stories he’s heard.

He also signalled in his speech that he will take a steady-as-she-goes approach to managing the Armed Forces with no major deviation from the program laid out by Vance, whose normally stoic demeanour cracked ever so slightly as he wiped away a tear during his final address.

Payette, Trudeau, Sajjan and McDonald all heaped professional and personal praise on Vance.

McDonald becomes the 20th chief of the defence staff, a position formally created in the 1960s.

Originally from New Waterford, N.S., he served in frigates throughout much of career, rising to command HMCS Halifax. He was the component commander for the navy’s deployment when it responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

After that, McDonald took charge of the country’s Pacific fleet.

While serving as a senior staff officer in Ottawa, the defence chief was intimately involved in the development of plans for the navy’s new frigates, which are about to hit the drawing board.

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