The commander of Canada’s Special Forces is being placed on leave indefinitely with pay following revelations that he wrote a letter in support of a soldier found guilty of sexual assault ahead of sentencing in a 2017 case.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe will turn his command over to the unit’s deputy commander and proceed on leave, according to a statement released Sunday by the acting chief of the defence staff, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre.

The move comes just days after Eyre announced Dawe would be rotated out of his role leading the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) next week, in advance of his original departure date this summer.

But there has been outrage from within the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and on social media that Eyre didn’t go far enough by allowing Dawe to move on to his new position early as director general of international security policy.

The decision was seen as a difficult one for Eyre because Dawe had stature in the military. Eyre said in the statement that he’s taking further action to help morale.

“In the interests of CAF cohesion and morale, and to maintain the operational focus of CANSOFCOM, both national imperatives, yesterday I directed that MGen Dawe immediately turn command over to BGen Steve Boivin, the current deputy commander, and proceed on leave,” Eyre’s statement reads.

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Kevin Schamuhn, a retired major, and his wife, retired captain Annalise Schamuhn, spoke out after Dawe wrote a letter in support of a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting Annalise. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Outrage over character reference

Scrutiny of Dawe’s leadership was sparked by revelations in a CBC News story that he had written a letter in support of a soldier who had been convicted of sexual assault, while offering no support to the victims themselves. Kevin and Annalise Schamuhn spoke out publicly for the first time this week to express their lack of confidence in Dawe’s continuing leadership.

Kevin Schamuhn, a retired major, said he was shocked to hear that Dawe, who was then his superior in the Special Forces, had written the character reference letter for Maj. Jonathan Hamilton, a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting retired captain Annalise Schamuhn on two separate occasions. Hamilton was also found guilty of physically assaulting Kevin Schamuhn twice.

“I believe that through this experience, Gen. Dawe lost his moral authority to lead the Special Forces,” Kevin Schamuhn said.

Dawe penned an open letter earlier this week apologizing for his handling of the case.

“As all of you have likely read, I failed a member of our Command,” he wrote in an open letter obtained by CBC News. “Instead, when approached by the perpetrator in this case, I recognized empathy with his personal struggles and responded emotionally.

“And while my intent was purely driven, it is clear that the impact of my actions was profoundly harmful to the victim and her spouse. Moreover, I did not consider how my actions would be viewed by other silent survivors of sexual assault in our ranks.”

Eyre’s statement said Dawe’s “return and future employment will be determined and communicated in due course.”

“I have confidence in MGen Dawe as an officer who has accepted full responsibility and has learned from this tragic case. However, the needs of the institution must take priority.”

Eyre also promised to examine the practice of recommendation letters in legal proceedings.

“While I do not expect these measures to right the wrongs of the past, or ease the sense of betrayal felt by the Schamuhn family, we must keep learning and ensure such situations are not repeated going forward. In doing so, we must always have the victims’ perspective at the forefront and be accountable for our actions,” the statement concludes.

“We must do better.”

Government open to significant changes: Sajjan

The move comes days after the federal government announced yet another external review, led by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, to look into the issue of sexual misconduct in the military.

The previous report on the subject, by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, recommended an agency independent of the chain of command for reporting misconduct. That agency was never created, and instead a sexual misconduct response centre was formed that is independent but only provides advice to victims.

WATCH | ‘We have to get this right,’ defence minister says:

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told CBC’s chief political correspondent, Rosemary Barton, that the federal government will not wait for the completed report into sexual misconduct in the Canadian military to start implementing changes. 10:30

In an interview airing Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government is prepared to make major structural reforms to how the military handles sexual misconduct.

“It’s possible changes are going to happen in organizational changes, where authorities will need to change. There possibly might be legislative changes as well,” he told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

Sajjan also said he would act on interim recommendations put forward by Arbour rather than wait for a final report.