Can the 'Cornwallis Five' receive a fair hearing?

TIM DUNNE  –  Jul 10, 2017

10 Jul 2017

On Canada Day, several members of the Canadian Armed Forces interrupted a peaceful protest organized by Indigenous activists in Halifax. The Chief of the Defence Staff has said they will be removed from training and duties while military investigators review the circumstances.

Watch video posted on CBC:

That these five sailors committed an error in judgment and that they need, at least, to be counselled on their actions is not in dispute. But, I question the response of the senior leadership's headlong race to denounce them.

In her 6 July National Post column, Christie Blatchford pointed out that these young men did not utter any derisive or rude commentary, and that they were legally and legitimately exercising their freedom in walking into a public space that was concurrently being used for a demonstration by indigenous peoples.

In my 37 years of service in the Canadian military I was reviled numerous times with the desecration of the Canadian flag by one group or another, but I was never tempted to confront the people doing so.

My difficulty with all this is that, according to section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and section 6 (1)(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada, all residents of Canada are innocent until proven guilty. However, all levels in these men's chain of command have condemned them. However, all levels in these men's chain of command have condemned them based on uncontested online news video and reports.

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance announced to Canadian media that: “The members involved will be removed from training and duties while we conduct an investigation and review the circumstances […] Their future in the military is certainly in doubt.”

They are under suspension and the Military Police have been directed to conduct an investigation. In 2015, I wrote a comprehensive article for FrontLine Defence magazine about what I consider to be the incredible incompetence of that organization. Directing the Military Police to do a thorough investigation when all levels of command have censured them openly, publicly and nationally, is tantamount to directing a nurse practitioner to do open heart surgery – the nurse knows the biology and the functions of the organs, and may even have some success in the operating room, but you are taking your chances, and the opportunities for success are decidedly limited.

The preservation of the rights of these service personnel (not the history of Cornwallis vs the Mi'kmaq) is the issue. Why didn’t the defence department's leading principals simply say, "I am withholding judgment until a complete and thorough independent investigation is completed," and then call a provincial or federal judge to lead the inquiry?

My purpose is not to defend the actions of the "Cornwallis Five", nor to absolve them of any culpability or responsibility. They did something that most people in the Canadian military would not have done.

A high profile incident a few years ago provided a different approach. In January 2005, Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, attended a private party wearing a makeshift Nazi uniform prior to his admission to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. There was an uproar about the bad judgment of the young prince, but the attitude exercised by his family and his superiors was – Prince Harry is young and young people make mistakes. Rather than condemn him, let us take the opportunity to educate him.

The central question to this incident is: Can these five young men receive a fair hearing, or are they simply awaiting the call to "march the guilty bastards in?"

– Tim Dunne is FrontLine's East Coast correspondent.