… I see this story, on CBC News, from about two weeks ago, as “good news,” in the long term, for the Canadian Armed Forces. I am firm in my belief that there needs to be a distinct system of military law that applies to all uniformed personnel in a wide range of situations and locations. Ship’s captains and regiment, battalion and RCAF squadron commanding officers need to be able to enforce “good order and discipline,” which involves a whole host of things that make military life unique and challenging, in situations (and in places, too) that are nearly unimaginable to most Canadians. At the same time Canadian sailors, soldiers and air force members need to enjoy the full protection of our legal system when they are charged with a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada.
When I was a commanding officer (of an Army regiment) I had, and exercised, the power to try soldiers for such crimes as drug possession for the purposes of trafficking ~ I found some soldiers guilty and sentenced them to time in a military prison. I was (only very slightly) uncomfortable doing that because, try as I might, I knew that I did not afford those accused soldiers all the rights that they would have had in a civilian court. But I tried my level best to be fair and just, and to balance the needs of the military (that “good order and discipline” things, again) and the rights of the accused to a fair and speedy trial by an impartial authority (me).
The Canadian Armed Forces need to redesign the military justice system from the ground up so that it meets the legitimate needs of the armed forces and, simultaneously, protects the fundamental rights of the men and women who serve. Commanders need the power and authority to administer justice, of all sorts, and maintain discipline when engaged in operations or deployed overseas, where the Canadian civil justice system does not operate, but, for the day-to-day world of garrison life in Canada, Canadian sailors, soldiers and RCAF members need to have the same rights as all other Canadians when charged with a criminal offence, and the perception, at least, is that military courts, especially summary trials by commanding officers (the ones I conducted) fall short in that regard. I know this will make the Canadian Armed Forces’ legal system more complex but I believe that we, Canadians, owe our military personnel no less than a justice system that, simultaneously, meets all the needs that commanders have to maintain good order and discipline, in peace and war, anywhere in the world, and provides our men and women in uniform with the protection of Canadian law when they are accused of breaking civilian laws in Canada, even when in uniform and on military property.
This is, certainly, not the most urgent item on anyone’s agenda but I hope that some parliamentarians and officials, especially Canada’s new Justice Minister and DND’s Judge Advocate General, are thinking about it.