The men and women of the Canadian Forces may feel like the “sacred trust” they put in their leadership was violated as a prominent commander faces murder charges, but the allegations must not dampen their pride in wearing the uniform, Canada’s chief of defence staff said Wednesday.
Gen. Walter Natynczyk said he felt winded, as if from a “body blow” when he was told that Col. Russell Williams, the respected commander of CFB Trenton – Canada’s largest air force base – was charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, based at CFB Trenton, and Jessica Lloyd, a 27-year-old resident of nearby Belleville.
Williams is also charged in two area sex assaults.
Being in a position of leadership in the military is a “sacred trust,” Natynczyk said at a press conference Wednesday.
“(Members of the military) need to have confidence in their leadership,” he said. “So any time you have that kind of perceived violation of leadership that’s where you know you’ve had a body blow.”
Soldiers are no stranger to tragedy, especially those who work at CFB Trenton, which hosts all-too-regular repatriation ceremonies. But the shocking crimes and charges against a commander described as a bright star quickly rising through the ranks have rattled the military to its core.
Canadian Forces members must remember this is one individual “alleged to have done something terrible,” and it should not make them question the institution itself, Natynczyk said.
“Indeed we had a concern from the airmen saying ‘Should we even go out with our uniforms on?”‘ he said. “I said: ‘Stop that. We can’t go back. We go forward and we are proud. Proud to wear a uniform.’ ”
To illustrate his point the chief of defence staff went to Tim Hortons in uniform right before the press conference.
“And sure enough, someone from Trenton came up and said ‘I put this into perspective. You guys are great.’ And I just said ‘Thanks,”‘ Natynczyk said.
Speaking to hundreds of people over the past few days Natynczyk has told them to do the same, to put the situation in perspective and move on.
“We all have to step up,” he said. “We have a duty. We have a responsibility to Canadians. I told them to stand tall. I told them to stand proud. We have to move forward. At the same time we have to recognize that all the victims need support. Especially we think of Marie-France Comeau and we think of Jessica Lloyd.”
Since news of the charges broke many have questioned how Williams rose quickly through the ranks and wondered if the psychological screening practices were rigorous enough.
Men and women are put in command after they’ve gone through a “tremendous number” of varied experiences and have been looked at by many people by that point, Natynczyk said, stressing there was nothing he is aware of in terms of past complaints or issues with Williams. Still, the military will be taking another look at that process.
“We’ll do an administrative review to see what did we miss? Did we miss anything?” Natynczyk said.
As Williams sat in a cell at the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, Ont., investigators remained at his properties in Tweed and the city of Ottawa.
“We’re trying to do obviously a very thorough job in our investigation,” said Sgt. Kristine Rae.
“As we progress through this it will take some time. It’s not going to be quick.”
The only contact the military has had with Williams since his arrest is through liaison officers and padres, officials said.
Belleville lawyer John Wonnacott, who represented Williams as duty counsel at his court appearance Monday, said he has not been retained to represent Williams.
Williams is scheduled to reappear via a video court appearance on Feb. 18, and Wonnacott said he hadn’t heard anything to suggest the colonel has hired a lawyer yet.
A post-mortem on Lloyd – whose body was found Monday near Tweed – is still being conducted in Toronto, but police don’t expect to release the results to the public, said Rae. Her funeral will be held Saturday in Belleville.
Police also have not released the cause of death of Comeau, who was found dead in her Brighton home Nov. 25.
Williams’ neighbour Larry Jones, who was initially considered a suspect in the sexual assaults near his home in September, said police armed with a search warrant combed through both his home and his jeep and seized numerous items.
“They took computers, cameras, CDs, DVDs and other stuff, about 100 items,” Jones said of the 20 police officers who spent about nine hours in his house in October.
“They (were) looking for items that were taken from the scene of the crime. The person took some panties from her house, some bras, and I guess a couple of baby blankets.”