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Former CFB Trenton commander pleads guilty after bird shot at from boat

Col. Leif Dahl, right, and lawyer Brandon Crawford leave the Quinte Courthouse on Thursday. Dahl was given a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to two charges in connection with an incident last summer where someone on the boat he was operating shot at wildlife. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)
Col. Leif Dahl, right, and lawyer Brandon Crawford leave the Quinte Courthouse on Thursday. Dahl was given a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to two charges in connection with an incident last summer where someone on the boat he was operating shot at wildlife. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)

The former commander of CFB Trenton has pleaded guilty to charges of carelessly storing firearms and public mischief after a bird was shot at from the boat he was operating last summer.

Col. Leif Dahl will have to complete 12 months of probation, is barred from possessing any firearms during that time except as needed for his role with the military, and must make a $500 donation to Ducks Unlimited.

He received a conditional discharge, meaning he won't have a conviction on his record after his probation is complete.

"I made a mistake. I know that and I accept full responsibility for my actions," said Dahl, reading from a statement in Belleville, Ont., court Thursday.

He added his role as a senior officer with the Canadian Armed Forces meant the incident "caused distress and brought embarrassment" to his family and others who serve.

Asked by the judge whether he intends to continue in his military career, Dahl said he did plan to stay in the armed forces.

In an statement shared late Thursday night, a Department of National Defence spokesperson said Dahl is currently employed in a staff position at Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) headquarters in Ottawa.

"The RCAF has initiated an Administrative Review which is a formal internal process used to determine the most appropriate administrative action required as a result of an incident, special circumstance or a professional deficiency that calls into question a CAF member's continued ability to serve," the email added.

Loon or cormorant targeted

Dahl was arrested following an Aug. 25, 2023 incident on the Murray Canal in Quinte West, Ont., near the Royal Canadian Air Force base.

According to an agreed statement of facts read in Belleville court Thursday, a witness saw a teenager fire a .22-calibre rifle at a bird from a boat being operated by Dahl and carrying his family.

The passerby reportedly heard four of five shots fired, though they didn't know if any waterfowl were hit.

When the witness yelled at Dahl about firing at a migratory bird, he shouted back "it's none of your business," according to the statement.

The Crown and defence lawyers did disagree on one matter: the witness claimed the bird that was targeted was a loon, while Dahl's representative said it was a cormorant.

Court heard the incident involving Col. Leif Dahl happened on Aug. 25, 2023 near the swing bridge over the Murray Canal in Quinte West, Ont.
Court heard the incident involving Col. Leif Dahl happened on Aug. 25, 2023 near the swing bridge over the Murray Canal in Quinte West, Ont.

Court heard the incident involving Col. Leif Dahl happened on Aug. 25, 2023 near the swing bridge over the Murray Canal in Quinte West, Ont. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Rifle, revolver fished out of canal

When Dahl and his party returned to the canal around 6:30 p.m. that same day, their boat was met by an Ontario Provincial Police officer.

As police drove around to meet the boat — losing sight of it in the process — the operator of a nearby swing bridge observed Dahl handing the teenager the rifle, which was then dropped in the water, according to the agreed facts.

Dahl admitted to police that a rifle had been tossed overboard, court heard. He then immediately identified himself as commander of the nearby base.

The next day, while reviewing a video recorded by the bridge operator, police also noticed Dahl dropping a pistol over the side while the officer was out of sight, according to the facts of the case.

Both the rifle, which contained a live cartridge, and a Uberti revolver registered to Dahl were later fished out of the canal by OPP divers.

A search of his home on Aug. 28 also uncovered a 20-gauge shotgun, a Lee-Enfield Mark 3 rifle and a Henry rifle that were being stored in an unlocked bedroom closet, according to the facts of the case.

The three long guns didn't have trigger locks and weren't secured in any other way. All three firearms were forfeited as part of Dahl's sentence.

Vehicles drive along a road running through CFB Trenton on Sept. 28, 2023.
Vehicles drive along a road running through CFB Trenton on Sept. 28, 2023.

Vehicles drive along a road running through CFB Trenton last September. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

'Lapse in judgment' led to consequences: defence

Defence lawyer Brandon Crawford detailed the colonel's extensive military career and honours, describing them as "exemplary."

He also submitted a bundle of letters from neighbours, colleagues and members of the public.

Those letters, Crawford said, painted Dahl as a man "who has carried himself with a series of principles that were unwavering" and showed that he "was kind, proud, honourable, honest, decent and fair."

Dahl's "lapse of judgment one afternoon" meant he now faced swift and drastic consequences, Crawford said, pointing to his removal as commander of CFB Trenton.

Assistant Crown attorney Michael Lunski had called for a suspended sentence and probation for 18 months, which would give Dahl a criminal record and a conviction.

Dahl was one of two adults in the boat and "ought to have known better," the Crown said.

His military experience and role, Lunski said, meant he was well aware of "appropriate use of firearms and that was not on display in this case."

Officers were so concerned by the rifle in the water, Lunski added, that they donned face masks and tried to retrieve it that night.

But they gave up after searching the murky water to a depth of more than four metres, he said.

Col. Leif Dahl, commander of 8 Wing and CFB Trenton, has been temporarily removed from his role after he was charged by the OPP with firearm-related offences in connection with what the Department of National Defence described as a "hunting-related incident" on Aug. 25, 2023.
Col. Leif Dahl, commander of 8 Wing and CFB Trenton, has been temporarily removed from his role after he was charged by the OPP with firearm-related offences in connection with what the Department of National Defence described as a "hunting-related incident" on Aug. 25, 2023.

Although he has been dismissed from his role at CFB Trenton, Dahl told the judge Thursday that he intends to continue his career in the Canadian Armed Forces. (Department of National Defence)

Judge says actions showed 'very poor judgment'

Justice John Bonn said he couldn't minimize the events of that day on the canal.

"Ill-advised would be too soft a term," said the judge, concluding what happened displayed "very poor judgment."

However, he said Dahl has a lot to offer the community and military, referring to him as a man of "immense capability."

"It would be very much in the public interest that Mr. Dahl receive a discharge, so that on completion of the term of probation he does not have a conviction on his record," Bonn said.

Dahl had also been charged with having the .22-calibre rifle and revolver with him for a "purpose dangerous to the public peace," a charge for transporting a restricted firearm and a third for using the rifle in a "careless manner."

He was also initially charged with three violations of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act for using a firearm carelessly to hunt, hunting a bird without a licence and having a loaded firearm in a conveyance.

All of those charges were withdrawn.