ARCHIVED - Ombudsman Demands Action for Military Families

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April 9, 2010

The Honourable Peter MacKay, P.C, Q.C., M.P.
Minister of National Defence
National Defence Headquarters
Major-General George R. Pearkes Building
101 Colonel By Drive
13th Floor, North Tower
Ottawa, ONK1A 0K2

 

Dear Minister MacKay:

Thank you for meeting with us on March 9, 2010, to discuss serious issues related to the treatment of families of deceased Canadian Forces members. At your request, I am providing you with additional information about the complaints we have received from family members.

Following our meeting, I asked my staff to consolidate and assess, in a more global manner, all of the complaints we have received from the families of deceased Canadian Forces members. Prior to this, we were dealing with these complaints as individual cases and some remain under active review. It should also be noted that two additional families have contacted our office with concerns related to the deaths of their military loved ones; however, they are not yet ready to proceed with formal complaints given where they are at in their grieving process.

As I mentioned to you during our meeting and in previous correspondence, I recognize that the Canadian Forces has made progress in implementing the recommendations from our 2005 special report, When a Soldier Falls. In particular, I am aware of the assistance provided by the Administrative Investigation Support Centre to those individuals mandated to investigate Canadian Forces deaths. I also understand that families now have greater involvement in military boards of inquiry, a very important first step.

At the same time, significant problems remain and more needs to be done to ensure that military families are treated fairly and compassionately after the death of a Canadian Forces member. For example, as it currently stands, not all deaths are investigated by a board of inquiry and not all boards of inquiry include the families. Even when families are included, they are still subjected to unreasonable delays due to bureaucratic processes. It is simply unacceptable that, five years after releasing our special report, we are still seeing families who are not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Treatment of Families

First and foremost, I am concerned with the overall treatment of military families by the Canadian Forces. While some leaders are committed to ensuring that families get the care and answers they deserve, there are too many who consider the needs of families as an afterthought, an inconvenience, or even an imposition on their time. In many of the cases we are investigating, the human element is lacking and families are abandoned to faceless, emotionless and slow-moving bureaucratic processes.

All too commonly, even when preliminary results of investigations are available, families are denied information, and made to wait while the reports are approved. This is a process that can take years and that can leave military families with many unanswered questions regarding the death of their loved one. We have also found that, instead of being given information or the opportunity to ask questions, families have often been required to make formal requests under the Access to Information Act.

In one of our more recent cases, we were told that a request would be made to brief the family only after the investigation was completed and approved by the responsible unit. We were also told that a copy of the report would be provided to the family after the results of the investigation were approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff and after information was severed, as is generally done for formal requests under the Access to Information Act. Again, this process can, and often does, take years to complete.

In another case, a commitment was made to our office to inform the family of the status of an investigation that was pending approval. However, when our investigator contacted the family two weeks later, they still had not been given the information.

Family members have also informed our office of a lack of respect and compassion they have received from the Canadian Forces when they have tried to get answers about the deaths of their loved ones. One parent told us that he was  “treated like the enemy” from the first moment he was contacted about the death of his son. A military spouse told us that she feels her husband’s death was not a priority for the Canadian Forces as the investigation report sat on someone’s desk for a year. Comments like these are a clear indication that there is significant room for improvement in the way in which the Canadian Forces treats families.

In another case, our office experienced first hand a fundamental lack of empathy on the part of the Canadian Forces. When one of our investigators tried to arrange for a family to get information about the death of their loved one, the Canadian Forces member with whom our investigator was dealing refused to cooperate (apparently with the support of his superiors). At one point in their last conversation, our investigator asked him to be understanding of the fact that the couple had lost a child. The Canadian Forces member replied:  “They did not lose a child, they lost an adult.” He refused to do anything to assist with the family’s request for information.

The glaring lack of compassion in these cases is certainly not in keeping with the views and commitment you expressed when we met in March, nor the comments made by your office last December that  “military families have always been a priority for us…and anything that helps deal with any injury or loss is the least we can do for our men and women in uniform.

Delays

In addition to the overall poor treatment received by a number of military families who have come to our office for help in recent years, the most common complaint centres on the lengthy delays in obtaining information from the Canadian Forces about the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one. Below are some details from complaints at various stages of investigation within our office.

Master Corporal Mark Allen’s widow: Waiting since September 2008

As an example of a recent complaint to our office, Mrs. Elaine Allen came to us for assistance in obtaining information following the death of her husband, Master Corporal Mark Allen, of a heart attack while on sick leave on August 31, 2008.

Although we are still in the process of investigating this complaint, Mrs. Allen has informed us that, in December 2008, she was told that a summary investigation would be conducted into her husband’s death. Her only involvement in the investigation was to answer questions and provide information to the investigating officer. 

Mrs. Allen has stated that she heard from the investigating officer in February 2009, that the investigation was complete. Mrs. Allen has advised us that, since then, she has attempted to get information about the investigation and her husband’s death without any success. She has made a formal request under the Access to Information Act but has told our investigator that the Department of National Defence was having difficulty finding the documents she requested.

We have been able to determine that the summary investigation report was not approved at the command level, which directed a re-investigation into the death in order to address a concern raised by Mrs. Allen. Mrs. Allen was informed of this in March 2010, more than one year after the conclusion of the summary investigation. It has been 19 months since her husband died and she is still without answers to her questions. 

Corporal Steven Gibson’s parents: Four years to process an Access to Information request

On September 26, 2003, Corporal Steven Gibson was killed in a traffic accident on a public road while carrying out his military duties. His family was kept informed of some matters by the assisting officer assigned to them. A board of inquiry was convened in 2003 before it was common for families to be involved in inquiries and Mr. and Mrs. Gibson did not participate.

At first, there was good communication between the Canadian Forces and the Gibsons. However, this effectively ended when Corporal Gibson’s fiancée initiated legal proceedings related to his death.

Mr. and Mrs. Gibson submitted a formal request for the board of inquiry report under the Access to Information Act in May 2004. They were informed that the report was not finalized, and they were asked to re-submit their request in one or two months. In June 2006, Mr. and Mrs. Gibson received a letter informing them that the board of inquiry report had been approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff. However, due to pending legal proceedings, the Gibsons were given only restricted information about the investigation. They did not receive the report until June 2008, and only then as a result of our intervention. Furthermore, the Gibsons only received the actual report summarizing the proceedings of the board of inquiry, and not the annexes of evidence referred to in the report.

Mr. and Mrs. Gibson are now seeking the annexes of evidence referred to in the report. They were told that they would have to make another formal request under the Access to Information Act. Our office has attempted to intervene in order to obtain the documents for the Gibsons, or to arrange a meeting where they would have the opportunity to review the parts they are most interested in seeing. Unfortunately, we have been told their only option is to make a request under the Access to Information Act. It has taken four years and the intervention of our office for this family to obtain only part of the information in relation to the death of their son.

Officer Cadet Joe Grozelle’s family: Still waiting after six years

Mr. Ron Grozelle complained to our office about the way in which he and his family were treated after the disappearance and death of his son, Officer Cadet Joe Grozelle. Officer Cadet Grozelle died in October or November of 2003 while attending Royal Military College in Kingston. A board of inquiry was convened on January 13, 2004, and cancelled the same day. There were a number of police investigations.

In August 2007, Officer Cadet Grozelle’s family was informed that they would be able to attend a board of inquiry. You wrote to Mr. Grozelle on October 12, 2007, to inform him that a board of inquiry would take place, and of the identity of the convening authority. The board of inquiry was held in April 2008, more than four years after Officer Cadet Grozelle’s death.

The board of inquiry has been completed but the report has not been approved; Mr. Grozelle has been informed that it is being reviewed by lawyers in Toronto. In order to get a copy of the board of inquiry report, Mr. Grozelle submitted a request under the Access to Information Act on March 4, 2010. He has been informed that the Department of National Defence will not provide a copy of the report until it is approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff. Approximately six and a half years have passed since Mr. Grozelle lost his son.

Corporal Stuart Langridge’s family: Two years and counting

Corporal Stuart Langridge committed suicide on March 15, 2008. Initially, there was no administrative investigation into his death. At the insistence of Mrs. Sheila Fynes, Corporal Langridge’s mother, a board of inquiry was convened in November 2008. However, the members appointed to the board of inquiry were only available for two weeks. As it was determined that two weeks was not sufficient for this task, this board of inquiry never took place. A new board of inquiry was convened in January 2009, and did not begin until ten months after Corporal Langridge’s death. Corporal Langridge’s family attended the board of inquiry.

The board of inquiry completed the report on May 31, 2009. The family was not provided with a copy of the report, nor were they verbally briefed on the findings and recommendations of the board. In December 2009, more than five months after the report was completed, the family was informed that the board of inquiry’s report was being sent to National Defence Headquarters for approval. More than one year later, and two years since Corporal Langridge’s death, the board of inquiry report is still at National Defence Headquarters awaiting review prior to approval.

Chief Warrant Officer Joel Sorbie’s widow: In the dark since August 2006

On August 31, 2006, Chief Warrant Officer Joel Sorbie died of a heart attack after participating in a Terry Fox run organized by his base. His widow, Mrs. Anne-Marie Sorbie, received most of the information about his death through the assisting officer assigned to her by the Canadian Forces.

A board of inquiry was convened on January 10, 2007, more than four months after the death. Mrs. Sorbie was not involved in the board of inquiry. The president of the board of inquiry briefed Mrs. Sorbie in June 2007 about his findings. He then submitted the report to his commanding officer in November 2007, and it was forwarded to the convening authority on December 5, 2007. The report still has not been approved.

Mrs. Sorbie has informed our office that she was not in a good frame of mind when she met with the president of the board of inquiry, and that she does not remember everything that was said. She has since asked for a copy of the board of inquiry report. She made various requests to the Canadian Forces between 2007 and 2009, but did not receive the report. A representative of the Canadian Forces spoke with Mrs. Sorbie on two occasions – August 2009 and January 2010 – and was able to answer many of her questions. Unfortunately, during the last conversation, Mrs. Sorbie was informed that the board of inquiry report had still not been approved, more than three and a half years after Chief Warrant Officer Sorbie’s death, and that she would be provided with a copy only when it is approved.

Conclusion

The families of deceased Canadian Forces members deserve to know what happened to their loved ones and, in many instances, what the Canadian Forces plans to do about it. In many cases, families are simply not getting this information in a timely manner, if at all. The process of investigating a death and the review and approval of investigations must take into account the needs of the family for involvement, information, and closure within a reasonable amount of time.

It is also clear that some of the individuals dealing with grieving families must be more sensitive and respectful of the loss endured by the families. Unfortunately, many families report feeling like they or their loved ones are a nuisance, and this impression is not always dispelled when the matter is reviewed. In fact, based on the complaints to our office, I would say that many families are being left to confront an uncaring bureaucracy while dealing with personal tragedy.

To make things right for these families, we need to ensure that the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence continue to make improvements in the way in which grieving families are treated. In particular, families need to be kept informed throughout the entire process. As well, it is clear that the process takes entirely too long, and requires timelines.

To ensure this is done, I strongly recommend that:

  1. Families be informed and accompanied throughout the whole process, and their need for information be recognized and met; and
  2. Administrative investigations be held as soon as possible after a death, with the involvement of the families, and that once the investigation into a death is completed, the Canadian Forces be given no more than six months to complete and approve the report, and to inform the family of the results.  

I would like to thank you again for meeting with us to discuss this pressing matter. I hope we have your support in effecting the changes needed to ensure that the families of deceased Canadian Forces members are treated with the care and compassion commensurate with the sacrifices that they and their loved ones made for the Canadian Forces and Canada.

Sincerely,
 

Pierre Daigle
Ombudsman

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