ARCHIVED - Follow Up to When a Soldier Falls

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October 14, 2009

Honourable Peter MacKay, P.C., Q.C., M.P.
Minister of National Defence
and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway
National Defence Headquarters
Major-General George R. Pearkes Building
101 Colonel By Drive
13th Floor, North Tower
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0K2

 

Dear Minister MacKay:

In January 2005, the Office of the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman released a Special Report entitled When a Soldier Falls: Reviewing the Response to MCpl Rick Wheeler’s Accidental Death. The investigation was conducted as a result of complaints received by the Ombudsman’s Office from Mrs. Christina Wheeler and Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Jay Lapeyre, and it concerned the death of Master Corporal Wheeler during a training exercise in Suffield, Alberta in 1992. As the incident occurred prior to June 15, 1998, ministerial approval for a pre-mandate investigation was sought and granted by former Minister of National Defence, Art Eggleton.

Our original investigation found that there were serious problems with the way in which Master Corporal Wheeler’s death was investigated, and that these problems, combined with a lack of sensitivity to the needs of his surviving family, led his widow to suspect that the Canadian Forces was covering up the truth about his death. As a result, Mrs. Christina Wheeler spent years of her life trying to get the truth, and ensure that those responsible were held accountable. She has since been reassured about the circumstances of the death by the results of our independent investigation, and her hope now is that the Canadian Forces will make changes so that no one else will have to go through what she did, in addition to dealing with the tragic death of a family member.

The Special Report made thirty-four recommendations to the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces. These recommendations were aimed at improving the Canadian Forces’ treatment of family members when a military member dies as a result of military service. Recommendations were also made to improve the Canadian Forces’ investigations into non-combat deaths or investigations into serious injuries of Canadian Forces members, so that the reasons for the death are understood as well as possible, and to ensure that anyone involved in the investigation is treated fairly. In that Special Report, a commitment was made to review the implementation of those recommendations and to report on the progress that was made.

The Ombudsman’s Office has now completed the review of the implementation of those original recommendations. Our review indicates that as a result of our recommendations, the situation has improved and overall progress has been made in many areas. However, that being said, I must nevertheless report that while the Canadian Forces agreed with most of the recommendations, there are many areas in which more aggressive action needs to be taken by the chain of command in order to fully implement them.

During our review, we concluded that information, support and assistance to the families of deceased Canadian Forces members is the most crucial issue that remains outstanding. It is essential that family members be given as much information as possible, as soon as possible, and on an ongoing basis, concerning the circumstances surrounding the death of the Canadian Forces member. Receiving relevant information is critical for families to be able to process and cope with the death of a loved one. Sadly, the Canadian Forces is still not meeting this obligation, despite the recommendations in the Special Report that aimed at ensuring families get this level of attention and information. My Office continues to receive complaints from family members who feel that they have not been treated fairly by the Canadian Forces because they cannot get the information they seek in a timely manner, if at all.

For example, we spoke with the widow of a Canadian Forces member who died of a heart attack during a physical training activity. The member’s widow was not involved with the Board of Inquiry in any way, and did not hear from the president of the Board of Inquiry until after the Board had heard from all but one witness, which was slightly more than nine months after her husband’s death. Additionally, she states that there were discrepancies in the information that she was provided, and that these discrepancies had not been explained to her. We will continue to monitor this area and deal with this case.

Support for family members must also continue after the inquiries and investigations are over. Despite our recommendations, the Canadian Forces has not yet developed and implemented a national policy for support to families of deceased Canadian Forces members. While we appreciate that certain commitments have been made in this regard, we await the actual concrete actions that families require and deserve.

With respect to the recommendations which were aimed at improving investigations into the non-combat death or into the serious injury of a Canadian Forces member, we are pleased that steps have been taken to ensure that members of a Board of Inquiry or Summary Investigation are now provided with training on how to conduct such inquiries. The Canadian Forces also created the Administrative Investigation Support Centre which provides support, advice and guidance to all personnel involved in the Board of Inquiry and Summary Investigation processes.

After receipt of the original report, the Canadian Forces advised our Office that it disagreed with the recommendation that family members should be given standing at any Board of Inquiry convened into the death or serious injury of a family member. However, we strongly encourage the chain of command to ensure that measures are taken to ensure that family members have the right to attend such inquiries. I have seen first hand how much this participation can assist families and help them understand and gain closure on such a horrible event as the tragic loss of a loved one.

In addition to the pain that incomplete and inaccurate information resulting from the investigations caused Mrs. Wheeler, we found that two members of Master Coporal Wheeler’s chain of command were adversely affected by the findings of the Board of Inquiry. Their reputations were damaged, without their being aware that this was even a possibility when they participated in the process. Procedural fairness to all of those involved in any such inquiry or investigation is imperative, and an additional means of ensuring that an investigation is thorough.  

Defence Administrative Orders and Directives (DAODs) concerning boards of inquiry and summary investigations have been amended, and incorporate some but not all of the important measures recommended in the Special Report. However, some recommendations have not yet been implemented, and others have not been accepted. The question that the chain of command must ask itself is if Master Corporal Wheeler died today in the same circumstances, can we be sure that the same errors which occurred during the various investigations into his death would not be repeated?

In summary, while significant progress has been made, the Canadian Forces has still not done all that it can or should to improve the means by which deaths or serious injuries are investigated, or to ensure that the families of deceased Canadian Forces members are treated with the fairness and compassion that they deserve. We will continue to deal with these issues on a case by case basis as they are brought to our attention.

Pursuant to paragraph 38(2)(b) of the Ministerial Directives, please be advised that we intend to publish this reporting letter on the expiration of 28 days from this date.

Yours truly,
 

Pierre Daigle
Ombudsman

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