ARCHIVED - Ombudsman Deeply Troubled by the Treatment of Military Families

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December 1, 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, ON K1A 0K2
 

Dear Minister MacKay:

This is further to your letter of August 20, 2010 concerning the treatment of a number of families of deceased Canadian Forces members.

Since receipt of your letter, my staff has taken the time to contact and follow-up with each of the families to get an update in response to the concerns I brought to your attention in my letter of April 9, 2010. You will recall that, during our meeting of last March and in my follow-up letter, I highlighted the significant problems experienced by a number of families who lost a loved one and I urged you to effect changes to ensure that all families of deceased Canadian Forces members are treated fairly and with compassion, particularly given the sacrifices that they and their loved ones made for the Canadian Forces and Canada.

I must say, Minister, that after four attempts to sensitize the Canadian Forces to these very troubling human issues, I am once again very disappointed with your response. You have provided little in terms of new information and there has been no significant movement on the part of the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence to make much needed change, including providing grieving families with briefings, reports and responses regarding the loss of their family member. I will reiterate my concerns below.

Corporal Stuart Langridge

The Fynes family, who have been waiting for two and a half years, held a press conference in Ottawa on October 28, 2010 in a desperate attempt to get responses to concerns that have been lingering since their son’s death. They felt they were being ignored and even silenced by the Canadian Forces, and that you did not care about their situation.

I am appalled by the fact that Mrs. Fynes felt that she had to publicly expose the painful loss of her son and her abandonment by the Canadian Forces in order to prompt responses to her longstanding – and very troubling – concerns.

Corporal Stuart Langridge committed suicide on March 15, 2008. In my letter of April 9, 2010, I informed you that the Board of Inquiry completed a report on May 31, 2009 and in December 2009 – 21 months after Corporal Stuart Langridge’s death, his family was told that this report was being sent to National Defence Headquarters for approval. It is reprehensible that the Fynes family continues to wait for a copy of the Board of Inquiry report.

In your response, you indicated that, as a result of the initial delays in Corporal Stuart Langridge’s parent unit, a further Summary Investigation was ordered to investigate the causes of the delays. We have reviewed the terms of reference (dated June 22, 2009) for the Summary Investigation which was completed on June 19, 2010 and there is no reference made to investigating the causes of the delays in this case. The terms of reference of this Summary Investigation indicate that it was convened in anticipation of litigation and under solicitor client privilege.

Master Corporal Mark Allen

Master Corporal Mark Allen died of a heart attack while on sick leave on August 31, 2008. 

Following repeated involvement from my Office, Mrs. Allen was provided with a debriefing on the Summary Investigation report in July 2010 and given an update in August and again on September 29, 2010 when she was informed of the following: “The legal review of the Summary Investigation was completed and the administrative investigation staff have forwarded the file through the chain of command for endorsement of the file by the Commander 1 Canadian Air Division. I will provide you with a status update again in a month’s time if there is anything new to report before then.”

On November 23, 2010, Mrs. Allen informed our Office that she had met with the Responsible Officer and during the meeting, she was read the letter that the Commander 1 Canadian Air Division sent with the Summary Investigation file to the Chief of the Air Staff. Mrs. Allen stated that the Commander did not support the finding that Master Corporal Allen’s death was a result of service. He did support most of the recommendations and there are two more levels of approval for the Summary Investigation file.

More than two years since the death of her husband, Mrs. Allen is still waiting for a Summary Investigation report that was submitted to 1 Canadian Air Division in June 2009.

Corporal Stephen Gibson

On September 26, 2003, Corporal Stephen Gibson was killed in a traffic accident on a public road while carrying out military duties.

Your letter confirmed our information that a Board of Inquiry report was reviewed and approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff in December 2005 but not provided to Corporal Stephen Gibson’s mother, Mrs. Gibson, until June 2008, nearly five years after her son’s death. As indicated in my letter of April 9, 2010, and despite her request under the Access to Information Act in May 2004, Mrs. Gibson was only provided with a report summarizing the proceedings of the Board of Inquiry and not the annexes of evidence referred to in the report.

Your response of August 20, 2010 indicated that the Chief of Land Staff/G1 staff would contact the family to discuss their request for further information. It was only on November 23, 2010 and further to our ongoing involvement that the family was contacted. The Gibson family was told that a redacted copy of the Board of Inquiry report should be given to them by Christmas.

It is now more than seven years since Corporal Stephen Gibson’s death.

Officer Cadet Joe Grozelle

When Mr. Ron Grozelle first contacted our Office, he felt that he was being treated as an enemy by the Canadian Forces since the disappearance and the death of his son, Officer Cadet Joe Grozelle, in October/November 2003 while attending the Royal Military College in Kingston. Although he was provided with the opportunity to participate in a Board of Inquiry several years after his son’s death, it was not until repeated interventions on our part that Mr. Grozelle was finally provided a briefing from the President of the Board of Inquiry on August 13, 2010 and a copy of the Board of Inquiry at the end of October 2010.

Mr. Grozelle has also been asking for a further update from the Canadian Forces National Investigation Services and, despite our repeated inquiries, my Office has been unable to facilitate a meeting between Mr. Grozelle and the Canadian Forces Investigation Services for that purpose.

Bombardier Jérémie Ouellet

Bombardier Jérémie Ouellet died in Afghanistan on March 11, 2008 while awaiting repatriation for an ankle injury.

Your response of August 20, 2010 indicated that the Canadian Forces were in the process of standing up a Board of Inquiry and that the Ouellet family would be involved. Mrs. Ouellet was provided the same information on August 16, 2010.

On October 27, 2010, my Office was advised that the Board of Inquiry was to begin the following week but the President of the Board had to be removed at the last minute as he was Bombardier Ouellet’s former supervisor. It is inconceivable that any potential conflict of interest was not assessed prior to appointing members to the Board of Inquiry.

A new President was to be assigned to the Board of Inquiry but when we asked if that person would be bilingual (given that the Ouellet family is unilingual francophone), the Canadians Forces indicated that this would be considered. Given our concerns that the family could not communicate with the President of the Board of Inquiry, we were advised that same day that the Board of Inquiry would be re-scheduled to recommend that Land Force Quebec Area be responsible for the Board of Inquiry so that the President of the Board could speak French and could communicate with the Ouellet family.

In your letter, you indicated that the initial report that was completed in this case was translated to meet the family’s language preference. This family does not have the option of having a language preference as they can only communicate in French.

Minister, I find it unbelievable and absolutely unacceptable that the family’s language, which was not taken into consideration as part of the initial Summary Investigation, is still not taken into account by the Canadian Forces in convening a Board of Inquiry two and a half years after their son’s death.

Chief Warrant Officer Joel Sorbie

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.

Your response only reiterated the information provided to you in my letter and offered no new information. As of October 28, 2010, nothing has changed as Mrs. Sorbie confirmed that she had not been contacted by the Canadian Forces since January 2010 and, more than four years after the death of her husband, she has yet to receive a copy of the Board of Inquiry report.

Conclusion

In your most recent letter of August 20, 2010, you agreed that dignity and respect should be the cornerstones of our involvement with military families, especially those who have suffered the loss of a family member. These principles and values were missed entirely when dealing with Mr. and Mrs. Fynes, the parents of Corporal Stuart Langridge and many other families.

How many families need to display their pain publicly in a desperate effort to get information from the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces regarding the loss of their loved one?

How long do families have to wait to determine that they have waited long enough?

Is the human element of the pain that a family experiences ever a priority for those who are tasked to respond, review and/or investigate the loss of a life?

The unsatisfactory responses that I have received from you to date led me to believe that the Canadian Forces is not taking these important human issues seriously. This is tremendously disappointing.

Although I have been unsuccessful in getting answers and assistance for the grieving families that I have discussed above, I will continue to raise these important issues until the Canadian Forces finally address the concerns of these families in a fair and compassionate manner.

Your letter is identified as an interim response pending recommendations from the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff who has been tasked with investigating the specifics of each case. You also refer to the need for national directives and standards for these types of investigations that were currently under development. I fail to see what national directives and standards need to be developed in order to take care of families grieving the loss of military members. Unlimited liability demands unlimited care and compassion for families.

I reiterate the urgent need to effect the changes necessary to support and care for the families from the moment they are informed of the loss of their loved one and until a Board of Inquiry is closed. Furthermore, the Canadian Forces should take no longer than six months to complete and approve a Board of Inquiry report and to inform the family of the results. This process will only become credible if senior leadership is held accountable to ensure that these timelines are respected and that families are kept informed every step of the way until they are provided with their own copy of the Board of Inquiry report.

Minister, as I have said to you in the past, families who lose a military loved one deserve more than encouraging words, or a bureaucratic response void of real action. They deserve to know what happened to their loved one and, in a timely fashion.

Please note that I am publishing forthwith all of our correspondence to date on this critical issue.

Sincerely,
 

Pierre Daigle
Ombudsman

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