ARCHIVED - Ombudsman Urges Minister to Help Military Families

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December 24, 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, ON K1A 0K2

Dear Minister MacKay:

I was disappointed with your December 14, 2009 response to my letter of October 14, 2009.

My letter of October 14 was a summary of the most important findings of my Office’s investigation into the implementation of the 34 recommendations contained in our December 2004 Special Report, When a Soldier Falls: Reviewing the Responses to MCpl Rick Wheeler’s Accidental Death. I decided to inform you of these findings in a short letter, as opposed to a long report, because I thought the letter would be a more effective way of drawing your attention to two important issues that still need to be remedied, and of ensuring that you direct the Canadian Forces to take action with regard to these issues.

In my letter of October 14, I commended the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces for having made significant progress in a number of areas. I am aware of these improvements, including those that you point out in your letter.

However, in my letter, I also raised the question of whether the mistakes that were made in 1992 when Master Corporal Wheeler was killed in a training accident would be repeated today. Sadly, the same mistakes are being repeated today, and for this reason I urge you to take action with regard to two crucial issues that remain outstanding, more than 17 years later.

These issues, highlighted in my letter of October 14, are the lack of information, support and assistance to families after the unexpected death of a Canadian Forces member, and continuing problems with the way in which such deaths are investigated by the Canadian Forces.

The death of a Canadian Forces member is terrible, but none are more affected by it than the member’s surviving family. When this occurs, the family needs to know that they have the support of the Canadian Forces. The family needs to know what happened, and what if anything is being done to safeguard other Canadian Forces members. They also need to be involved in the investigation, so that they can provide information that may assist investigators, and so that investigators can be in a position to address the family’s concerns and questions.

When this does not happen, the surviving family members come to mistrust the very institution for which the Canadian Forces member sacrificed his or her life. We saw this happen to Mrs. Christina Wheeler as a result of the way she was treated by the Canadian Forces after her husband’s death. And we still see it, when we talk to the grieving survivors of some Canadian Forces killed more recently. This broken trust compounds an already tragic situation.

It is inconceivable to me that the Canadian Forces is still acting in a way that denies families fair and proper treatment after the death of a loved one. And yet, of the families we interviewed for the follow-up investigation, some are still waiting for information that was promised to them. In one case, the widow of a Canadian Forces member is facing her fourth Christmas without answers about the circumstances of her husband’s death. Additionally, we are assisting other family members who complain that they are currently experiencing similar situations. I made a commitment to these individuals to do everything I can to see that they and other families in their situation are treated fairly, based on the level of care that this Office set out in When a Soldier Falls. In the coming months I will be reporting to you on these cases, which I believe could have been avoided by the implementation of the recommendations in When a Soldier Falls.

When a Soldier Falls also demonstrates the need for thorough, rigorous, and complete investigations into the unexpected death of a Canadian Forces member. When this is not done, there is a danger that the Canadian Forces will not know the true reasons for a death, which has the potential to jeopardize the safety of other members of the Canadian Forces.

For these reasons, I urge you to reconsider your position that the Department of National Defence / Canadian Forces efforts to date are sufficient to address the very serious problems that still exist. While these efforts are commendable, there are still two very serious outstanding issues, and these need to be addressed to the benefit of the entire Canadian defence community. Families who lose a military loved one deserve more than encouraging words, or a bureaucratic response pointing to commitments to improve care and service. They deserve real action.

Please be advised that I intend to publish your response and this letter.

Yours truly,

Pierre Daigle

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