The Unremembered

The Unremembered

Organisation: The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Publication Date: 04/08/2016


It began with a straightforward question left unanswered after a cluster of four military suicides in late 2013: How many Canadian soldiers who served in the Afghanistan war had killed themselves? But if the query was simple, Globe and Mail investigative reporter Renata D’Aliesio discovered, the path to an answer was anything but. And so began an 18-month quest to unravel what should not have been a mystery in the first place. Little was known about the members who were dying by suicide or about the families they left behind. To the first question of how many, Ms. D’Aliesio added several more: Who were they? Had they been diagnosed with a mental illness? How many were in treatment and was that treatment adequate? The Canadian Forces, however, repeatedly refused to disclose the information, citing the Privacy Act. Attempts to get the suicide figures from provincial and territorial coroners proved futile, because military service is not tracked among Canada’s dead. The roadblocks and refusals required a determined push to break through the federal wall of secrecy. Ms. D’Aliesio submitted more than two dozen requests to National Defence and Veterans Affairs under the Access to Information Act – seeking reports on suicide reviews and inquiries, audits of injury clinics, reports on addictions treatment, and data on suicides of members who had deployed to Afghanistan. In some cases, it took more than a year for the requested records to be released. Many were heavily redacted. The Globe’s work uncovered serious flaws in the system intended to support and care for mentally ill soldiers and veterans. The Unremembered has given a voice to families and military members who have long felt abandoned. Most importantly, the investigation has prompted meaningful commitments and action from the new federal government and the Canadian Forces. Here is a snapshot of the revelations and pledges: • Ms. D’Aliesio’s reporting revealed that military brass had rejected recommendations to improve mental-health care that stemmed from an inquiry into one soldier’s suicide, that the Canadian military was expelling wounded members at an ever higher rate and had rejected an internal recommendation to expand its addictions program, that Veterans Affairs has yet to adopt an expert group’s recommendation to regularly review veterans’ suicides, and that a military support unit created to help ill soldiers has been chronically understaffed and under-resourced. • The Globe series has helped trigger significant commitments to improve mental-health care and reduce suicides. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed National Defence and Veterans Affairs to work together on a suicide-prevention strategy. The Defence Minister ordered the military’s top commander to make suicide prevention a priority and to examine why an increased number of army members are taking their lives. An expert panel is being assembled to review the military’s mental-health programs.
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