A prominent charity that denied scholarships to two children of an infantry officer who took his life after serving in the Afghanistan war has reversed its stand and will open its program to students who have lost a military parent to suicide.
The change announced on Friday to Canada Company's nine-year-old education fund was made after a Globe and Mail investigation revealed that the charity's scholarship committee had last year ruled that Captain Brad Elms' children were ineligible for its fallen soldiers program because he had killed himself.
Capt. Elms, 51, of The Royal Canadian Regiment died by suicide in Kingston in November, 2014. He had served in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti before deploying to Afghanistan in 2008. A military board of inquiry and Veterans Affairs concluded his death was attributable to military service.
The infantry officer's widow, Sherri Elms, learned of the scholarship program's expansion on Friday and hopes it will help destigmatize mental illness and suicide. She said she is grateful the charity has had a change of heart, and relieved other military families struggling with suicide will not face similar rejection. Canada Company offered her children scholarships on Friday.
"I think that the story in The Globe and Mail was what made them open their eyes," Ms. Elms said in a phone interview from Kingston.
"It's a change that is long overdue," she added. "I'm hoping that by considering combat-related suicide side by side with [other] service deaths, it helps the families, because they don't have to hang their head in shame."
The charity's rejection in 2015 devastated the Elms family. The decision made them feel as if others thought the army captain's death was shameful, and that he was less of a soldier because he took his own life.
A one-time military Ironman winner, Capt. Elms was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 2003. His family believes he also had post-traumatic stress disorder, but he never sought a diagnosis because he worried it would destroy his military career.
He is one of at least 62 soldiers and veterans who have killed themselves after returning from the Afghanistan war.
Canada Company founder Blake Goldring said the charity never meant to distress the Elms. It had never before fielded a scholarship request from the family of a military member felled by suicide.
"Because our terms of reference did not include suicide, it gave the appearance of stigmatizing [suicide]. That was never the case, and it was never the intent, in any way, to diminish the contributions of our heroes," said Mr. Goldring, who is CEO of AGF Management and an honorary colonel of the Canadian Army.
He said the charity recognizes that war has a broad impact and that children grappling with a parent's suicide need support.
Canada Company's education fund was created during the Afghanistan war and designed to assist children of soldiers killed while serving in an "active role" in a military mission. Neither suicide or training were mentioned in the program's original terms of reference, but exceptions had long been made for children of parents killed in training mishaps in Canada and while on leave from overseas operations.
The revised terms of reference for the scholarship fund include service-related suicides of members involved in an international or domestic operation since 2002. Ms. Elms said her son, Jake, has decided to accept Canada Company's scholarship offer, while her daughter, Stephanie, wants to take some time to think about it.
Speaking publicly about Capt. Elms's suicide and their dealings with Canada Company has taken a toll on the family, Ms. Elms said. All three have received counselling. Both Elms children are students at Queen's University.
To expand its scholarship program, Canada Company raised an additional $500,000 from its board of directors and four banks, bringing the fund's value to more than $3-million.
Thirteen scholarship winners were announced at Friday's ceremony in Toronto. Recipients included children whose parents were killed in Afghanistan or in training accidents in Canada. Students receive up to $4,000 a year during their studies, for up to four years. Canada Company president Angela Mondou said more scholarships may be awarded this year because of the change.
A Globe and Mail survey of 21 other private and government education-assistance programs available to children of fallen soldiers found that only one other did not include students who lost a parent to suicide. In one other case – the Project Hero scholarship that is offered at about 60 colleges and universities and affiliated with Canada Company – participating institutions have no common policy on inclusion of deaths by suicide. Ms. Mondou said the charity will explain its policy change to those schools.
New Brunswick students Kristopher Beerenfenger and Brettanea Hendrickson, whose fathers were killed in the Afghanistan war, said Canada Company's scholarships have been a big help. The pair support expanding the program to children who lost parents to suicide. "We have people who didn't physically come back, but some people didn't emotionally come back, " Ms. Hendrickson said.
Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk, one of many prominent donors to Canada Company's scholarship fund, was at Friday's ceremony. Afterward, he broke into tears as he talked about the nation's fallen soldiers.
"These guys sacrificed their lives. They were fathers," he said as his voice choked with emotion. Including suicides, he added, was "the right thing to do."