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q&a pierre daigle

Pierre Daigle, Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces, speaks during a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A career military man, Pierre Daigle took on the role of Canadian Forces ombudsman at a tumultuous time.

The war in Afghanistan was entangled and bloody. The number of physically wounded soldiers was on the rise. Mental scars were deep, many still undiagnosed.

Mr. Daigle tussled with the brass at times during his five-year tenure, which ended in late February. Peter MacKay, the previous defence minister, once suggested the ombudsman should stick to mediating disputes and steer away from advocacy. Mr. Daigle ignored the advice.

He urged the federal government and the military to do more to help injured soldiers and their struggling families. He criticized the bureaucracy's treatment of some bereaved military spouses and parents. And he questioned why the Canadian Forces kept failing to meet its goal of employing 447 mental health workers.

Before his successor, Gary Walbourne, stepped into the ombudsman's office on Monday, Mr. Daigle, 63, (who would have liked to have stayed on) reflected on his work and the challenges confronting the Canadian Forces, now that Canada's mission in Afghanistan has ended.

What were the biggest issues you faced during your time as ombudsman?

When I arrived, there was a backlog of 200 files, dated three to nine years. So we needed to look at ourselves first. How could we do a better job, be more relevant to the defence community we are serving? We had to restructure, develop service standards. We had to become much more client-focused.

Are you satisfied with the action that the Defence department and Canadian Forces have taken on your recommendations?

One of our key findings was they need to sustain their focus on operational stress injuries. There were not enough mental health providers. There was a chronic shortage. They are moving forward on that. They are hiring more specialists. But they still haven't reached the objective that they set for themselves in 2009. It's very slow. They need to look at the process. Operational stress injuries are not something that stop overnight. It might appear down the road in a few years. The system for supporting injured soldiers is better, but it's still not good enough.

The issue of hiring more mental health workers has been raised repeatedly. What explanations have you received on why it has taken so long?

In September, 2012, the then-minister of defence Peter MacKay announced $11.4-million to hire more mental health specialists. What we know is a number of specialists had gone through selection, were screened, qualified, just waiting to come in. This was our major concern. We were worried that they would get fed up and go elsewhere. It's a very heavy bureaucratic process.

In the past few months, the media has regularly reported on the suicides of current and former soldiers. Reporting on individual suicides is a shift. What do you think of this practice?

In my five years, I realized it's very difficult to talk about suicide. It's very difficult to identify the source or the factor that contributed directly to suicide. There are so many things that could come into play. I think it was right to talk about it. I think that we need to focus more on this holistic view of the Canadian Forces' mental health and social-support system. If this is taken care of, if you make sure people who are sick come forward, if you make sure people get the proper support, you hope that eventually this will reduce the risk of soldiers taking their own life.

Under the universality-of-service rule, soldiers must be fit and ready to deploy. If they aren't, they are released from the military. Is this rule fair or should it be changed?

They should be healthy – physically and mentally – to fight in war. Obviously, this is agreeable, understandable and appropriate. But in the past, when we had less of those intensive operations, we were not as rigid in the application of the universality of service. We employed some of our older soldiers in the quartermaster [role], looking at logistics and so on. Now it seems we apply this universality-of-service principle more rigidly, which means you serve your country, you're injured for the rest of your life, and now we say, 'Sorry, you cannot be employed any more. Out you go.' We need changes. We need a modern view.

You raised concerns about the Canadian Forces' pension rules, noting the 10-year threshold is a significant issue. What changes would you like to see on this front?

There should be no threshold at all. If you die, and you have two years in the military system, your family will get some benefits. But if you have to be released for a medical or mental health reason, and you haven't reached the 10-year service threshold, then you are released without any pension. You are losing all those benefits. We should be helping someone who has given something special to this country.

This interview has been edited and condensed.