The new Minister of Veterans Affairs says the government has taken the triple murder-suicide by an Afghanistan war veteran "very seriously," but he would not say whether he believes a fatality inquiry should be called to learn from the tragedy.
Minister Seamus O'Regan, appointed to the veterans' role nearly a month ago, spoke on Friday about the federal government's efforts to improve the support offered to seriously ill and wounded soldiers who are slated for release. About 10,000 military members are discharged every year and one-third of them struggle to adjust to life outside the Canadian Armed Forces, government research shows. Some vets also grapple with suicidal thoughts.
"Tragically, the taking of one's own life has become all too frequent," Mr. O'Regan told a group of senior military health officials from Canada and several other countries gathered in Toronto for a conference ahead of the Invictus Games. "We've done a remarkably good job at professionalizing recruitment and training while they're in service. We have to do as good of a job now preparing them for civilian life coming out."
Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond was out of the army for just 18 months when he gunned down his daughter, wife and mother before killing himself in their home in the rural Nova Scotia community of Upper Big Tracadie in early January. An infantryman with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Gagetown, N.B., Mr. Desmond, 33, was struggling to overcome severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Relatives and veterans' advocates held a rally near Antigonish, N.S., last weekend to call for better support for mentally ill vets and to press for a public probe to examine the care that Mr. Desmond received while in the military and after his release.
The Nova Scotia chief medical examiner is still weighing whether to recommend a fatality inquiry, a spokesman with the province's Justice Department said. The National Defence Act also gives Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan the authority to order a military board of inquiry into such a tragedy, but no commitment has been made.
Asked whether he believes a fatality inquiry is needed, Mr. O'Regan told The Globe and Mail that he didn't want to comment on the Desmond case.
"This is obviously a very serious case and one that we have taken very seriously, but I have no further comment right now," said Mr. O'Regan, who is also the associate minister of National Defence.
Forensic pathologist John Butt, who formerly served as chief medical examiner in Nova Scotia and Alberta, said a fatality inquiry should be held in the suicide of Mr. Desmond and the murders of his wife, Shanna Desmond, their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda Desmond.
"I do think there are issues here for the public to understand," Dr. Butt told The Globe. "What type of support was available here?"
An inquiry could shed light on changes that are needed in both the provincial and military health systems and in the services offered by Veterans Affairs. A fatality inquiry was held in Alberta last year to examine the suicide of Corporal Shaun Collins, who had completed two Afghanistan tours. A provincial court judge found that the military had several opportunities to prevent or reduce the suicide risk for the Edmonton soldier. Mr. Collins, 27, who suffered from severe PTSD, hanged himself in a military cell on March 11, 2011.
A continuing Globe investigation has found that more than 70 Canadian soldiers and veterans who served on the Afghanistan mission have killed themselves after returning home. Suicide is a complex phenomenon and, often, many factors are involved, such as alcohol abuse, financial troubles and relationship breakdowns.
Veterans Affairs and National Defence have been working on a joint suicide-prevention strategy, which Mr. O'Regan said is expected to be released in the next few weeks. He told the conference that the strategy's goals are to build resilience in military members and veterans, reduce suicide risk and increase support to those who are in crisis and thinking about ending their lives.
He said the two departments are also focused on making sure soldiers have all their disability and financial benefits in place before their military discharge.
"We want the Canadian Armed Forces members to begin the new chapter of their lives with the support and services they need to maintain wellness, feel respected and know that they are being properly supported," Mr. O'Regan said on the eve of the Invictus Games, which begin Saturday.
Created three years ago by Prince Harry, the Games bring together wounded, ill and injured military personnel and veterans from around the world for a week of sports competition. More than 500 athletes are competing, including 90 from Canada.