Skip to main content

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Veterans who took part in the Somalia mission of the 1990s, which ended after the murder of a local teenager, blame the anti-malarial drug mefloquine for psychological damage that may have caused the tragedy and say Ottawa should reach out to others who have been affected.

A House of Commons committee heard from veterans on Thursday who say their lives have been permanently altered, and in some cases destroyed, by the pills they were required to take as part of a clinical trial involving members of the Canadian Forces who were deployed on the Somalia mission.

All of the men urged the government to create an outreach program that would educate both current and former military personnel, as well as civilian consumers, about the drug's potential side effects.

Claude Lalancette was one of paratroopers with the Canadian Airborne Regiment who was sent to Somalia.

"This is where I can retrace the route of my mental-health issues," Mr. Lalancette told the MPs on the committee. "We were young and so well-trained for this mission. But the intensity of our aggression and psychoses led to the closure of Canada's elite – the Canadian Airborne Regiment."

The regiment was disbanded in 1995 after what was known as the Somalia Affair. Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown were charged in the beating death of Shidane Arone, a 16-year-old Somali.

"Clayton Matchee and Kyle Brown, they are victims," said Mr. Lalancette, who blamed mefloquine for their actions. Mr. Brown was convicted of manslaughter in the teenager's death and served a third of his five-year sentence. Mr. Matchee suffered brain damage when he tried to hang himself and was found unfit to stand trial.

Mefloquine is also sold under the brand name Lariam. A spokeswoman for the Department of National Defence has said it was given to 15,677 Canadian soldiers between 2001 and 2012.

Mr. Lalancette said his own symptoms include depression, irritability, hyper-vigilance, sleep disorders and aggression. "My temper goes from zero to 1,000 in an instant," he told the committee.

He said he has given up driving because he cannot control his road rage. The drug, he added, has cost him his relationship with his children, his military job, pushed him into a life of poverty and prompted him to contemplate suicide.

All of the men talked about being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which they say has similar symptoms of mefloquine toxicity.

But the treatments for PTSD do not work for those whose brains have been damaged by the drug, said John Dowe, who was also in Somalia and now works with the International Mefloquine Veterans' Alliance.

"In the absence of national action to identify and alarm soldiers and consumers of the latest knowledge about mefloquine," Mr. Dowe said, "we are left to remember psychosis, murder, violence and suicide."

In 1999, the federal Auditor-General said the drug had been improperly prescribed during the Somalia mission. "National Defence did not keep essential records or follow required procedures required to fulfill its obligations as a participant in clinical study," that report said.

Different drugs that have fewer side effects than mefloquine are now more commonly prescribed to soldiers. But Canadian troops are still given mefloquine far more often that it is prescribed for troops in the United States.

The British military allows it only as a last resort after a report earlier this year cited the risk of severe psychological side effects.

Dave Bona of Saskatchewan, a former member of the Canadian Airborne, said he took the drug during the Somalia mission and again in Rwanda a couple years later, and the psychological effects have been profound.

Mr. Bona told the committee that he has tried to track down the 28 men who deployed in his platoon to Somalia and has been able to account for 10 of them. "Two have committed suicide, six have attempted it and there's only one soldier that is actually doing well," Mr. Bona said, "and that's the one guy that I know did not take the drug."

Interact with The Globe