Canada's Veterans Affairs Minister says the government is working hard on a strategy to prevent military personnel and former soldiers from killing themselves, but veterans' advocates are frustrated with the amount of time it is taking just to assess the scope of the problem.
Kent Hehr, the Calgary MP who was appointed nearly a year ago to head the long-troubled veterans department, emerged Thursday from a two-day, closed-door meeting with stakeholders to say the participants pointed out he had yet to complete many of the tasks on his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Among them is the development, in conjunction with the Department of National Defence, of a suicide-prevention strategy for veterans and current members of the forces. A continuing Globe and Mail investigation has found that at least 62 of the soldiers, sailors and aviators who were deployed to Afghanistan took their own lives after their deployment.
Mr. Hehr said his department is working closely with Defence to modernize the suicide-prevention policy and to ensure that the best practices are being followed. "We are moving along relatively quickly," he told reporters. "I am pleased at the progress we have made. In particular over the summer, a lot of heavy lifting has been done."
But the pace is not fast enough for veterans advocates who say lives are at risk and the government has been too slow to obtain the data that would reveal the scope of the problem.
Veterans Affairs said last December that it would start to release annual reports on the suicides of former members – a gap in knowledge that was highlighted by The Globe's investigation – but would not do so until December, 2017.
There was a lot of talk at the two-day meeting about suicide, said Aaron Bedard, an Afghanistan veteran who is part of a class-action lawsuit alleging that modern-day soldiers who are disabled in the line of duty are not treated as well as those who fought in the world wars and Korea.
"We've been pushing for a year and a half for suicide data," said Mr. Bedard. "We want to know where, when and why people commit suicide after they serve, and how soon after they have left the military it's happening. We want to see the trends, we want to see the regions. We want to get a sense of areas where there might be a hot pocket of suicides. And we want to know why. What's working, what's not?"
Frustrated with being told that it will be more than a year before the government releases numbers, Mr. Bedard posted his own survey Thursday to his Veteran Guerrilla Radio Facebook page, a public discussion forum for ex-military members. It asks the public to tell what they know about veterans' suicides. Within a couple of hours, he had 17 responses.
The aim, said Mr. Bedard, is to expose trends – to determine whether the release process is contributing to suicides or if the interaction with Veterans Affairs, especially on issues of mental health, has been too adversarial.
The Veterans Affairs department says it is moving as quickly as possible to gather the information about suicides but it is depending on Statistics Canada to link its data about mortality with release information from the Canadian Armed Forces. All parties are expending considerable effort to ensure that the numbers are accurate and complete, said a Veterans Affairs spokesman in an e-mail.
Mike Blais, the founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, who also attended the meeting, said there are good people working in an advocacy group established to advise the Veterans Affairs Minister about mental health and suicide, but they have not been provided with the time or the resources they need to do the job.
"We have asked for the numbers of veterans who have committed suicide. There are none," said Mr. Blais. "There's a lot we can do to prevent suicide, but unless we have that knowledge, unless we bring in the doctors and the people who are pros to discuss this and come up with effective solutions, it's going to continue. The scourge will never stop."