In a rare move, the Ontario coroner’s office will hold an inquest into the death of an officer cadet at Kingston’s Royal Military College, forcing public scrutiny on a case that would typically be investigated by the military behind closed doors.
The decision is a “game-changer,” according to the lawyers representing Absar Chaudhry’s family. Since the 21-year-old was found in his Kingston, Ont. dorm room on Nov. 30, his parents say they have been stymied by the military in their efforts to get answers about what happened to their son and whether conditions at RMC were a factor in his death. Absar’s parents were informed in the spring that the coroner had deemed their son’s death a suicide.
“It’s an opportunity for the truth to come out,” said lawyer Michel Drapeau. For Absar’s parents, he said, that may lead to “hard truths.”
“It may not be what they were expecting, but at least they’ll know,” Mr. Drapeau said.
He and lawyer Joshua Juneau requested the discretionary inquest in March on behalf of Absar’s parents, Nazli Aizaz and Aizaz Chaudhry. The lawyers appealed to Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer to conduct one, saying the military’s own probes lacked the “independence, impartiality and transparency required” and to ensure an “open and full hearing of the toxic culture at RMC.”
Mr. Drapeau said Absar’s parents are appreciative the request was accepted. It launches a lengthy process that could take several years to complete, he said, but the fact that it will be public and the family will have full access will ensure transparency and present the opportunity to better understand what happened to Absar and the culture at RMC.
Absar’s parents told The Globe in May their son had no history of mental-health challenges and he was confident and outgoing at RMC. However, they noticed a change in his demeanour in the days leading up to his death: He was more stressed, quiet and worried about his grades in an academic course.
Since his death, they learned Absar had stopped attending classes in mid-November, that he had been singled out and assigned daily supplementary physical training (despite passing his physical fitness tests) and had been called in for a performance review. He had also applied for leave without pay, something he hadn’t told his family.
Taken together, they wonder if their son was the victim of bullying or abuses of power – issues that have been well-documented in several external reviews of RMC. The parents say an RMC staff member told them there were multiple suicide attempts on campus last fall, something the military and university have declined to comment on.
RMC does not publicly disclose the number of suicides or attempted suicides on campus, saying the disclosure would risk identifying individuals. But Mr. Drapeau believes that there have been enough incidents brought to the public’s attention in the last decade to suggest a systemic problem. “There’s something the matter, and we need to come up with a way to highlight it and to make corrective actions,” he said.
The vast majority of coroner’s inquests conducted in Ontario are mandatory, looking at deaths in workplaces, custody or hospitals. Approximately three discretionary inquests are granted each year.
A discretionary inquest can be called when the coroner determines there is enough information to support one, it’s in the public interest to have “an open and full hearing” into the circumstances of a death, and a jury could make useful recommendations to prevent further deaths
The last high-profile coroner’s inquest of a death at RMC was in 2007, which investigated the still-unresolved death of 21-year-old Joe Grozelle.
In that inquest, the jury’s verdict and recommendations focused on the investigative process and how different agencies should work together. In Absar’s case, Mr. Juneau said the lawyers will advocate on behalf of the family for the inquest to look broadly at conditions at RMC.
In a joint statement from the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces, spokesperson Major Krzysztof Stachura said they “welcome any additional review that would aid in finding the causes of Officer Cadet Absar Chaudhry’s death.”
He said both organizations will comply with the Ontario coroner’s inquest.
A separate comment from Defence Minister Bill Blair’s office said he welcomes the independent inquest and expects RMC to “fully cooperate with the inquest.”
“Minister Blair shares the family’s goal of identifying what happened and determining how tragedies like this can be prevented in the future,” said spokesperson Daniel Minden.
The military is also conducting a review, called a board of inquiry. Unlike a coroner’s inquest, which is independent from the organizations it investigates and held in public with a jury, a board of inquiry is controlled by the military. Hearings are held in secret, except when the military determines that family can be present, and only redacted versions of the final reports are released.
Moreover, in a coroner’s inquest the family can get standing, be represented by a lawyer, call and question witnesses and introduce evidence. At a board of inquiry none of that is allowed except with special permission, which the military denied Absar’s parents when they requested standing earlier this year.
In response, the couple took the Canadian Forces to court in an effort to shed light on its insular, secretive investigative process and to be granted full standing at the military inquiry. However, with the decision from Ontario’s coroner to hold its own inquest, they have dropped the legal case.
Mr. Drapeau said Absar’s parents will not participate in the board of inquiry, including as witnesses, because they have no confidence in the military’s secretive probe. Maj. Stachura said the board of inquiry will proceed whether or not the family participates.
The coroner’s inquest will increase scrutiny of RMC and fuel the continuing discussion about its future, said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and author of The Ones We Let Down: Toxic Leadership Culture and Gender Integration in the Canadian Forces, 1989-1999. She cautioned that because recommendations from a coroner’s inquest are not binding, meaningful change will only happen if military and political leaders commit to it – something she said has so far been absent.
Pointing to multiple past reports that the government largely hasn’t acted on, Ms. Lantoine-Duval said up to now scrutiny “has not necessarily led the military to action.”
Last year’s report on sexual misconduct in the military from former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour described a “discriminatory culture” at Canada’s military colleges. She found cadets live in a “breeding ground for peer pressure and toxic relationships” and a “significant problem with harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct.”
In response, the government has said it will strike a Canadian Military Colleges Review Board.
In May the government said the board’s members would be announced “very soon,” but no announcement has been made and the government provided no clear timeline for when work would begin.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Ontario coroner’s office determined suicide was the cause of Absar Chaudhry’s death.