Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Sharpe was one of two Canadian MPs who died as a result of his service during the First World War.
But, unlike the other Member of Parliament, Lieutenant-Colonel George Baker, who was killed at the Battle of Ypres in 1916, Lt.-Col Sharpe wasn’t remembered with a statue in Parliament.
The difference is, he didn’t die in combat.
On May 25, 1918, Lt.-Col. Sharpe, 45, killed himself by leaping from a window at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, where he had been hospitalized after suffering a “mental breakdown.”
Now, almost 100 years after his death, the House of Commons has voted unanimously to install a bronze plaque honouring Lt.-Col Sharpe in the Commons foyer, beside the statue of Lt.-Col. Baker.
Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, the former veterans’ affairs minister who spearheaded the initiative, rose in the Commons on Thursday to present his motion, which was supported by all MPs, including Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell, who now represents Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s former Ontario riding of Pickering-Uxbridge. After the vote, MPs stood up in applause and crossed the floor to shake hands with Mr. O’Toole.
“This motion is about remembrance, and reducing the stigma associated with mental injuries of service,” Mr. O’Toole told the Commons.
“Remembrance of this nature is beyond partisanship.”
Mr. O’Toole said he hopes the plaque will pay tribute to Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s life as well as recognizing the impacts of mental wounds on veterans.
“We celebrate all these historic achievements and victories. We also have to look at the human cost here,” Mr. O’Toole said in an interview on Wednesday.
“[Post-traumatic stress disorder] can strike a private or it can strike a colonel. We have to realize that there’s going to be a physical and mental cost of war and of service.”
Both Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan and NDP critic for Veterans Affairs Gord Johns said they support the initiative. “Let’s see if we can do this, because I think it is important,” Mr. O’Regan said before the vote.
Retired senator and Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, who has been open about his battle with PTSD, has been working with Mr. O’Toole on a yearly mental-health breakfast named in Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s honour.
“There is an injury that can be terminal and that is PTSD,” he said. “By hiding suicide as a result of this injury, we are hiding the reality that this injury can be terminal. And we are not allowed to do that. So I’m not honouring it. I’m simply recognizing it.”
It is not known exactly why a plaque was never installed in Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s honour. Mr. O’Toole believes prevailing attitudes of the day toward mental health and suicide may have led to him being forgotten, as well as the Parliament Hill fire in 1916, which closed Centre Block for a time. In 1920, the House of Commons commissioned a statue of Lt.-Col. Baker, which was unveiled in 1924.
The plaque – which has already been created by artist Tyler Briley – has been in storage for almost three years. It was set to be unveiled by the previous Conservative government, but the project was sidetracked after the 2015 election was called. The Liberal government then created a commemoration advisory group to recommend where the statue should go.
Mr. O’Regan said Mr. O’Toole approached him to make the case for keeping the plaque in Parliament. Mr. O’Toole hopes it will be in placed in the foyer for Remembrance Day and Mr. O’Regan suggested moving it to the Royal Ottawa Hospital, which recently announced a partnership with Veterans’ Affairs on a PTSD Centre of Excellence, during the planned decade-long renovations in Centre Block this fall.
Lt.-Col. Sharpe, a lawyer, was first elected to Parliament as the member for Ontario North in 1908 and again in 1911. A year after Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, he organized the 116th battalion and began recruiting men in his riding.
During the 1917 election, Lt.-Col. Sharpe was re-elected while fighting in Passchendaele. Mr. O’Toole, who will attend a ceremony marking Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s death in his hometown of Uxbridge, Ont., on Friday, said the soldier’s mental deterioration was evident in his letters home, where the guilt of losing his men proved too much.
“Sadly, he ran out of hope. And there were no treatment options and some people looked down on the injury,” Mr. O’Toole said.
“It was a tough time. And that’s why I think you can learn – we’ve come a long way in 100 years.”