Thank you, Mr. Chair, and ladies and gentlemen, for receiving me in these opulent surroundings. I could barely find my way around the place. I'm very glad for you, in fact. It was high time that it was done. So well done, for bringing you the ability to work with a certain quality of life with your staff to achieve your missions.
I will read a short statement. I hope it's short, or I'll do as my Marine Corps friends have taught me: I'll power talk through it.
I have two colleagues here.
Joe Sharpe and I were intimately involved in the writing of the Liberal Party policy on veterans and have been engaged with veterans for over 10 years in specifics and policy, and also individual cases and the like, and 10 years before that, with the deputy minister at the time, Admiral Murray. He had an advisory committee, chaired by Dr. Neary, who wrote the book on the first Veterans Charter, dated 1943. We spent 10 years working together on that multidisciplinary team. We were also classmates from RMC—but he passed.
Scott Maxwell is the executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada. I am the patron of Wounded Warriors Canada, which, by far, to me, is the body of altruism and philanthropy that is putting so much of its capabilities into the field in the hands of those who are wounded—mostly psychologically. I speak of programs such as animal assistance programs, the equine program, and the veterans training program that we run out of Dalhousie University with my child soldiers initiative, where we train veterans to go back into the field and serve by training other armies on how to handle child soldiers and reduce casualties on the sides of both the child soldiers and us. They take a formal one-month program with us at Dalhousie. We can go into that as we go into the possibility of programs.
I'm going to use as a reference, if I may, my correspondence with the commander-in-chief—that being the Governor General—when I was a senator in the post-time, when I had a number of activities going on with him—his wife was also quite involved—in regard to care and concern for injured veterans, particularly with psychological injuries, as they are quite engaged in that side. I want to use it to give you a feel from there as we move forward.
I'll start by thanking you very much for permitting me and my colleagues to join you today on this matter of suicide prevention in the Canadian Armed Forces and amongst our veterans, both those who serve in the Canadian Forces still—and a large number do—and those who have been released and are in Canadian society. I commend your commitment to the welfare of these individuals and their families, and I am honoured to share my thoughts on how we can make more progress in finding solutions to this problem of people killing themselves because they're injured.
As I mentioned at other times, both publicly and in different forums, I had assembled over the years a team of advisers from diverse backgrounds and with deep knowledge of both the forces and Veterans Affairs. This group of advisers worked to develop policy recommendations and advocacy tools that have allowed us to maintain a well-researched and well-informed outlook on the issues facing our military—especially those who have, in fact, taken the uniform off—particularly related to operational stress injuries. I emphasize that I'm not necessarily always touching on all of mental health; I'm focusing on the operational stress injury part. That is the crux of those who are injured. That is the heart of the problem. That's the operational deficiency that we are seeing right now.
Some of those who are involved—just to get their names out there because they've been so committed—are Sergeant Tom Hoppe and Major Bruce Henwood, both retired; Dr. Victor Marshall; Mrs. Muriel Westmorland; Joe Sharpe, who is here with us; and Christian Barabé. Over the years, they have all been engaged with me in bringing forward the veterans scenario and have also helped me when I was chair of the veterans affairs subcommittee in the Senate.
Our research, thought, and work have led us to the conclusion that operational stress injuries, OSIs, in particular, can be and are too often fatal to those affected. Also, the consequences often last a lifetime for those who do not succeed in trying to kill themselves. From peer support organizations in the past, we've had statistics showing that peers have been able to prevent a suicide attempt a day, through the peer support program, let alone the more formal structures of the medical system.
Of course, this includes the devastating consequences for the families and those affected by OSIs. It is my belief that a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach that is engaged with society can bring significant solutions to this crucial problem of people destroying themselves, and bring them to meaningful progress instead, and, in the long run, give them a decent way of life.
The mental health of veterans and current members of the forces, and also with Veterans Affairs Canada, is a continuum that has been presented as a clinical matter with very little involvement of the overall command structure, that is to say, the essence of what people are used to living, their cultural framework, which is a chain of command and a very structured way of life. The clinical and therapeutic and medical dimensions have taken over the problem of OSI, but have also taken over the potential resolution of conflicts that would bring people to ultimately destroy themselves. The chain of command was left on the sidelines, so it was impossible for it to know what was going on. They would get troops coming back to their units with no information on their state of mind because of confidentiality or not being able to work around the access to information system or the individual's privacy rights in regards to the charter.
Using that to the extent of abuse has disconnected the chain of command from the injured, which is totally contrary to all the education we've received in command. I spent my life in command, from a platoon or a troop of 30, to the 1st Canadian Division of 12,000, in peace and in war. The command is like being pregnant. You are in command all the time, while you have a command function. It's day and night and then, when the baby's born, you're still there, just like in command. Whether you're in garrison or in operational theatres, you cannot divorce the chain of command from the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the well-being of the individuals and the command structure to ensure that the families are integrated within that support structure.
I repeat: the families must be integrated into that support structure. It's not about co-operating with the families or assisting the families, but about integrating them into the operational effectiveness of the forces. Why? It is because the families live the missions with us. In my case, I came back injured. I was thrown out of the forces injured. My family was injured. It wasn't the same family that I had left behind because the media make them live the missions with us.
Therefore, if you employ any of these policies that don't totally integrate families, including policies from DND or the Canadian Armed Forces, for veterans serving, veterans out of service, and through Veterans Affairs Canada, you're going to end up with some of the statistics I mentioned—though still anecdotal.
I was at the last military mental health research forum in Vancouver presenting a paper in which we argued that the families suffering from stresses and strains, families where individuals are suffering from mental health issues, and the individuals involved are not getting the support needed. We're now seeing teenagers who are pushed to the limit in these conditions of extreme stress and who are committing suicide. We have not only the individual members, but we're also now seeing family members who can't live with what they've seen, and in fact are committing suicide.
It is essential that we identify the early warning signs of psychological distress, and that we encourage members to seek help through support programs offered by the military, by Veterans Affairs Canada, by outside agencies like Wounded Warriors Canada and the veterans transition training programs we have. These programs give them gainful employment close to, as much as possible, their background. Why try to convert a person completely when you can build on a person? Why not find gainful employment in, around, surrounding, contractually or otherwise, what veterans have grown up with, what they have given their loyalty to, namely, the armed forces? The uniform is off, but we wear it underneath, and we wear it in our hearts. Why divorce them from that? Why not find programs that bring you much closer?
I'm going to curtail this because of time. My presentation is only to indicate that there are initiatives moving forward. Certainly, the January 2017 CDS strategic directive on suicide prevention has to be the best piece of work we've seen in a long time. He makes it clear that the chain of command is the essence of prevention. However, when you start reading the nuts and bolts, you will see that the medical people have put their finger into the pie and are, I would say, watering it down. What they're supposed to be doing is supporting the chain of chain of command, not creating the chain of command.
I will leave you with the following recommendations so that there is enough time to speak. My colleagues will amplify these and they are free to respond to your questions. I hope you will feel at ease with that.
First, the Canadian Armed Forces directive on suicide prevention strategy has to be funded, implemented, and validated. If necessary, go to what we used after Somalia. Create ministerial oversight committees that report to the minister. We did that for nearly three years. I was ADM of personnel at the time. For three years we had six oversight committees that reported every two months to the minister on how we were implementing this kind of stuff. There's nothing wrong with the political oversight getting closer to the actual implementation when you have a crisis like this.
As for the Veterans Affairs suicide prevention framework and strategy, I haven't seen it. I don't know if it's written. It had better be out there. It is critical, because they have veterans who are outside of the forces, and they have a whole whack of veterans who are inside the forces. That is critical, and it should be funded and implemented.
The third leg of that strategic focus is what is called the Canadian Forces-VAC joint suicide prevention strategy. That's where we want the two departments to come together. Certainly, in the DND one, that's what they articulate. It's what the CAF wants. I haven't seen that one either. That one is going to prevent people from falling through the cracks. That's going to permit the continuum. That's where the loyalty is not lost and where people will continue to commit.
That third strategy has to be out there—implemented, evaluated, but also validated, six months, eight months down the road. That validation has to be of such a nature to hold people accountable. That's why I come forward again with the recommendation that in these oversight committees by the minister there's nothing wrong with bringing that online and helping out.
I think the recognition of casualties caused by operational stress injuries has to be advanced at Veterans Affairs Canada to the level of the 158 who were killed overseas or any of our members who were killed in action. If we prove that an operational stress injury has caused the death an individual, that individual is part of the numbers. We didn't lose 158. We're up to 200-some-odd now. So why not use that number?
Imagine having somebody come back for four years and then losing them. After four years of striving and working hard to save them, you lose them, and you get nothing of any great significance. You don't even get recognition, apart from a medal.
Now that you've moved Veterans Affairs Canada into the military family resource centres, move the families and help the families through those centres too. Reinforce that capability. It's used to taking care of families. Let them take on that angle for both Veterans Affairs Canada and for CAF, because they're already doing it.
Finally, give them gainful employment as close as you can to their history, to their loyalty to the military or military milieu. Why try to change them at a time when they're already in crisis?
Thank you very much.