Defence chief looking at ways to speed up military inquiries into deaths

OTTAWA — The military’s top general says he is not satisfied with the length of time it takes the Canadian Forces to conduct internal inquiries into suspected suicides and other deaths and is looking at ways to speed things up.

His comments come after the families of three dead Royal Military College cadets expressed anger and frustration about waiting more than a year for the results of a board of inquiry into their sons’ deaths.

Harrison Kelertas, Brett Cameron and Matthew Sullivan are believed to have taken their own lives in separate incidents in 2016, but defence officials have yet to confirm an official cause of death.

Gen. Jonathan Vance would not comment Thursday on the inquiry, which saw formal hearings wrap up early last year, but whose findings are still being reviewed by military lawyers.

He did, however, say that while it is essential that inquiries and similar investigations are conducted thoroughly, he is not convinced that they operate as quickly and efficiently as they could.

“I’m not satisfied, either,” Vance told reporters following an event organized by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “So I think it’s high time we had a deep look at how we do this.”

The families of Kelertas, Cameron and Sullivan are far from the first to raise concerns about the way the military runs such inquiries; other families as well as the military ombudsman have also criticized the system over the years.

In a report year, ombudsman Gary Walbourne said some reports took up to three years and that the legal review was often among the most time-consuming parts of the process.

Among the measures that Vance said he would consider is whether to appoint and train specific individuals to oversee such inquiries on a more permanent basis, rather than the ad hoc approach currently in use.

“So I’m looking right now at how do we professionalize this process,” he said.

“Oftentimes, boards of inquiry or summary investigations are done as a secondary duty. You take time out of the job that you’ve been assigned to do it. We have senior people who head them up but they still have really busy jobs.”

Yet Vance pushed back against complaints from families who have said they cannot find closure until the final report is released, saying such inquiries “are not designed to provide closure for families.

“Boards of inquiry are designed to inform the chief of defence staff and the Armed Forces about what changes need to be made, what went wrong, does anybody need to be held accountable, and so on,” he said.

“And so, they are often seen as a mechanism to help people find closure and I understand that and I’m glad they play a role in that, but that’s not their design.”

And while he said efforts would be made to make inquiries more efficient and faster, the priority will always be on ensuring they are thorough and answer all the military’s questions.

One of the controversial military boards of inquiry in the last decade was the investigation into the suspected suicide of Cpl. Stuart Langridge in March 2008, which was later blasted by the Military Police Complaints Commission.

Speaking from Victoria, Langridge’s stepfather, Shaun Fynes, was cautiously optimistic about Vance’s commitment to addressing some of the problems within the inquiry system.

But what is truly needed is an independent system to investigate the military, he said, as is currently the situation with most police services.

“I think the instinctive response to anything like this is to protect the institution, to protect the chain of command, to avoid liability, to avoid any kind of an embarrassment,” he said.

“And when you get to control the process, you’re in a good position to do all of that.”

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