I almost missed it. My daughter and I were up in the bleachers watching her son at a house league hockey practice. The six-year-olds were skating, falling, trying to stickhandle and the arena was bursting with noise. Then I spotted this one boy standing way off to the side, crying, wanting off the ice. One of the volunteer coaches skated over to him, got down on his knees and quickly connected with the boy in conversation.
The boy stopped crying. The coach’s face looked very encouraging and before long the boy was over the trauma and re-joined the practice. Nobody seemed to notice the exchange. It was low key, calming, but clearly motivational. And I thought of that quote by that U.S. national basketball coach from the 1970s.
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is looking,” John Wooden once said.
The occasion was a municipal debate at Toronto City Hall, that I witnessed some months ago. The issue arose over the purchase of a small, insignificant piece of land by the municipality for the expansion of a city service. And before the debate even began, the city clerk called for city councillors to declare. Then, several stood up and did.
“In accordance with the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act,” one councillor said, “I excuse myself from the debate.”
The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.
“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.
I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”
Politicians, police and just plain people have offered a lot of captions to the events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa over the past week. The Prime Minister called the killings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo an attack on Canada’s democracy. Law enforcement officials referred to the murders as “lone-wolf terrorism.” And friends of mine have said it was an assault on this country’s innocence. A paramedic who joined those watching Cpl. Cirillo’s body pass on Hwy 401 last Friday summed it up:
“I never expected to be standing here for a Canadian soldier killed on our own soil,” Roger Litwiller told the Toronto Star.
At 22, Tim Laidler didn’t have a worry in the world. As a reservist in the 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in 2008, he felt confident he could accomplish his eight-month commitment in Afghanistan – guarding supply convoys in Kandahar Province.
This particular day, however, Cpl. Laidler had been assigned an additional task, guarding the gate at Kandahar Airfield. A civilian ambulance approached. He opened its doors for a routine check and was suddenly faced by an Afghan girl of 16. She’d apparently been forced into an arranged marriage and felt her only way out was to set herself on fire, to be saved by the Canadians, or die by her own hand. She died.
“What had the global community come to, that a young girl had resorted to kill herself in front of me?” Laidler asked himself. “I suddenly felt myself disconnect. I felt myself die inside.”
Nearly 30 now and a survivor of post traumatic stress disorder, Laidler spoke to an audience of MPs, senators, active and retired soldiers, and a number of invited guests (myself included) on Tuesday. The 1st Annual Sam Sharpe Breakfast (exploring Veterans’ Mental Health and Wellness) was arranged by Durham MP Erin O’Toole and co-hosted by retired Gen. Romeo Dallaire, now a Canadian senator.
As MP O’Toole described it, the gathering over a breakfast in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was designed to bring together key advocates trying to help Canadian veterans coping with operational stress injuries (OSI). O’Toole explained that he organized the event in honour of one of the original sufferers of PTSD.
“Col. Sam Sharpe was a Member of Parliament (for Ontario North) who served on the battlefields of the First World War,” O’Toole said last week in the Commons, “before returning to Canada where he took his life struggling with his mental injuries.”
Unlike Uxbridge’s own Col. Sharpe, Tim Laidler found help before harming himself. A former comrade-in-arms recommended he participate in the Veterans’ Transition Program, a research initiative at the University of British Columbia, connecting veterans with other veterans struggling with OSI. At first, Laidler said he resisted saying he didn’t need counsellors telling him what to do. But he learned to open up to his peers and that in turn opened up a brand new career.
“Otherwise,” he said, “I’d have gone off to a little corner of the country and disappeared.”
Laidler is now a Masters student at UBC as well as executive director of the resulting Veterans’ Transition Network. He explained that VTN all started with about a dozen guys in 1999, and has grown to about 400 volunteers whose goal is to launch similar programs across the country by 2015 allowing VTN to one day assist 150 veterans a year. Through his own story, Laidler emphasized that help had come from his community, from his buddies, from his family, but not from either the local or national offices of Veterans’ Affairs Canada.
Laudable for community, I thought, but not for the federal government or its civil service whose job is to help the veterans constituency. Indeed, VAC via the government’s current Veterans’ Charter has in some cases paid veterans lump sums to eliminate them from being a long-term drain on federal pension budgets.
Co-chairing the information breakfast with O’Toole this week, Senator Romeo Dallaire offered his own take on the growing PTSD problem. In 1994, Gen. Dallaire had commanded the United Nations assistance mission in Rwanda. The genocide he witnessed in the African nation became the subject of his 2003 non-fiction book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The resulting PTSD had forced Dallaire’s release from the Canadian Forces in 2000, when he turned to lecturing and conducting research on conflict resolution.
During the Tuesday morning session, Dallaire lamented that despite the end of the Afghanistan operation last year, Canada “is still taking casualties. Not just the walking wounded,” he said, “but those taking their own lives.”
I asked Dallaire about the elephant in the room at Tuesday’s Sam Sharpe Breakfast. Why wasn’t the body most responsible for veterans’ welfare, Veterans’ Affairs Canada, present and accounted for at the breakfast?
“Canada’s veterans are an unlimited liability… and (caring for them) is a lifelong covenant,” he said.
“What about the Veterans’ Charter?” I asked. “Isn’t paying veterans lump sums instead of living up to that unlimited liability, cutting them out of the system, violating the covenant.”
“We can’t talk about the charter,” he rationalized. “It’s still before Parliament.”
It appears, nearly 100 years after the Ontario Regiment was decimated at Passchendaele, Belgium, sparking Col. Sam Sharpe to take his own life in 1918, that just like it was back in the Uxbridge colonel’s day, the fate of Canada’s veterans lies more in the hands of family, community and fellow soldiers than it does in Veterans’ Affairs Canada, the body most responsible to service that unlimited liability.
She said it was one the most difficult decisions of her life. She weighed every option. She considered the reactions of her peers. She wondered what other Canadians might think of her, that her choice might turn fellow citizens against her at the time she most needed their support. She agonized over it as she prepared for perhaps the greatest opportunity of her career.
“I considered giving up my Canadian citizenship,” she told me back in the 1980s at her home in Saskatchewan.
I was on my cellphone several times during a recent trip to Ottawa. I had a couple of conversations with family while I was in the National Capital attending meetings of The Writers’ Union of Canada. I also texted several of my colleagues back at the college about some of the writers’ workshops I attended. But once, last Thursday, I was doing something completely unrelated when I took a cellphone call from newspaper reporter Katie Starr of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.
“I’m doing a story about a veteran friend of yours,” she said. “Do you have time for an interview?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I’m in the middle of something.”
My world of words has been turned upside down this week. One of our own has been accused of the worst sin in our profession – taking the ideas of another writer and presenting them as her own. According to Carol Wainio, an Ottawa-based blogger, in 2009 Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote an editorial about something called enviro-romanticism. In her column, among other things, she wrote about non-governmental organizations.
“They believe traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn’t be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside,” Wente wrote.
When my younger sister and I were growing up, our Greek-born American grandparents visited our home once a year. They came from the U.S. to stay during warm Canadian summer months. While visiting, my grandfather generally tolerated anything my sister and I did or said, with a few exceptions. We could never swear in front of him. We were never to call wrestling a “fixed” sport. And under no circumstances were we to criticize the U.S. president – in those years Richard Nixon – or the U.S. Vice-President (of Greek origin), Spiro Agnew.
“Let sleeping dogs lie,” my mother would warn us. By that, she meant that unless we really wanted to face my grandfather’s wrath, we should just avoid any discussion of Nixon’s near impeachment and Agnew’s resignation over tax evasion.
Imagine for a moment, a shopper comes into your retail store. The shopper browses along a couple of aisles, pulls a few items from the shelves or the racks, puts them in a shopping basket. Then he leaves your store without paying a penny. Or, imagine a client enters your office. You’re a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer, an accountant or anyone offering a professional service. How likely is it that client will leave your office without squaring his account? Not very likely.
If the shopper or client did, you’d consider it shoplifting or theft and you’d probably call the police.