The show always started the same way. At the top of the clock – 7 p.m. on Wednesday – there was a jazz fanfare, a flourish of trumpets and saxes and a drum roll, as the title flashed across the screen. The audience in the studio began whistling and applauding, just as the CBC voice-over announcer, Larry Langley, introduced the show.
“From Edmonton,” he called out enthusiastically, “It’s Tommy Banks Live!”
Just off-stage, out of the range of cameras and microphones, the two writers of the weekly show – Colin MacLean and I – used to stand, joining the audience’s applause in anticipation of the next hour of live-to-air television. Inevitably, as Tommy entered the studio to acknowledge the studio audience’s applause, either Colin or I anticipating the start of another show would lean to the other and say rhetorically, “Does TV get any better than this?”
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.
When my veteran friend Stephen Bell came home from war in 1945, he only weighed 97 pounds (when he enlisted in 1940 he’d weighed 180). In ’45, military doctors conducted a short debriefing. They didn’t ask him about his eardrums, broken during the battle at Dieppe where he was captured in August 1942. He still had shrapnel in his back and because the Nazis had shackled him while he was a POW, his wrists were arthritic.
“I was eventually placed on 100 per cent pension,” Bell told me back in the 1990s.
Stephen Bell, who died at age 85 in 2009, didn’t have much good to say about his military experience. On Aug. 19, 1942, he’d been part of the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, where more than 3,500 Canadians became casualties. After his capture there he spent the rest of the war in POW camps in sub-human conditions.
“If it weren’t for my arthritis I would be in great shape,” Bell told me 20 years ago. He added, however, that he had “a lot to be thankful for.”
Today, he and many of his Second World War comrades would be appalled by what’s gone from bad to worse in the public service of Canadian vets. Next Monday, an Opposition motion in the House of Commons will attempt to block a money-saving measure by the federal government to close Veterans Affairs Canada offices in eight Canadian communities. The Conservative majority will defeat the motion.
Ironically, had Stephen Bell sought assistance today in his native Saskatchewan, where the Harper Conservatives plan to close the Saskatoon office, he would have had to travel nearly twice the distance from his home to seek VAC attention.
Last month, when a group of contemporary veterans arranged a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, he arrived late, got into a shouting match and walked away from the vets who were attempting to dissuade the government from closing VAC offices in Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Windsor, Corner Brook, N.L., Charlottetown, Kelowna, B.C., Brandon, Man., and Saskatoon. Fantino symbolically abandoned those he’s supposed to be serving.
During the Great War, Grace MacPherson had a confrontation with the man she was serving. A Vancouver volunteer in the Red Cross, she wanted to drive ambulances behind the front lines at the Western Front where the Canadian Expeditionary Force prepared to take Vimy Ridge in 1917. To make her case MacPherson secured an interview with the Minister of Militia at the Savoy Hotel in London, England.
“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she announced to Sir Sam Hughes in the meeting.
“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” he said. “And I’ll stop you too.”
Grace MacPherson accepted his judgment and went back to work in the Red Cross office dispensing pay chits to Canadians on leave in London. But she never gave up hope to serve closer to the action. Coincidentally, conditions in France superseded Sam Hughes’ resistance to MacPherson’s idea. The war office decided that men in the ambulance corps could better serve the war effort closer to the front, so the driving jobs were re-assigned to women volunteers. Grace served a year and a half loading wounded into her ambulance, driving them to aid stations, while maintaining the ambulance’s engine and repairing its flats… all for a paltry 14 shillings a week.
“Didn’t matter,” MacPherson wrote in diary. “I was most proud of the Canadian patch I wore on my shoulder.”
Veterans are like that, I’ve discovered. They recognize the realities of their service. Even if they don’t agree with decision-making, they live up to their responsibilities. They have a high regard for punctuality. And above all they never let down their peers in the service of Canada. It’s the credo by which they live and die. Apparently, such qualities are tougher to find among those administering Veterans Affairs Canada.
By the way, a few weeks after my Dieppe vet friend Stephen Bell left the Toronto office that had discharged him with a clean bill of health in 1945, he collapsed on Bay Street. X-rays revealed that he had both pneumonia and pleurisy. He spent the next 17 months in and out of the Christie Street Veterans Hospital.
“After six months, I was called (to a Toronto army office) for a review of my health. I told them I felt fine most of the time, so my pension was reduced to 10 per cent. … It didn’t bother me that my pension was cut off. I could make it on my own.”
Most veterans – then or now – would exhibit the same kind of fortitude. They can and do suck it up. If they have to they can make it on their own. But like Stephen Bell then, veterans now need the help they’re entitled to – close by, uninterrupted, unchallenged by politicians or bureaucrats, unsullied by fiscal conservatism and its shortsighted view of Canadian values.
The conversation began much the way many of my chats with men of a certain age do. I got his birth date. The man told me he was born in January 1923. He quickly pointed out he’ll be 91 in the New Year.
Next, I asked about where he’d grown up and because he’d lived through the Second World War, where he’d served. He explained he’d been with the East Yorkshire Regiment on D-Day as part of the Operation Overlord invasion force.
I asked Geoff Leeming if he would be our honorary veteran at the Uxbridge Oilies Remembrance Tournament on Nov. 9 at the arena.
“Fine,” he said, “but you know I didn’t serve in the Canadian Army. It was the British Army.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “You’re a veteran in my books.”
I had a chance encounter with a member of the Wounded Warriors the other night. I had just completed a presentation about the battle at Vimy Ridge at the Whitby Public Library. On our way out of the library, he gave me an update on plans the group has to take about 30 younger Canadian vets on a bicycle tour of Normandy later this spring. (By the way, they’re doing it entirely on private donations. No government funding.) He recounted a recent exchange between his group and a Veterans Affairs Canada committee reviewing the needs Canada’s latest vets – those returning from Afghanistan. He was encouraging greater support for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Give them time,” the VAC rep apparently said. “They’ll get over it.”
There I was – planted in front of the TV – minding my own business the other night and it happened. Up came this image of a girl playing soccer. Then there was a couple painting a living room ceiling. A guy working in his wood-working shop. And an elderly couple pleasure skating… All the while, the upbeat announcer told me about the many and diverse ways all those average Canadians were saving money thanks to Ottawa’s new tax cuts program. Finally, the ad wrapped up with this tag line: