Armed forces bungling probes into deaths: report

Canada's Armed Forces repeatedly botches investigations of accidental deaths among troops, says the military ombudsman.

The Canadian military repeatedly botches investigations of accidental deaths among troops, says a scathing report by the military's civilian ombudsman.

André Marin slams the military for failing to adequately inform the families of the victims and bungling even the most basic investigative techniques.

"The way in which the military carries out these investigations is outdated and has not kept up with the modern accountability standards that society demands, and indeed, richly deserves," he writes in a 600-page report, When a Soldier Falls, released Thursday.

"The current investigative approach to non-combat deaths or injuries is so seriously flawed that the results of investigations are rarely accepted at face value and almost inevitably lead to allegations of coverups."

As a result, he says, many accidents end up being investigated twice, prolonging the distress of the families and racking up unnecessary costs.

Marin's report focuses on a bungled probe into the death of Master Cpl. Rick Wheeler, who was crushed by an armoured personnel carrier during a training exercise at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in Alberta in 1992.

The ombudsman says the military was insensitive and unprofessional from the start of the investigation, when it told Wheeler's widow her hearing-impaired husband was partly responsible for his own death as he didn't move out of the way of the carrier.

The widow, Christine Wheeler, campaigned to clear his name, and a board of inquiry eventually absolved him.

However, a second investigation six years after the accident mistakenly pinned the blame on several senior officers, says Marin.

"The composition of the board was far from optimal," Marin writes. "No one with adequate expertise and senior command experience in mechanized infantry operations participated. "

"Moreover, the board members were, quite simply, inadequately trained to conduct a complex investigation."

Marin writes that the slipshod investigations, which created "an aura of coverup, bias, partiality or impropriety," were far from unusual in the military.

He makes 34 recommendations, among them:

  • Boards of inquiry should automatically be set up after an accidental death.
  • At least one board member should have taken a course in investigative techniques and procedural fairness, and all board members should have refresher courses before starting the probe.
  • Families of the victims should be told when a board of inquiry is convened and have the right to full standing at the proceedings.
  • Families should be fully informed about the investigation and given copies of any reports into the death.
  • A military person should keep in touch with the family after the formal investigation to keep them updated on any changes that stemmed from the death and inquiry.

Defence Minister Bill Graham said in a statement Thursday that the military has already put some of Marin's recommendations in place and will fully review the board of inquiry process.

"His report corroborates lessons that other boards of inquiry have identified, and we recognize that systemic changes must be made."