Probe of soldier's suicide reveals hazing, harassment, fight club at Winnipeg armoury
Brigadier-general reprimands 5 soldiers, removes 1 as investigation continues
A Winnipeg reservist who the military said died during training last November in fact stepped away from other soldiers on that exercise and killed himself — a year after telling his superiors he was being bullied and harassed.
CBC News obtained search warrant documents that were part of the investigation into the death of Cpl. Nolan Caribou, 26, on Nov. 18, 2017, at CFB Shilo. Caribou asked to be temporarily excused to deal with something personal that day. When he didn't come back, fellow soldiers went to look for him and found him dead.
"I don't know what was going through his mind or what other things he had going on in his life at the time, but it is clear to me that he was being harassed while he was in uniform and that leaders that should have taken action didn't, and that could have contributed to his death," Brig.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu, commander of the Canadian Armed Forces 3rd Canadian Division, said in an interview.
The documents also show "there was ongoing ritual hazing, organized fighting described as a 'fight club' and harassment occurring at the Minto Armouries in Winnipeg."
"I do believe that had leaders that had known about this, if they had taken more decisive action that it is possible there would have been a different outcome," Cadieu said.
When he learned about Caribou's death, he called a board of inquiry (BOI). It started in January and interviewed 40 witnesses. That investigation was complete by early June.
No charges have been laid, but Cadieu, the commander in charge of about 10,000 soldiers, reservists and civilian members of the army in Western Canada, travelled from Edmonton to Winnipeg several times this past year, to make changes to the leadership at Minto.
"I have relieved an individual from the performance of his military duties based on anecdotal evidence that I've heard. … It's given me enough concern that I do not want that individual around any of my other soldiers," said Cadieu.
Cadieu said he has reprimanded five soldiers and is waiting for the findings of a military police investigation before deciding whether to permanently remove any members from the Armed Forces.
"They weren't properly supervising unit training activities. They weren't present and shared in hardships. They weren't in the messes where alcohol was being consumed and as they forfeited that space It allowed a small handful of more sinister individuals to have greater influence," said Cadieu.
"That's what allowed this harassment to take place. And then when leaders — empowered leaders — learned about this harassment I felt that they did not take decisive enough action to properly understand what was going on and then to actually terminate that behaviour."
Following CBC's report Monday morning, Cadieu issued a press release reiterating the culpability of the military in Caribou's death. He also added that of the five reprimanded soldiers, one was removed from a senior command position.
"I believe that the harassment he faced and the failure of unit leaders to intervene contributed to his death," he said in the statement.
"We found through the BOI deep administrative deficiencies and troubling recurring activities in the Minto Armoury to include bullying, unsanctioned fighting, inappropriate use of alcohol resulting in violence and initiation activities."
Cadieu says he was 'shocked and devastated' to learn about the allegations:
A board of inquiry revealed Caribou died by suicide, a month after graduating with a bachelor of arts in sociology from the University of Winnipeg. It also found he hadn't been paid at the rank he should have been for several months, and this could have worsened his financial situation.
It also concluded that a year before taking his life, Caribou had reported being harassed by fellow soldiers at Minto Armoury but the military didn't do much to stop it.
Caribou was an infantryman with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles for five years, and had been serving as a reservist at Minto Armoury in Winnipeg. He was never deployed overseas.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says any form of harassment in the armed forces is unacceptable.
"Every member of our Canadian Armed Forces deserves a professional environment in which they are treated with respect and dignity. We all have a responsibility to uphold this environment and those who do not do so will be held to account," he said in a statement issued Monday afternoon.
"I want to be clear: any kind of harmful behaviour and harassment is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated within our Canadian Armed Forces."
He said the investigation into Caribou's death is ongoing, but promised that "appropriate action" will be taken to "prevent future tragedies from occurring."
Caribou's family has asked for privacy. At the time of his death they said in a statement: "Being in the military was one way for Nolan to contribute — a way for him to seek resolution to address the challenge of society's inability to be peaceful, not just for himself but for everyone."
The family also said Caribou "was very determined despite challenges that he encountered while in the military, and he did so with integrity. Nolan did not allow limited resources to discourage him from following through with his commitments. His focus enabled him to facilitate available resources when required. He was very focused on his job as an infantryman, and Nolan took great pride in being able to do so."
Caribou's cousin, Jade Harper, took to social media on Monday to express her disappointment that the military didn't act sooner.
"I'm disappointed in the military's lack of effort in creating a safe environment for Nolan to thrive as a soldier," she wrote on Facebook following CBC's report.
"This investigation was thorough and it was the correct response, sadly way too late."
Caribou's social media shows he loved music, and he occasionally posted videos of himself singing.
In February, Cadieu contacted the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service to tell them what he had learned in hopes they would launch an independent investigation into Caribou's death. They did, and during that probe the CFNIS uncovered allegations the harassment at Minto Armoury went beyond Caribou and had included other soldiers in the junior ranks mess.
The military police subsequently launched a second investigation to further probe the allegations.
"We have a soldier in this division that is dead. His family is mourning. They will always be mourning, and to know that there are military related service factors that could have contributed to that soldier's death — I can't consider anything more serious," said Cadieu.
My comments to media today about the loss of Corporal Nolan Caribou. <a href="https://t.co/shwyArX5K5">pic.twitter.com/shwyArX5K5</a>—@Mayor_Bowman
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman offered his condolences to the family. So did Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and James Bezan, a Manitoba Conservative MP.
"Anytime there's a death of any Canadian Armed Forces member it hits very hard," Sajjan said.
Bezan said, "The loss of Cpl. Nolan Caribou is a large blow for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. … He'll be missed at the armoury, at the parade hall and in the lives of the men and women he served with."
At the time of Caribou's death, the military said the soldier died during a training exercise. It has not publicly acknowledged the suicide until now.
Soldier told Caribou to kill himself
In October, military police got a search warrant for a soldier's phone to look for evidence of a fight. In a sworn affidavit presented to a judge, police detailed some of the revelations.
Police said they spoke to a soldier who recalled an incident about a week before Caribou's death in which a reservist posted a message on Caribou's social media to the effect of "kill yourself." Police said that soldier later bragged about it to other reservists at the armoury, but removed the post after Caribou's suicide.
Another reservist told police there were organized fights going on like in the movie Fight Club. "Officers would ask about the outcome and status of fights between soldiers, but then 'played dumb' when the matter was brought to the attention of the military police," a soldier's affidavit said.
One soldier told police he was leaving the military largely because of "the harassment and assaults he had witnessed." He detailed one incident where "a master corporal had instructed a group of eight to 10 subordinates to harass a private with the goal of making his life at the unit so unbearable that he would leave the military."
Inquests should be mandatory, lawyer says
"It's a rare occasion where the military admits in fact there were mistakes, [and] admits a corrective step must be taken," said Michel Drapeau, a military lawyer and Ottawa law professor.
Drapeau said Cadieu's admissions are a good start, but if society wants to see an end to soldier suicides, it can't be left to the military to figure out.
In Manitoba, a coroner's inquest is called by the chief medical examiner and is mandatory in cases where a person died in police custody or correctional facility, if the death was a result of a violent act or negligence, or if the cause is unknown or unexplained. The purpose of the inquest is to determine the circumstances surrounding the death and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it.
Drapeau said the military holds a board of inquiry to look into non-combat deaths, but unlike inquests, the proceedings are not public and the family of the dead soldier does not have standing.
"We want more than that. We want to make sure that this loss is in fact having consequences and is … leaving a legacy behind. They're trying to change the channel, trying to learn from it and to do this you have to have a coroner inquest," said Drapeau.
"The military are good at conducting military missions, military tasks. There's nothing under their DNA that makes them particularly efficient at investigating themselves."
Drapeau said no other organization, not doctors, lawyers or even the RCMP can investigate itself.
Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said in a statement, "While the corporal's death is a tragic reminder that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, care and respect, it would need to be investigated federally, not through a provincial inquest, as any recommendations arising from one must relate to provincial laws, policies, and programs."
Suicide prevention plan
According to the armed forces, 14 soldiers have died by suicide this year and 89 since 2014.
Each case is looked into by the CFNIS, or local police if the death occurred outside the military's jurisdiction.
"The military has an extensive mental illness awareness and suicide prevention program consisting of clinical and non-clinical interventions by generalist and specialist clinicians, mental health education, and suicide awareness information," according to the federal government's website.
It says great efforts are made to identify people at risk for mental health problems and to provide them with the assistance that they require. But it's not always possible to identify those individuals.
"It doesn't mean anything unless empowered leaders are actually setting an example that we are destigmatizing mental health issues, and so we recognize that," said Cadieu. "And so that's why we're trying to embrace this mindset of readiness and resilience and growth in 3rd Canadian Division as well."
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.
Read the original National Defence news release from November 2017:
Read the statement from Brigadier-General Trevor Cadieu, Commander 3rd Canadian Division, from Tuesday:
With files from Austin Grabish