100 years after his death, 'forgotten' officer to be commemorated on Hill

Three years after its creation, a plaque commemorating a Canadian MP who took his own life after serving in the First World War is set to be installed on Parliament Hill.

Lt.-Col Samuel Sharpe, an MP, took his own life in the dying months of the First World War

MP Erin O'Toole stands in Parliament in front of a statue of Lt.-Col. George Harold Baker, who was a sitting MP when he was killed in action during the First World War. O'Toole's motion to install a plaque to commemorate Lt.-Col. Samuel Sharpe, another sitting MP who served in the war but who took his own life, passed unanimously Thursday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A plaque commemorating a Canadian MP who died after serving in the First World War is set to be installed on Parliament Hill.

Lt.-Col. Samuel Sharpe and Lt.-Col. George Baker were the only two sitting MPs to have died as a result of service in the 1914-1918 conflict.

The cost of the war was heavy on him ... you could see from his letters that his mental wellness was deteriorating.- Erin O'Toole, MP

But unlike Baker, who was killed at the Battle of Ypres and was commemorated with a statue inside Parliament in 1924, Sharpe was never honoured with any permanent display on the Hill.

The difference was that Sharpe took his own life.

Erin O'Toole is a Conservative MP who represents part of Sharpe's old riding, and on Thursday his motion to install a plaque on the Hill in recognition of Sharpe's service passed unanimously.

A bronzed relief of Lt.- Col. Samuel Sharpe created by artist Tyler Briley is seen in this undated handout photo. Finished two years ago, the sculpture appeared destined for a spot in the foyer outside the House of Commons to commemorate the former MP and recognize all Canadian veterans struggling with psychological injuries. (Tyler Briley/Canadian Press)

The plaque commemorating Sharpe was actually finished two years ago, but had remained in storage.

"The cost of the war was heavy on him. He had recruited his constituents for the battalion he led, and you could see from his letters that his mental wellness was deteriorating," O'Toole told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning in an interview from his riding of Durham Friday.

"And tragically, 100 years ago today, he took his life."

Sharpe's record

Sharpe was a sitting MP when he headed overseas to command the Canadian Expeditionary Force's 116th Battalion.

He was involved in some of the biggest and bloodiest Canadian battles of the First World War and was re-elected in absentia only a few weeks after Passchendaele, where he received an award for gallantry, and where one of his closest friends died.

Sharpe fought at Passchendaele, and was re-elected in absentia weeks after the bloody battle. (William Rider-Rider/Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

But Sharpe would never retake his seat. 

He was hospitalized for "nervous shock," returned to Canada, and on May 25, 1918, jumped from a window at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal and died.

O'Toole suspects that at the time, the stigma around mental illness, and "shell shock" in particular, played a role in the muted response to Sharpe's death. But that began to change.

"A lot of veterans that were struggling with operational stress injuries really [identified] with Sharpe, and so the move came up to commemorate him because he really was, outside of his hometown of Uxbridge, largely forgotten," O'Toole said.

"We've been working for many years — Roméo Dallaire and I specifically, and then increasingly a lot of people from all sides — to rectify that historic omission before the century mark of his passing."

The plaque will be installed in Centre Block, and when the building closes for years of upgrades, it will be loaned to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre "so it can continue to be a touchstone for education," O'Toole said.

"It was nice [Thursday] to see all parties come together on a project that shows that commemoration and talking about mental health issues is much more important than partisanship," O'Toole added.

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, with files from the Canadian Press