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Veterans Affairs says it has no proof former paralympian was offered assisted death

Veterans Affairs can find nothing in its files to suggest that a former member of the military — a paralympic athlete — was offered medical assistance in dying by a department employee, the department’s deputy minister told a House of Commons committee on Monday.

Christine Gauthier told MPs last week a department official made the offer verbally

Retired Cpl. Christine Gauthier and her service dog Batak pose for a team photo with other wounded and ill Canadian veterans and serving soldiers competing in the Invictus games. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Veterans Affairs can find nothing in its files to suggest that a former member of the military — a paralympic athlete — was offered medical assistance in dying by a department employee, the department's deputy minister told a House of Commons committee on Monday.

Paul Ledwell told the veterans affairs committee that the department has examined over 400,000 individual files as part of its internal investigation of allegations that veterans have been offered — or have been pressured to accept — assisted deaths.

Christine Gauthier — a former member of the Canadian military and an ex-paralympian with a severe spinal cord injury — shocked MPs on the committee last week by testifying that the Department of Veterans Affairs offered her the opportunity for a medically assisted death.

Ledwell said the department conducted a specific review of Gauthier's case file in response to her testimony.

"There's no indication in the files in any correspondence, in any notation, based on engagement with a veteran of reference to MAID," Ledwell told the veterans affairs committee.

"If the veteran has material, any indication of that, we again — as we've invited for other veterans — would welcome seeing that, reviewing that and making that part of our investigation."

Gauthier, who competed for Canada at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics and the Invictus Games that same year, spoke before the same committee last Thursday. Testifying mostly in French, she said the veterans department offered her assistance in dying and that she wrote registered letters to both Prime Justin Trudeau and Veterans Affairs Minister MacAulay about it.

The committee asked for a copy of her information. In a subsequent media interview, Gauthier said the offer of medically assisted death was made verbally in a 2019 conversation with a Veterans Affairs employee. She said she made a note of it in her personal files.

She told CBC News Monday she was shocked to hear the department's denial. She produced a copy of a letter in which she raised her concerns, adding that she would expect it to be placed in her department file.

"Do I believe them when they say they have no proof in their files? No," she said.

In preparation for her testimony last week, she said, she took note of how the department had acknowledged only four suspected cases of Veterans Affairs staffers recommending MAID. She said she said to herself, "Well, there's more than four."

Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence Lawrence MacAulay rises in the House of Commons on November 18, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

MacAulay told the committee last month that an internal investigation found that one department employee is believed to have inappropriately counselled as many as four veterans on the possibility of ending their lives with a doctor's assistance. The matter has been turned over to the RCMP for further investigation.

The minister stuck to that line before the committee on Monday, saying the department is still only aware of four cases. He urged other former members of the military who might have been similarly pressured — including Gauthier — to contact the department directly so they can be included in the ongoing investigation.

"I indicated quite clearly that there was four cases involving one case manager. Totally unacceptable, totally unacceptable," MacAulay said. "Veterans Affairs does not provide MAID services at all."

Gauthier said her letter to the prime minister's office was acknowledged and she sent a similar letter to MacAulay.

But on Monday, the minister flatly denied ever having heard from her about medically-assisted dying. 

"First of all, there's been an indication made that I received information that somebody wrote to me indicating that the that MAID had been discussed with them ... That is not the case," MacAulay said.

Gauthier, who said she's been battling the department for five years to obtain a wheelchair ramp or lift, added she still has the postage slips confirming delivery.

MacAulay was asked about the disconnect between Gauthier's testimony and his own. "I can only deal with the facts I have," he responded.

Conservative MP and committee deputy chair Blake Richards said he's aware anecdotally of eight separate complaints from veterans. Some of those veterans, he said, are reluctant to trust the department because of the way they've been treated in the past.

"You were aware of this case back in July of 2021, [and] clearly didn't pay attention to it," Richards told MacAulay during the minister's committee appearance. "You keep telling us that there's four. We know there is more than four, and without a doubt."

Following the committee meeting, Richards said any veteran watching the testimony "would have been incredibly disappointed."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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