Caught in the watchdog crossfire: Elderly B.C. woman died with DND claim in limbo

The turmoil between the Defence Department and former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne took a tragic turn for one British Columbia family. More than half a dozen cases were held up because of the restrictions placed on the watchdog’s office — or the ombudsman's inability to get meetings with the defence minister. Among them was the case of Myrna Mason, which ground to a halt before she died.

Widow was denied a survivor's pension, and a military ombudsman's office in turmoil was unable to help

Myrna Mason, the widow of a Canadian soldier, was denied a survivor's benefit by DND after her husband died. She fought the case through the military ombudsman's office but her claim was among a handful of files that ended up stalled because of a dispute between the defence department and former ombudsman Gary Walbourne. She died before the case could be resolved. (Submitted by David Spencer)

Myrna Mason, an elderly British Columbia widow of a former soldier, tried to believe that Canada's military ombudsman would deliver her justice — but she died unexpectedly on the last day of December 2018 with her long-standing case still unresolved.

She had waged a four-year battle with the Department of National Defence (DND) for a survivor's pension, according to documents shared with CBC News by her family,

The inexplicable delay was a source of immense frustration for her during her final months.

"It really left her bewildered and angry and disillusioned with the government," said her son David Spencer, an RCMP staff sergeant, who stated he was speaking solely as his mother's representative not as a federal police officer.

Her case was one of more than half a dozen individual files or initiatives caught in the crossfire of a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic controversy, which raged for more than a year between the DND and former ombudsman Gary Walbourne.

Starting in summer 2017, Walbourne and three members of his staff were hit with a wide-ranging internal review after complaints of mismanagement, nepotism and misuse of public funds were filed with DND's review services branch.

Review upheld complaints

Most of those complaints related to staffing were deemed "founded" — a result the former ombudsman now challenges, maintaining he and others were the subject of a vendetta.

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. Over half of the 2,000 complaints investigated annually by the Canadian Forces ombudsman have an 'end of career' context, he says. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A Federal Court judge recently said the complaint review was handled unfairly and ordered DND to take another look at it.

While the review was going on, the ombudsman's office was stripped of some of its financial and human resources authority, according to Federal Court records.

Walbourne also was unable to arrange a meeting with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan or get his phone calls to the minister returned — the aftermath of a mysterious, private falling-out between Walbourne and Sajjan.

The dispute raged on for more than a year until Walbourne's early retirement. 

During that time, the progress of existing cases and the prospective opening of new ones almost ground to a halt, the court documents suggest.

A spokesperson for the current ombudsman, Gregory Lick, said Thursday that, because of privacy considerations, he was unable to say how many complaints may have gone dark during that time.

"Our office cannot comment on cases pertaining to individual complainants we investigated or sought resolution to during that time period," said Andrew Bernardo, the ombudsman's director of communications.

According to the documents provided by Mason's family, the exchange of letters between her, DND and the ombudsman virtually dried up between early 2017 and spring 2018 — precisely when the office became engulfed in turmoil.

An online database of letters exchanged between the ombudsman office and the minister shows several letters written by Walbourne to both the minister and the chief of the defence staff went unanswered in the spring and summer of 2018.

Wrote to apologize

During that time period, Walbourne wrote to Mason personally to effectively apologize for not being able to get results.

"We have urged the minister to use his discretion to correct this unfairness, and to date we have not been successful in prompting a resolution of your case," Walbourne wrote on May 4, 2018, at the height of his dispute with the minister's office.

Mason, 77, was the widow of retired sergeant Thomas (Bill) Mason. She was denied a survivor's benefit after his 2014 death under a federal policy that prohibits a spouse from collecting a pension benefit if they marry a former military member who is 60 years old or older.

It is known within the federal bureaucracy as the "gold diggers clause," and it was something the Liberal government promised to address during the 2015 federal election. In the last spring's federal budget, the Liberals promised a $150 million fund to address the issue.

It came too late for Mason. Spencer said that, in light of the Walbourne case, the long silence over his mother's claim now makes sense.

Disappointed by bureaucracy

"I'm disappointed," said Spencer. "I'm disappointed by the bureaucracy and in-fighting took away my mum's right to a survivor's benefit. We were not talking millions of dollars here."

The foundation of Mason's complaint was that the Defence Department initially stated in writing that she was entitled to the survivor's benefit, but then reneged. Officials appear to have adjusted the criteria without notifying the family.

"The ombudsman was very sympathetic and quite shocked that the case was being held up," said Spencer, who acted as his mother's sounding board.

"The whole time we were just being patient and I just said, 'Mum, this is bureaucracy at its finest but we're gonna win this.' And she kept saying, 'I think they're waiting for me to die, and they won't have to pay me.'"

Mason died on Dec. 31, 2018, in Kelowna, B.C., after a short illness.

Ombudsman offered condolences

The man who replaced Walbourne as ombudsman, Lick, penned a handwritten note to the family expressing condolences and regret that she passed away without "closure" in her case.

"My office remains committed to helping bring resolution to this issue, and we are continuing to directly engage with the minister's office in this light," said the Jan. 18 letter.

Spencer said he has not heard from the government since. He said the issue for him is not the money, but rather the indignity his mother faced.

A spokesperson for the Defence Department didn't answer specific questions posed by CBC News about Mason's plight.

Minister's office looking at case

"We are aware of this case and are looking into it further," said DND spokesperson Dan Lebouthillier. "Due to privacy considerations, we cannot disclose details of individual cases."

Earlier this week, CBC News reported on the circumstances surrounding Walbourne's departure and the restrictions placed on his office.

Veterans advocate Barry Westholm said he had tried to convince the ombudsman to take up an investigation into the tragic death of Pte. Leah Green, who took her own life after leaving the military suffering chronic pain from a spinal cord injury.

He said he got nowhere at the time — and he now understands why.

"At this meeting Mr. Walbourne stated while he agreed with this, that there was immense pressure on his office and that any new internal [to the Ombudsman's Office] investigations would be met with much resistance," said Westholm.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a news conference announcing that a Canadian Forces Hercules transport plane will be sent to support a UN peacekeeping mission in Uganda, in Vancouver on Aug. 15. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)


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.