Veterans say Ottawa's planned PTSD research centre falls short of what was promised

Some veterans say the federal government's newest commitment to researching the mental health challenges of ex-soldiers falls far short of what they were expecting from Ottawa — and of what veterans themselves need.
Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan announced Monday the creation of a new 'centre of excellence' at the Royal Ottawa Health Group to research post-traumatic stress injury disorder, delivering on promises made during the last election campaign and in the federal budget.

But some veterans say the federal government's newest commitment to researching the mental health challenges faced by ex-soldiers falls far short of what they were expecting from Ottawa — and of what veterans themselves need.

The new research hub, O'Regan said, will work to advance mental health and support improved treatment for ex-soldiers across the country.

The centre will conduct applied research and share its findings with mental health providers nationwide.

"At Veterans Affairs Canada, we're doing more than just talking about mental health. We're listening," O'Regan said at the announcement Monday at the Royal Ottawa mental health facility.

We've already got hundreds of doctors ... climbing all over each other for grants.- Aaron Bedard, former combat engineer

"We know that by better understanding the unique mental health issues facing our military community, we are able to provide the best support possible to veterans and their families to help them get better.

"PTSD ... is a real problem that we can and will address."

But at least one veteran who serves on the minister's mental health advisory group said ex-soldiers need a dedicated treatment facility, not just a research centre.

"We've already got hundreds of doctors presenting research and climbing all over each other for grants," said Aaron Bedard, a former combat engineer.

He and two other former soldiers on the advisory group have been working behind the scenes since the 2015 election to convince the Liberal government to set up a treatment facility exclusively for veterans with PTSD.

"Every veteran out there knew what the intent of that promise was," he said. "Everybody knows what this was supposed to be and it was something we all desperately wanted and needed."

At the moment, veterans with severe mental health disorders are sent to addiction treatment centres where, Bedard said, "you're there with drug dealers and gang members."

During the last federal election, the Liberals promised to spend $20 million to create two new centres of excellence in veterans' care, including one specializing in mental health.

Bedard said veterans initially were told that figure was meant to cover the cost of a separate treatment facility which would care for the mentally wounded.

After the First World War, Veterans Affairs set up a series of long-term care hospitals for ex-soldiers, sailors and aircrew.

There were 18 such hospitals in the federal system by the 1960s, serving veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War.

Bit by bit over the years, the federal government has taken itself out of the business by transferring the hospitals to provincial governments and paying for long-term care beds.

Ste. Anne's Hospital in Montreal.

The last of those hospitals — Ste. Anne's Hospital in Montreal — was handed over to the Quebec government on April 1, 2016.

Bedard, who is one of the appellants in the class-action lawsuit filed by Afghanistan veterans against the federal government's pension reforms, said he recognizes Ottawa's reluctance to get back into the business of running health care facilities — but insisted the needs of ex-soldiers are unique.

The federal government has been criticized for not keeping better track of veterans with mental health issues, particularly those who've attempted suicide.

Bedard said he wonders why a government that has had to cope with the fallout from some high-profile veterans suicides wouldn't jump at the chance to demonstrate how effective treatment can be.

Following question period in the House of Commons on Monday, O'Regan was asked why a dedicated facility was not set up.

He argued that, in the final analysis, more veterans will be helped by the new research centre.


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.