Children of military suicide victims to get scholarships after charity reconsiders

A military charity pilloried last spring for denying scholarships to the children of a soldier who died by suicide has overhauled its eligibility rules and will now consider such applications as long as the deaths can be attributed to military service.

Canada Company reverses course after rejecting applications from children of soldier who took his life

The children of Canadian soldiers who take their own lives will now be eligible for scholarships from the military charity Canada Company. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

A military charity pilloried last spring for denying scholarships to the children of a soldier who died by suicide has overhauled its eligibility rules and will now consider such applications as long as the deaths can be attributed to military service.

Canada Company unveiled its rewritten policy at an event Friday along with a $500,000 increase to its post-secondary education fund.

The additional cash, which comes from the organization's board of directors and four big banks, brings the total size of the scholarship program to over $3 million.

Last spring, the group's refusal to grant scholarships to the two children of Capt. Brad Elms made national headlines. Elms, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Regiment, took his own life in November 2014.

The selection committee, which included Canada Company founder Blake Goldring, deemed the children ineligible because suicide was not covered in the founding guidelines, much to the surprise of the soldier's widow, Sherri Elms.

That has been rectified, Goldring told the CBC.

"The battlefield has changed," he said in an interview. "Our country is coming to terms with the broader impact of war. We recognize there is another group of children who need our support."

The notion that they would be dealing with applicants whose parents took their lives was not something the group envisioned when it was established in 2006, early in the Kandahar combat mission, said Goldring.

The group will now consider applications from the children of suicide as long as the deaths are attributable to military service.

A question of eligibility 

Goldring, who holds the ceremonial post of honorary colonel of the Canadian Army, said the charity — in order to confirm eligibility — will rely on the designation applied to each case by National Defence

That may be problematic.

There have been several high-profile suicide cases, such as the death of Cpl. Stuart Langridge, which were not designated as attributable to service. In that instance, his family claimed depression because of his overseas service drove him to take his own life.

Founder of Canada Company, Blake Goldring, says attitudes are changing, and the children of soldiers who commit suicide need the help of his military charity. (PR Direct/AGF)

Brig.-Gen. Lowell Thomas, commander of the 4th Canadian Division headquartered in Toronto, said he believes Canada Company was swept up in the emerging debate over what is considered a combat death.

"I think it came as a bit of a surprise to them," said Thomas.

Soldiers who have died at the front or later because of wounds are counted as a matter of tradition. But suicides, which are considered an affront to military esprit de corps, were counted separately in what many view as the deliberate exclusion and marginalization of trauma.

Attitudes are changing

Former general Roméo Dallaire, one of the country's best-known advocates on the understanding of post-traumatic stress, has publicly backed the notion of counting post-conflict suicides as combat deaths.

He has contributed to the growing sense that psychological wounds are just as devastating as physical injuries.

Thomas said he believes the military is also coming around to the same conclusion.

"Personally, I would agree," he said. "It is another form of casualty."

Goldring said the expansion allows for an additional 125 scholarships to be awarded, and 13 of them were presented today in Toronto.

All of the awards went to children who applied in 2015 under the old terms of reference.

Goldring said Thursday the group had reached out to the Elms family and offered to reverse its earlier decision, but was rejected.

Sherri Elms contacted CBC News on Friday to provide further detail.

She said Canada Company has been in contact, but she had been unable to respond because of email problems.

Elms spoke with representatives of the charity on Friday and the offer was restated.

The decision on whether or not to accept the scholarships will be up to her two children, she said in an email.