Suicide of staffer from military's ombudsman office sparks recriminations

A senior official in the office of Canada's military ombudsman, who was accused of not being sympathetic and accommodating enough to a staff member who killed himself in 2017, has won a legal victory before the Federal Court.

Judge finds watchdog's director of investigations was treated unfairly by DND

The suicide of a staff member in the office of the Canadian Forces ombudsman sparked a recently concluded Federal Court case. The director of investigations was accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victim in an investigation that a judge now says was unfair. (CBC)

A senior official in the office of Canada's military ombudsman, who was accused of not being sympathetic and accommodating enough to a staff member who killed himself in 2017, has won a legal victory before the Federal Court.

Melanie Chapman, the director of investigations for the watchdog, was accused in an internal Department of National Defence review of gross mismanagement for allegedly failing to accommodate an employee with mental health issues.

The department's assistant deputy minister of review services had ordered an outside investigation following a written complaint from another staffer.

The resulting report upheld the complaint against her and she faced internal discipline.

Chapman, however, was not given the opportunity to respond to the findings, nor to present evidence to counter the claims.

A Federal Court judge ruled that was unreasonable. 

"She was not given procedural fairness in the investigation process," Judge Russel Zinn wrote in a July 23 ruling which was recently released.

"She was not clearly apprised on the alleged wrongdoing, and she was not informed what evidence had been gathered by the investigator. In short, she was not given a meaningful right to be heard or given the opportunity to know the case against her at any stage of this process."

The complaint was filed by a senior investigator within the ombudsman's office, identified in court documents as Patrick Martel. 

It was filed on April 18, 2017, 12 days after another staffer — identified, for privacy reasons, as AB in court documents — took his own life.

The ombudsman at the time was Gary Walbourne. He has since been replaced by Gregory Lick. 

'Reckless or wilful blindness'

The complaint listed eight separate allegations of wrongdoing, only two of which pertained to Chapman.

The defence department found one of the claims against her was unfounded, but proceeded with an investigation under federal civil service legislation over the second.

Martel, in his letter, linked the suicide to Chapman's handling of the victim.   

"I am told he was being subjected to a series of internal discipline procedures administered by Ms. Chapman," said the letter, filed as part of the court action. "The day he was to attend a disciplinary hearing in front of Ms. Chapman, he was found dead in a hotel room."

Former Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa police seized a 70-page suicide note at the scene. Given the amount of attention the ombudsman's office had paid to cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment within the military, Martel alleged that the plight of one of its employees should have been handled with greater care.

"It is difficult to imagine that managers at the DND and CAF Ombudsman were oblivious to the risks associated with the chosen path of actions towards AB," he wrote.

"Managers of the DND and CF Ombudsman knew better. Their actions may be qualified as reckless or wilful blindness."

Finding set aside

The judge noted that "few, if any, of Mr. Martel's allegations against Ms. Chapman were based on first-hand knowledge" and that she never saw a copy of the letter until it was produced as part of the Federal Court action.

In an affidavit filed separately, Chapman denied the allegations.

She declined comment on Wednesday, as did a spokesman for the ombudsman.

The judge ordered the disciplinary finding against her set aside and that her handling of the case be either reviewed again or revised to include her side of the story.

A spokesman for the defence department was not able to add much more than acknowledgement late Wednesday.

"We are aware of the decision and are currently determining the way forward," said Dan Le Bouthillier in an email.

"As this is matter is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time."


Murray Brewster

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.