Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) officials insist the case of an employee who discussed medical assistance in dying with a veteran was an isolated incident, despite most calls between service agents and clients not being recorded.
Paul Ledwell, the deputy veterans affairs minister, assured the House of Commons standing committee on veterans affairs on Thursday that the investigation into the incident — which is still ongoing two months after it was launched following reporting by Global News — has determined “no other instance” of VAC agents having similar discussions with other veterans.
Ledwell appeared at the committee alongside Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, who despite taking questions on the issue for the first time repeatedly deferred to his deputy who is overseeing the probe into the department.
“The thoroughness of this investigation is directly related to the seriousness of the incident that occurred,” Ledwell said.
Ledwell added training is ongoing with all frontline staff to ensure no service agent ever again brings up assisted dying with veterans. He said to date, three-quarters of all service agents have received the training, which will be mandatory for all new hires.
No other details were given about the employee at the centre of the controversial discussion, who was described as a “well-established” agent who remains at the department but is no longer interacting with veterans.
Global News first reported on Aug. 16 that a VAC employee had discussed medically-assisted dying with a veteran, a case that has brought renewed scrutiny on the department and the ongoing struggle for veterans seeking support.
Sources told Global News a VAC service agent brought up medical assistance in dying, or MAID, unprompted in a conversation with the combat veteran, who was discussing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Global News is not identifying the veteran due to privacy concerns but has spoken directly with the individual, who says the service agent brought up MAiD repeatedly and even after the veteran asked the service agent to stop.
The veteran said he felt pressured as a result.
He also said that the service agent told him in the call about having helped another veteran access resources for medical assistance in dying through VAC, including support for that person’s children who were struggling with the impending death.
The veteran told Global News that the service agent told him the other veteran went through with a medically-assisted death, and that it had been someone who was determined to end his life.
Ledwell said the investigation had determined the second veteran had brought up MAiD to the agent, who then referenced that case with the veteran who spoke to Global News.
Both Ledwell and assistant deputy minister Steven Harris said because of privacy concerns, most calls between agents and veterans seeking care are not recorded, meaning an official transcript of either discussion could not be provided to the committee.
Yet they said a review of all available records kept by agents of their calls had determined MAiD had not been brought up by any other employee with their clients.
Ledwell said VAC staff have met with and offered support to the veteran who described the discussion about MAiD, but MacAulay said he has not done so himself.
Committee members suggested the minister should apologize personally to the veteran.
“I apologize right now,” MacAulay told the committee.
Ledwell later said a call between MacAulay and the veteran could be arranged, provided the veteran agrees to it. Both officials said privacy laws prevented them from knowing the veteran’s identity.
Those privacy rules were also cited when answering questions from the committee about the employee in question, who has not been terminated. Ledwell and Harris suggested union collective agreements stood in the way of firing the employee, and neither of them could say if the agent was suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
Under Canadian law, medically-assisted death can only be discussed between a primary care provider like a physician or psychiatrist and their patient. Violators of the law can face up to 14 years in prison.
When asked directly if the issue had been referred to law enforcement, Ledwell said “all aspects” were being considered during the ongoing investigation.
He added the probe was primarily focused on the operations within the department and ensuring such discussions never happen again.
“I think that the (employee) … realized while (the discussion) was transpiring, or through the transpiring of this, that this had gone to a point that was unacceptable,” he said.
“That doesn’t excuse the action, but I think that the individual, the employee, certainly recognized that. We still have to deal with the effects and the impact of that, and that’s what we’re doing very seriously.”
VAC has repeatedly confirmed to Global News that staff have no mandate to discuss MAiD with veterans and do not have the ability to provide the necessary resources for assisted dying.
Staff have been made clear under the new training that they can only discuss MAiD in the context of impacts on benefits for veterans’ families, Ledwell said. Any instance of a veteran raising MAiD with a service agent or case worker must be brought to that employee’s supervisor.
Ledwell did not say when the department aims to provide the updated training to the remaining 25 per cent of staff.
Veterans’ advocates have repeatedly voiced outrage about the discussion taking place, pointing to it as an example of the ongoing struggles veterans face in receiving proper care — particularly for mental health concerns.
As Remembrance Day approaches, those advocates say they are concerned about the ongoing epidemic of veterans dying by suicide, making the discussion of MAiD with someone who wasn’t seeking it all the more painful.
Studies by Veterans Affairs have concluded veterans have a “significantly higher” risk of death by suicide compared to to the general Canadian population, particularly for younger male veterans.
The committee is set to further discuss the issue on Monday with some of those advocates, including representatives of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Veterans Transition Network.
—With files from Mercedes Stephenson and Amanda Connolly