Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is working to ensure Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) never again offers medical assistance in dying (MAiD) to veterans, as another veteran says a similar experience happened to her as well.
Trudeau made the comments a day after a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces shocked lawmakers by revealing medically-assisted death had been raised to her by a VAC employee.
“I have said repeatedly that this is absolutely unacceptable, and as soon as we heard about this we took action,” Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver on Friday.
“We are following up with investigations and we are changing protocols to ensure what should seem obvious to all of us: that it is not the place of Veterans Affairs Canada, who are there to support those people who stepped up to serve their country, to offer them medical assistance in dying.”
On Thursday, retired corporal Christine Gauthier, who is paraplegic, told the House of Commons standing committee on veterans affairs that the topic of assisted dying was raised during a years-long fight for a home wheelchair lift.
“On the comment of medical assistance in dying … I was approached with that as well,” Gauthier testified. She described the comments of the VAC agent she spoke with as saying, “‘Madam, if you are really so desperate, we can give you medical assistance in dying now.'”
In an interview with Global News on Friday, Gauthier said the discussion took place in 2019 and involved a VAC case manager.
“I was like, ‘I can’t believe that you will … give me an injection to help me die, but you will not give me the tools I need to help me live,'” she said. “It was really shocking to hear that kind of comment.”
She said she’s been waiting since 2017 to get those supports, including the wheelchair lift.
“It has isolated me greatly, because I have to crawl down my butt with the wheelchair in front of me to be able to access my house,” she said.
A letter addressed from Gauthier to the prime minister and Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay obtained by Global News was dated July 9, 2021, and outlined her experiences trying to get supports from Veterans Affairs Canada. She called the process “cruel” and a “daily eternal ordeal.”
MPs at the committee on Thursday, who had been studying a new contract for rehabilitation services, appeared taken aback by Gauthier’s revelation of having had medically assisted death raised with her.
“I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by what I just heard,” NDP MP Rachel Blaney said immediately after Gauthier spoke.
“I just want to extend my deepest apologies. I am in shock.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay revealed to the committee in testimony last week that a total of four cases of medical assistance in dying being offered to a veteran had been confirmed through an investigation into the department, and that the RCMP have been contacted.
The investigation was sparked after Global News first reported in August that a VAC employee had discussed medically-assisted death 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 MAiD unprompted in a conversation earlier this year with the combat veteran, who was discussing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
The veteran, who Global News has not identified but has spoken with directly, said that the service agent told him in the call about having helped another veteran access resources for medical assistance in dying, and that the other veteran went through with a medically-assisted death.
Those two cases were confirmed in October by the department, which has since uncovered two more cases involving the same service agent — one of which occurred in 2019. That employee is now suspended after previously being reassigned within the department.
Gauthier suggested to the committee on Thursday that other veterans’ experiences with being offered MAiD will soon become public.
“Supposedly it was an isolated case, according to Minister MacAulay, and there would only be four people to whom this happened. Well, I’m a fifth,” Gauthier testified.
“So if you ask me, if it goes public, there will probably be more.”
A statement from Veterans Affairs to Global News Friday night confirmed Gauthier’s case was not one of the four confirmed cases, but added the department is investigating her claims.
The statement also confirmed the investigation into the employee behind the four confirmed cases has been referred to the RCMP “for their consideration.”
“However, the department continues to review all available information to ensure the report is accurate and complete,” the department added.
Veterans’ advocates have told Global News for months they suspected the issue was not an isolated incident — despite MacAulay’s previous insistence that it was — and that it highlighted the struggles veterans face in accessing care and with their own mental health.
“After the story first broke on this particular topic, we heard from veterans immediately saying they were fearful to reach out to the department … to (access) the services and benefits that they’re entitled to and they deserve,” Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, said in an interview on Friday.
“That’s a very troubling scenario.”
That sentiment was echoed during Thursday’s committee meeting.
“There’s a lot of frustration and futility that comes with trying to navigate through Veterans Affairs, and eventually it causes soldiers to lose hope and think about taking their own lives,” Bruce Moncur, the founder of the Afghanistan Veterans Association, testified.
“It’s the ‘triple-D’ policy — delay, deny, die — and dead veterans cost no money.”
Veterans Affairs officials say mandatory training is ongoing to ensure employees avoid discussions of medical assistance in dying with veterans.
The ongoing investigation has also been expanded to include management and existing employee training to determine how the service agent was able to repeatedly discuss the issue with clients.
—With files from Global’s Marney Blunt and Mercedes Stephenson