Veterans affairs minister says no more assisted dying cases found despite new claims

Click to play video: '‘No indication’ medically-assisted death offered to Canadian veteran, deputy minister says'
‘No indication’ medically-assisted death offered to Canadian veteran, deputy minister says
WATCH: 'No indication' medically-assisted death offered to Canadian veteran, deputy minister says – Dec 5, 2022

The minister of veterans affairs says no additional cases of medical assistance in dying (MAiD) being discussed with a veteran have been confirmed by the department, despite a former Paralympian telling lawmakers she was at least the fifth veteran who experienced such an incident.

Retired corporal Christine Gauthier shocked the House of Commons standing committee on veterans affairs Thursday when she testified that a Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) employee brought up MAiD during an ongoing fight for a wheelchair lift to be installed at her home.

But Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and his deputy minister Paul Ledwell told the committee Monday that a review of Gauthier’s file did not corroborate her claims.

“There’s no indication — in the files, in any correspondence, in any notation based on engagement of the veteran — of reference to MAiD,” Ledwell said.

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Ledwell said over 400,000 “unique veteran files” have been reviewed as part of an ongoing investigation into how many veterans have been offered MAiD, including Gauthier’s, which he said was reviewed again following her testimony on Thursday.

To date, a total of four such discussions have been confirmed involving a single VAC service agent, a number MacAulay first revealed to the committee two weeks ago. Ledwell confirmed on Monday the number has not changed, and does not include Gauthier.

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.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says medically-assisted dying offers to veterans ‘unacceptable’ as cases mount'
Trudeau says medically-assisted dying offers to veterans ‘unacceptable’ as cases mount

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.

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Those two separate discussions 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, and the cases have been referred to the RCMP for a potential criminal investigation.

Under Canadian law, medical assistance in dying can only be discussed between a primary health-care provider and a patient.

Gauthier, who competed in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and is paraplegic, described to the committee on Thursday 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.’”

Click to play video: 'Former Paralympian says veterans affairs department offered her assisted death'
Former Paralympian says veterans affairs department offered her assisted death

In an interview with Global News on Friday, she said the discussion took place in 2019 and involved a VAC case manager. It was not clear if the employee was the same one behind the four confirmed cases.

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“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.”

A letter addressed from Gauthier to MacAulay and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau obtained by Global News and dated July 9, 2021, outlined her experiences trying to get supports from Veterans Affairs Canada. She called the process “cruel” and a “daily eternal ordeal.”

She told the committee on Thursday that she had “raised the issue” with Trudeau and MacAulay, though the letter did not explicitly describe a discussion of assisted dying.

MacAulay said he never received any such information after being criticized by MPs for “ignoring” Gauthier.

“There has been an indication made that I received information that somebody wrote to me indicating that MAiD had been discussed with them,” he told the committee. “Overall that’s not the case. It’s not the case.”

The minister later promised to prioritize Gauthier’s file and ensure the supports she’s requested and had approved will be delivered as quickly as possible.

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MacAulay went on to encourage any veteran who was offered MAiD to report their experience to the department or the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman. He also urged committee members who have heard from veterans to come forward as well.

Click to play video: 'Veterans Affairs investigation finds two more cases of assisted dying discussions'
Veterans Affairs investigation finds two more cases of assisted dying discussions

That didn’t sit well with some members of the committee.

“Number one, we should not be doing the investigation for you,” Conservative MP Fraser Tolmie said.

“That’s where the breakdown of trust has come (from), Mr. Minister: no one trusts you. They’re not coming forward because they don’t trust this department.”

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.

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“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.”

Veterans’ organizations are instead calling on Ottawa to increase access to mental-health services for former service members, which includes addressing the long wait times that many are forced to endure when applying for assistance.

“My fear is that we are offering a vehicle for people to end their lives when there are treatment options available, but those treatment options are more difficult to access than medically assisted death,” Oliver Thorne of the Veterans Transition Network recently testified before the veterans affairs committee.

And despite the government’s assertions that a single Veterans Affairs’ employee was responsible for proposing MAID as an option, Royal Canadian Legion deputy director of veterans’ services Carolyn Hughes said the reports have added to longstanding anger and fears in the community.

“Many veterans have been angered and retraumatized by this situation, seeing it as an extension of the perception of `deny, delay, and die’ from VAC to veterans,” she told the same committee.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that the government is looking at striking the right balance between providing access to assisted deaths and protecting vulnerable Canadians, including veterans. He also said any discussion of assisted dying with veterans seeking care is “unacceptable.”

—With files from the Canadian Press

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