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Coroner to hold inquest into Royal Military College cadet’s suicide

Officer cadets march on the parade square before the Royal Military College Commissioning Parade in Kingston, Ont., on Friday May 19, 2023. The Ontario coroner will hold an inquest into the death of an officer cadet who took his own life while attending Royal Military College last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

The Ontario coroner will hold an inquest into the death of an officer cadet who took his own life while attending Royal Military College last year, a move the family’s lawyer says is rare and welcome.

Absar Chaudhry, 21, was found dead in his dorm room in Kingston, Ont., on Nov. 30. His death was ruled a suicide.

According to documents filed in court by the family’s lawyers in April, the third-year student excelled at college at first, but he was not in classes for more than two weeks leading up to his death.

Chaudhry had also applied for leave without pay — something that surprised his parents.

Their lawyer Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel, asked the coroner to look into the case earlier this year, saying the family had questions the military had not answered about what led to their son’s death.

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“They hope through testimony and through evidence that may be presented, by certainly the military and themselves, they may be able to come to better understand why this fatality occurred,” he said Monday in an interview.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Defence Department said that alongside the Canadian Armed Forces, it welcomes “any additional review that would aid in finding the causes of Officer Cadet Absar Chaudhry’s death and will comply with the inquest from the Ontario’s Coroner’s Office.”

The department also said an internal board of inquiry looking into Chaudhry’s death will begin interviewing witnesses in the coming weeks, and the family will be able to participate.

However, that process is not transparent and the military does not allow families standing to participate. They would be barred from listening to some testimony, and if they were called to testify they would not be allowed to have lawyers present.

“It serves the interests of the Canadian Armed Forces, not the public,” Drapeau said.

A coroner’s inquest will bring their questions to an open and impartial forum, Drapeau said, and provide an opportunity for other officer cadets to talk about their experiences at the college.

“They want to make sure that no other family go through the same terrible ordeal,” he said.

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The board of inquiry is not mandated to explore the role the Royal Military College culture may have played in Chaudhry’s death. In court documents, his family said the military failed to act on a series of damning reports about the college in recent years.

The most recent, by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour in May 2022, said the college culture was prime for abuse of power and called the environment toxic.

A 2015 report from Marie Deschamps, also a former justice on the Supreme Court, described a culture rife with sexual harassment and sexual assault. An auditor general’s report from 2017 said the college governance structure was ineffective and the school did not provide effective military leadership training.

Chaudhry’s parents had filed those documents in Federal Court this spring, when they asked a judge to grant them standing at the military’s board of inquiry. They have since repealed that request, pending the coroner’s inquest.

For now, Chaudhry’s family has another long wait ahead of them: it could take years for the inquest to be complete and to release a report. However, it will be the first time the Royal Military College is the subject of a public inquiry, Drapeau said, and that provides a measure of relief.

“It provides a time to, if not to heal, certainly to grieve,” he said.

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If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24/7 by calling Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566) or texting 45645 in the evenings. Residents of Quebec can call 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553) or visit suicide.ca for support by text and online chat.

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