04/20/2015 14:55 EDT | Updated 06/20/2015 01:12 EDT

Watchdog says families still deemed outsiders when military investigates deaths

OTTAWA - Canada's military watchdog says the families of soldiers who die in the line of duty remain on the outside looking in when it comes to Defence Department investigations.But a military lawyer who represents many of those families says they become more like pawns whenever the institution is required to investigate itself.In a new report, Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne recommends setting up a family co-ordinator position to work with relatives and figure out how best to involve them in the complex board of inquiry process."The death or serious injury of a Canadian Armed Forces member is always a difficult event and none is more profoundly affected by it than the member’s family," Walbourne said in a statement. "These families need and deserve information, support and assistance to help them come to terms with the loss or injury."The inquiries are technical investigations that look at the circumstances surrounding deaths, and whether military procedures or practices contributed to the tragedy.But they are often a source of frustration and confusion for families, who complain about being kept in the dark and even accuse the military of using the inquiries as a way to cover up misdeeds.The most high-profile example involves the recently concluded public inquiry into the 2008 suicide of Cpl. Stuart Langridge, during which his parents were long denied a copy of the investigation report."We believe that families should be given the option of engagement throughout the board of inquiry process via a method of their choosing," said Walbourne.The military has instituted a series of organizational improvements and ended a backlog of dozens of investigations, he noted.However, Walbourne said there isn't yet enough information to decide how families should be included, and said a member of his staff will work with National Defence for the next year to develop a process for family involvement.Walbourne's predecessors wrote extensively about the frustrations of families and their isolation from investigations.A 2005 military ombudsman investigation prompted retired general Rick Hillier to order a comprehensive review of the system. That produced a number of changes, including a directive to future inquiry chairs that they leave home life out of the mix when looking at suicides.Despite that, the investigations into Langridge's death not only blamed the troubled soldier for the tragedy, but also his biological parents, who divorced when he was five.Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel, said relatives are not only kept in the dark when the department suspects its procedures played a role, but families are often forced to participate in ways that are unnecessary and hurtful.Drapeau represents one military family that didn't want to testify at the inquiry into their daughter's suicide and was threatened with a subpoena.He said the tactics are meant to engineer blameless outcomes when everything should be focused on preventing future tragedies."The military looks at it as what can be done to protect the brand," said Drapeau.