Content Warning: This article discusses suicide and may be triggering to some people.
Sheila Fynes says her boy always wanted to be a soldier. In the end, he “wore a uniform more years than he didn’t.”
Instead of a party for his 12th birthday, her son, Stuart Langridge, asked to be taken to sign up for the Irish Fusiliers Army Cadets in Richmond, British Columbia. He missed his high school graduation to concentrate on reserves training, Fynes says. He later enlisted full-time and became a tank gunner for Lord Strathcona’s Horse, an Edmonton-based armoured regiment, with a promising career ahead of him.
Cpl. Langridge served in Bosnia in 2002 and then in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005, an experience that Fynes says changed everything. The Stuart who once lit up a room with his smile “wasn’t there anymore,” she says. The profound sadness he experienced during that service — the extreme poverty and pain he witnessed, the stuff he couldn’t always bring himself to talk about — spurred symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and battles with drugs and alcohol.
One lonesome day in March 2008, Langridge killed himself at the Canadian Forces Base in Edmonton, after surviving five attempts earlier that year. A group of young cadets had visited the base just hours earlier.
By that point, Fynes says, the once-proud soldier wrestled with feelings that he had become “one of the losers,” left humiliated and ostracized by his demons. He was buried on what would have been his 29th birthday.
A scathing report from the Military Police Complaints Commission later found that the military mishandled Langridge’s suicide case, including by keeping his final note from his family for nearly 15 months.
Fynes became part of an “informal fraternity” of families who continue to push the military to do more to confront and address the mental health struggles of those in its charge.
It’s why she is now backing an NDP MP’s private member’s bill to scrap a little-known provision of the National Defence Act that makes self-harm an offence in the military Code of Service Discipline.
Randall Garrison’s Bill C-203 seeks to repeal section 98(c) of the act, which makes it an offence for a Canadian Forces member to “wilfully maim or injure himself” or another member of the military or cooperating forces with the intent to “render himself or that other person unfit for service.” Possible punishment can range from five years in military prison to life imprisonment if the offence is committed while on active service.
Watch: Randall Garrison says bill would remove ‘significant barrier’ for soldiers in need of help
Garrison, who serves as his party’s defence critic, told the House of Commons last month the provision serves as a “significant barrier” that could keep Canadian Forces members from seeking help if they need it.
“The problem of death by suicide of Canadian Forces members is not going away. We are still losing more than one serving member per month to death by suicide, 17 in 2019 alone,” he said.
“We have lost 212 regular members over the last 15 years and, of course, the number is much higher when we include reservists and veterans.”
Garrison, whose B.C. riding of Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke includes CFB Esquimalt, told HuffPost Canada that military families say the current approach sends exactly the wrong signal to those who may be in crisis.
“From their experience, it inhibits people from asking for help if they’ve attempted suicide or if they’re thinking about it because it exposes them to discipline,” he said.
Eliminating the provision takes away that obstacle, he says, “because you’re not confessing to a disciplinary offence, you’re asking for help with a mental health issue.”
Garrison first pushed for the change in 2018 during the defence committee’s study of Liberal reforms to the military justice system. He tabled a private member’s bill in January 2019 with the same language as his present bill, but it didn’t come up for a vote before the House rose for the summer break and the start of a federal election campaign.
Section 98(c) is ‘redundant,’ archaic, MP says
Asked about other aspects of the section dealing with inflicting harm on other serving members, Garrison says the paragraph is “redundant” because there are already other provisions in the code of conduct that outlaw such actions.
Removing 98(c) would not all of a sudden make it possible to “harm other people without being subject to discipline,” he said, and his bill would not touch other offences related to feigning illness or aggravating or delaying treatment to avoid service.
But Judge Advocate General Commodore Geneviève Bernatchez, who oversees the military justice system, has suggested the disciplinary options in section 98 of the act are rarely used. Bernatchez told the defence committee in October 2018 that four charges were referred to courts-martial under section 98 since 2000, but the accusations were withdrawn.
“As for summary trials, 13 charges were laid under section 98. Nine of those people were convicted. In three other cases, procedures were simply stayed. As for the last case, it did not go any further,” she said at the time. “So, that is a rather small number of cases since 2000.”
Still, scrapping the sub-section would mark another example of a shift that has seen MPs focus more on eliminating hurdles for those in need of mental health support, Garrison suggests. Another private member’s bill, which sought to ease secrecy rules for jurors struggling with PTSD and died in the Senate last June, has been re-introduced as a public bill in the upper chamber.
“I think there’s a consciousness that we’ve embedded some archaic attitudes into various parts of our legal regime and people would like to take those out,” he said.
With a minority Parliament, Garrison is hopeful he can bring enough MPs on side to pass C-203 into law. Private member’s bills are generally considered free votes.
A spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan gave little indication if he might support such a change, but told HuffPost the government continues to increase its expertise on mental health and suicide prevention.
“The health and well-being of our women and men in uniform is our government’s top priority. This is an important issue that requires careful consideration and that is what we will be doing with this proposed private members bill,” Sajjan’s press secretary Floriane Bonneville told HuffPost in a statement.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan also would not say if he will back Garrison’s bill.
“Our men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces put their lives on the line to protect Canada, so when they fall ill or suffer operational stress injuries such as PTSD they deserve the best treatment available,” Bezan said via email. “Conservatives will always support measures that help reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage more military members to seek treatment.”
For Fynes, the successful passage of the bill would mean doing away with “a relic of the First World War,” a time when mental health struggles were often confused as cowardice that merited punishment.
“To think that if you stick your hand up and you ask for help could end up putting you in a military prison… how is that good for the soldier? How is that good for the military?” she asks. “How does that fix anything?”
It’s “morally responsible” for politicians to make such a shift, Fynes says, to show that the men and women in the Canadian Forces are not simply “disposable military assets.”
“If taking out this paragraph saves even one life, then they’ll have done a good job,” she says. “Our hope is that some good comes from Stuart’s death.”