A fight not finished for vets

Canada apologizes to ex-soldiers for chemical tests of last century. But for many, it's not enough.

It was almost 60 years ago, but Bill Tanner is still haunted by memories of being gassed during World War II. On July 3, 1945, he and nine other Canadian soldiers stood under the sweltering sun awaiting orders as artillery fire echoed across the field.

"There were mortar shells bursting in the distance, forming craters 8 to 10 feet deep," the veteran recalls. "We were told to crawl into those craters on our bellies and back out."

They weren't told that those craters were choked with mustard gas.

Mr. Tanner wasn't gassed by the enemy on some foreign battlefield - it was by his own country at an isolated facility in the Canadian prairies. He was one of 3,500 "volunteers" for secret chemical warfare experiments conducted by the Canadian military between 1942 and the 1970s.

None of the soldiers was told he'd be exposed to toxic chemicals. They were, however, promised extra pay, better food, and time off. They were also sworn to secrecy, and for years endured in silence various health problems, including diagnoses of lung disease and cancer.

"To meet me you'd think I was perfectly normal, but I'm not better," Tanner says from his Kelowna, British Columbia, home. "I'm hurt and very disappointed and I'm insulted that my country would treat me the way they did."

Last month, after decades of inaction, the Canadian government made the veterans a $50 million (Canadian; US$37 million) apology. Those subjected to chemical testing have been offered C$24,000 apiece in a "recognition program."

"We're finally setting things right for the chemical-test veterans," Defence Minister David Pratt said at the Feb. 19 announcement. "Today, we show our appreciation for these extraordinary veterans, who served so that their comrades in arms might be spared the horrors of chemical warfare."

The offer comes after years of lobbying by veterans, threatened legal action, and political pressure, at a time of low public approval for a scandal-struck government seeking reelection.

Canada's National Council of Veteran Associations, which represents 48 veteran groups, was quick to applaud the government's offer.

"I have two words: One is wonderful and the other is surprise," said NCVA chairman Cliff Chadderton.

Mr. Chadderton credits his organization's move to raise the issue for the UN Human Rights Commission with forcing the government's hand.

Other veterans say the gesture is too little, too late. Harvey Friesen, for one, is not impressed.

"I have mixed feelings about the offer," he says. "It's a good settlement for those who had minor injuries, but not for others who were more seriously injured."

Mr. Friesen sustained severe injuries in spring 1945 from a trial in which he was ordered to stand in a cloud of mustard gas. He spent the next six months in the hospital and suffered skin problems for 12 years.

Five years ago, Friesen set out to gather the names of other veterans who were at that testing facility in Suffield, Alberta, an effort that united him with Tanner. The two have since spent four years seeking recognition and compensation for the veterans, only to see the issue shuffled between government departments. Last year, they turned up the heat by hiring attorney Rodney Pacholzuk to represent them and some 450 others in a class-action lawsuit.

The government "recognition program," they say, has not persuaded them to drop their suit.

"The offer is not good enough," says Mr. Pacholzuk. "When you take into account that there were 3,500 victims and a large proportion had lifelong injuries from these trials and were denied the opportunity to apply for a pension for years ... it's pretty inadequate."

Canadian soldiers were subjected to tests with mustard gas, chlorine, and other toxic chemicals at the isolated facility in Suffield, mostly between 1942 and 1945. Experiments involved aerial spraying, gas chambers, and field tests that required soldiers to crawl across ground soaked with mustard gas or stand in chemical clouds. Lab tests were also conducted during the war at a military facility in the capital, Ottawa.

"We have a situation where the injuries that occurred are the direct result of the actions taken by the Canadian government against its own citizens, without their informed consent," Pacholzuk says. "If what we did to these veterans had been done to prisoners of war, it would have been a direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions - it would have been a war crime."

The government maintained a veil of secrecy around the experiments for decades, denying that such research had occurred until declassified material archived in Britain, Canada, and the United States exposed this history in the late 1980s.

What happened in Canada wasn't unique. Britain had been testing mustard gas on troops at Porton Down in southern England since the 1920s, although trials increased in 1940. Within two years, the British had set up field trials with mustard gas in Australia and Canada. The US also used American servicemen for mustard gas trials starting in 1942.

At the time, these trials were justified as a wartime necessity to defend against chemical warfare. The end of the war brought about the 1947 Nuremberg Code, which defined limits on human experimentation and set the foundation for future codes of conduct in the medical field.

It wasn't until the veterans' legal threat, though, that Ottawa seemed to take notice.

In January, Andre Marin, Canada's military ombudsman, submitted a report to Defense Minister Pratt criticizing as inadequate government efforts to resolve an issue he called "a shameful saga" and "a blot on our history."

Four days later, Pacholzuk filed documents in British Columbia's Supreme Court launching the class-action suit. Within three weeks, the government responded with its "recognition program," announced five days before the public release of Mr. Marin's damning report.

Despite the timing, Marin acknowledged the effort as a positive step.

"After years of secrecy and delay, the package announced today by the Department of National Defence may in some small measure remedy the wrongs done during World War II to Canadian soldiers by their own military," he said.

Still, Friesen, Tanner, and scores of other veterans say they will pursue the suit. "We're prepared to be reasonable," says Pacholzuk. "$24,000 is not the number. But we're prepared to sit down with the government and discuss the matter."

The 450 veterans he represents, Pacholzuk says, "don't think they will get a fair shake unless they can be heard."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A fight not finished for vets
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today