Exclusive Access on Board Canadian Warship

I’ve covered many interesting stories around the world, but consider this one of my more memorable assignments.

2014-10-20 02.49.20

Reporting somewhere along the Black Sea on board HMCS Toronto

My colleague Jonathan Austin and I were recently embedded on board Canadian warship HMCS Toronto as it patrolled the Black Sea under NATO’s ‘Operation Reassurance’ mission – tasked to promote security and stability in Eastern Europe in the wake of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

It was a first hand look at the mandate and the mission. And in what may be a Canadian first, we transmitted our daily reports via satellite off the back of the flight deck – deep in the middle of the Black Sea.

For 7 days, we lived in crammed quarters and experienced the living and stressful working conditions of the dedicated crew of 200+.

Working to Deadline

Jonathan Editing while I write our story inside our cabins. The Black Sea was very choppy at times, and rocked the vessel back and forth.

On Board 1 Deck

View from outside our quarters

We chronicled real-time emergency maneuvers – including exclusive access inside the ship’s Command Centre – which picked up a ‘buzz’ after a pair of Russian fighter jets flew ‘provocatively’ close to the vessel (the night I filed this report, the Black Sea was particularly choppy):

There were also questions about the status/future of the mission after HMCS Toronto reached its maximum patrolling limit in the region under international rules:

Of course, there were military hardware issues that could not be ignored. The only helicopter on the vessel broke down, and HMCS Toronto is showing its age:


Some interesting sidenotes:

Ship Commander Jason Armstrong imposed a strict no-alcohol policy on board the vessel. This was put in place after 3 incidents of “personal misconduct” on board HMCS Whitehorse earlier this year. All crew members we spoke to respected it and understood why this was necessary.

Mission Accomplished

Jonathan poses with HMCS Commander Jason Armstrong after he guided the vessel to dock in Crete.

On shore leave, crew members were limited to maximum limit of 2 drinks per day.

And yes, I felt seasick – despite plenty of gravol. But it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. Many of the seasoned crew wore preventive medical patches behind their ears to prevent sickness.  And for a few days, the Black Sea was very rough.

Political Ottawa Stops To Mourn The Death of Jim Flaherty

 

Image

Jim Flaherty changed many things – including our money.  Here is he is introducing new polymer banknotes in 2012.


The unexpected passing of the former finance minister united a place known more for partisan division and bickering.

There’s no shortage of columns how MP’s from all political stripes came together to mourn a death in the family (this one is by far the best I’ve read).  The flag above the Peace Tower was lowered.

Image

So with that, I’ll share some of my own thoughts here:

I’ve covered every single budget Jim Flaherty delivered as Federal Finance Minister, including his first one in 2006.  Throughout the years we got to know each other  – we weren’t best pals, but we shared a Queens Park connection and had coffee a few times.  Flaherty was a charming, friendly and genuine man.  He was proud of his Irish roots.  He joked about his links to the “Ferocious O’Flaherty’s” known as notorious pirates who terrorized communities in the 1300’s.

He loved talking politics. He loved dissecting political strategy.  And make no mistake, he could be hyper partisan.  But he was also a pragmatist.

When he pumped billions of taxpayers money into a stimulus program, and drove up the deficit during the great recession of 2008, he admitted it was against his conservative instincts, but he did it because he believed it was the best option to avoid economic calamity.

He also championed programs for those with disabilities.  And it was personal.  One of his sons has a disability.  So every budget had something set aside to help.

But when Flaherty’s health took a dramatic turn last year (I wrote about it back then), the countdown began when he would leave his stressful and demanding portfolio.  And in the months leading up to his resignation from Cabinet, it was clear his passion for the job was fading.  Still, every time I saw him – despite his obvious deteriorating physical condition – he maintained a pleasant and friendly demeanour. Always happy to stop and chat.

All these thoughts raced through my mind as I stood outside his Ottawa condominium tower on this windy afternoon, knowing he had died in his 7th floor apartment earlier that day.

So I began thinking of my fondest memory of Jim Flaherty.  It was at a cocktail party after Budget 2012, the year Flaherty announced he would eliminate the penny to save taxpayers money.  His department gave him a pair of cufflinks with pennies on them to wear when he delivered the budget.  And he did.

That evening, Flaherty gave them to me. For no special reason.  As a rule of principle, I refused them because I don’t accept gifts from politicians … but he insisted.  So I told him I would return the cufflinks when he retired from politics.

Sadly, I never had the chance.

Image

 

Political 180 by Defence Minister After CTV News Report

A remarkable thing happened last week.

Less than 24 hours after I reported how National Defence sent letters to all 158 families of fallen Afghan soldiers, inviting them to a special commemoration ceremony – but with the caveat they would have to pay their own way to attend –  the Harper government reversed course.

I cannot recall such a quick reversal under this government.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson confirmed before a parliamentary committee the families’ expenses will be covered, although details are still being finalized and will be announced soon.

Nicholson went on to blame his own department for sending a letter that was “premature” and contained “false information.”

The mother of Sgt. George Miok, who was killed in Afghanistan, said if the government does pay for her family to attend the service, “that is really appreciated.”

“We miss him. Every day. Every hour, every minute of the day,” Anna Miok said.

“I don’t want anybody to ever forget my son, because I think he did a big sacrifice for this country.”

The Mioks already had to pay $4,000 out of their own pockets to attend their 28-year-old son’s repatriation ceremony.

The existence of these letters – and the political 180 that followed – is another sting to the Conservative brand, which long proclaimed itself as the party that supports the troops and takes care of the military.

However, the continued crisis of suicides by Afghan veterans suffering PTSD, along with the slow hiring of promised mental health care workers, has raised questions if the government is properly caring for its soldiers in the aftermath of war.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair blamed the government of mixed messaging during question period last Thursday.

“Now the minister is trying to shift the blame, claiming that he’s not responsible for the note sent out by his own office,” Mulcair said. “Enough with the excuses. These families have already paid a greater price than most of us can even imagine. Will the minister of defence minister take responsibility for this latest insult and guarantee that the expenses of the families of fallen soldiers will be taken care of completely by the government?”

Nicholson’s parliamentary secretary, James Bezan, repeated the government’s talking points, that the letter was “premature, incorrect and contained false information” because the event’s details have yet to be finalized.

But many high level sources tell me last month, the Prime Minister’s Office, National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs began contacting charities in the private sector to come up with a fundraising plan to cover some of the families’ travel costs. It suggests the government knew all along that the military had no intention of picking up the tab for families of fallen soldiers.

Here is the military letter sent to families

 

 

Crisis in the Canadian Forces

Image

It’s been heartbreaking to report on the tragic suicides of 7 Canadian soldiers in as many weeks.  Many of them were young with new families, like  28 year old Cpl. Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez, a reservist belonging to The Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment based in Kingston, Ont., who was discovered in his apartment last week. 

Image

The body of Cpl. Martinez, who served in Afghanistan in 2010, was found in his apartment in Kingston, Ontario (CTV News Photo)

The military told me Martinez had no medical history of mental illness, or PTSD. But health experts say the symptoms of mental illness can take years to fester, and the smallest thing can trigger thoughts and feelings that lead to tragedy.

Image

Cpl. Leona MacEchern drove into an oncoming semitrailer after leaving a note to her family. (CTV Photo)

For Cpl. Leona MacEchern, it seemed the stress of dealing with her treatment resulted in a horrific “final desperate act”.  Her husband tells me she purposely drove into into an oncoming semi-truck on Christmas Day.

He says his wife – a 20 year veteran of the service – had been battling Veterans Affairs over benefits stemming from dental work going back decades.  You can read his full statement here.

Ever since I first reported on the rash of suicides in the military in November, I’ve been flooded with emails and calls from veterans and/or soldiers who’ve been dealing with the aftermath of war. But this email stands out:

“After reading your report about suicide and mental health in the military, the article about Corporal Leona MacEachern, and her family’s statement, I am hoping that you can pass along my deepest sympathies to the MacEachern family. I wish I could have known her so that I could give her a hug, tell her that I know what she is going through because I have also been through that hell, and tell her that it does get better.

A year ago about this time of year, I was commuting an hour each way on the highway.  I would drive to work and think about crossing over in to the path of a semi.  The only thing that stopped me was wondering if it would be a ‘successful suicide’ or not.

I am the mother of four children and married to a Canadian soldier. Like Corporal MacEachern, I also thought that ending my life would help my family.  They would receive a large life insurance payment and not have to put up with me anymore.

I sought help through my work’s Employee Assistance Program, but the counsellors they put me in touch with were not helpful at all.  One counsellor said that she thought I had ADD.  I told her that even if that was the case, I did not want to live anymore, so what did it matter?

I remember walking my son in his stroller, thankful that it was raining so that no one would see my cry, knowing that I was not going to make it.  I did not know why I was so sad. I was angry and frustrated with myself for feeling this way and the help I sought through EAP and the Community for Mental Health was not helping. Finally I called two psychologists.  One called me back.  The other didn’t.  He said that he had many patients and there was a waiting list but he could see me in a few months.

I took a deep breath and said that I wouldn’t last that long.

Fortunately for me he agreed to see me that Friday.  It was three days.  I agreed to wait three days.  The days were unbearable, just like every other day, but I made it.  That was June 15th, 2013. I have been seeing him on a weekly basis ever since and working on the issues that eventually led me to a deep and dark pit of despair. My recovery from my major depressive episode has been a long and painful process, but I am feeling much better and expect to return to work soon.

I would like to help other people, like Corporal Leona MacEachern, that are struggling.”

The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program has a confidential 24/7 toll-free telephone advisory and referral service for all military personnel and their families: 1-800-268-7708.

An Afghan Veteran and his Struggle for Health Benefits

Few stories have generated as much feedback as my recent series on Corporal Glen Kirkland, the 29 year old Afghan war veteran and his very public struggle for health benefits.

Arrival at Ramp Ceremony, 2007. (CP Photo)

Kirkland barely surived an ambush by Taliban snipers back in 2007.  Three of his colleagues died in the attack.  To this day, he suffers from PTSD along with a long list of other injuries:

“I’ve lost a part of sight in my right eye, I’ve lost 75% of my hearing, and I’m still picking out metal in my face when I shave in the morning” he told me in an interview.

Kirkland is upset that injured veterans who serve less than 10 years won’t qualify for a military pension. He fears he won’t be able to pay his extensive medical bills or psychological therapy when he is discharged.

So last week, Kirkland accepted an invitation to appear before the House Defence Committee studying the impact of injured veterans.

Yet hours before his appearance, he said his commanding officers called him, and threatened him if he spoke out against the military.

“In a very threatning way,” he described their tone.  “In the past, I’ve been threatened with a dishonourable discahrge, and i felt the same threatning presence from them”.

Glen Kirkland given parliamentary immunity for speaking out against the military (CTV News)

The committee took his claims very seriously.  And in another rare step, committee members gave him parliamentary immunity for his testimony against the military.

Kirkland then gave one of the most compelling speeches I’ve ever witnessed.  It clearly shook members who listened intently.  (you can watch his full testimony here).

The day after we aired his story, Defence Minister Peter MacKay made an unprescidented pledge in the House of Commons:

“[Cpl. Kirkland] will receive every and all benefits to which he is entitled. I will go further to his and his family. that he will suffer no ramifications from his testimony … in addition to that he will continue to serve as long as he decides to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces as long as he wishes”, said Mackay.

What happened next was just as extraordinary.

The following day, Kirkland flew home to his base at CFB Shilo, just outside of Brandon, Manitoba.

In his mailbox was his discharge notice from the military.  He said he was “shocked … speechless” it happened. He said calls to his direct commanders were not returned, and he was getting no answers from the military.  For someone dealing with PTSD, he said the added anxiety wasn’t helpful.

When we aired that story, I’m told defence officials were floored.  An official told me privately there was a “colossal breakdown in the chain of command”.  MacKay and his staff went in full damage control and eventually reversed the decision.

MacKay called the vice-chief of defence staff and ordered him to tear up the discharge notice.

MacKay then ordered the Chief of Military Personnel, Gerry Blais, to call Kirkland personally and smooth things over.

The military reversal lets Kirkland serve until 2015.  He will have reached his 10 year mark and will be eligible for a pension. (Here’s an explainer on Canadian military pensions & benefits)

So Kirkland’s issue may have been resolved.  But he adds he won’t stop his latest battle to get all sick and injured veterans a full pension …. regardless how long they’ve served.

A Campaign Relic Shows How (Little) Politics Has Changed Since 1963

Election Colouring Book

Here’s a fun blog I wrote for the CTV Website. I thought I’d share it here, too.

My esteemed CTV colleague Roger Smith has acquired many unusual campaign souvenirs, but this one is particularly hilarious.

It’s an old colouring book issued by the Pearson Liberals during the historic 1963 election … and 50 years later, you’ll notice the political attack lines haven’t changed much.

History buffs will recall Pearson ran on a platform called “60 Days of Decision.” Perhaps this colouring book was merely a bonus:

RM Blog - 1963 cover

The election was triggered when the minority Conservative government, led by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, lost in non-confidence votes.

With an economic downturn looming, among other things, the Liberals tried to exploit the Conservatives’ fiscal record:

RM Blog - Carpet

“This is a beautiful Conservative rug. It is a wonderful place to hide things, especially facts. If neccessary, it will even cover up a financial crisis. Colour the rug lumpy.”

***

At the time, there was an emerging threat on the political left. A new, upstart coalition called the NDP was formed two years earlier by Tommy Douglas.

The Liberals were quick to define them (even though Pearson later depended on the NDP to pass legislation under his minority government).

RM Blog - NDP

“This is an NDP party. They are discussing their platform. They are against just about everything. Sometimes they are even against themselves. Colour them black and blue.”

***

The military became a hot issue after the Diefenbaker government cancelled the Avro Arrow.

It raised questions about military resources, among others:

RM Blog - Fighter Pilot

“This is a Canadian fighter pilot. He flies for NATO. All the other NATO pilots have planes that fight good. The Canadian pilot doesn’t. Colour him highly embarrassed.”

***

Improving First Nations conditions, and a vision for Canada’s North, were issues the Liberals vowed to address.

Of course, things were less politically correct back then:

RM Blog - Eskimo

“This is an Eskimo. He is looking at a Northern Vision. Other people sometimes see visions in the North. If you see a vision, colour it transparent.”

***

On the back page of the colouring book, we see the old campaign slogan …

RM Blog - Back Cover

The outcome of that election: Liberals narrowly defeated the Conservatives with a minority government, and Lester Pearson became Canada’s 14th Prime Minister.

He won a second minority in 1965 and retired from politics in 1967. Party faithful then elected Pierre Trudeau to replace him.

And the rest, as they say … is history. Colouring books and all.

Read more: http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/colouring-canadian-history-how-the-liberals-campaigned-1963-style-1.1167546#ixzz2Lmv7sHSl

My Take: Finance Minister Reveals Battle With Skin Disease

The deeply personal revelation by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty about his skin condition was meant to douse months of rumours and speculation about his health.

flah

Finance is one of my “files”, so I see a lot of Jim Flaherty.  Last spring, I had noticed he gained some weight, and he looked tired.  I didn’t think much of it – a stressful job with hectic travel schedule probably doesn’t allow one to eat healthy or sleep regularly – and it was around the time of Budget 2012.

Fast forward to autumn that year.  Flaherty met met with private sector economists at the finance building in Ottawa and later took questions from reporters. While his answers were concise, his voice was raspy, his eyes seemed glazed.  But what I specifically recall from that day – how he lingered at the podium after the scrum was over and seemed somewhat disoriented.

I think that’s when the rumour mill launched into overdrive.

Later that day, I made several inquiries to my contacts at Finance, MPs and political staff who know him well.  They all noticed the same thing but were at a loss to explain.

Flaherty held many news conferences since then. At one of them, a reporter did ask about his visible physical changes, but Flaherty didn’t answer and walked away.

His condition appeared to worsen in late November. Perhaps his medication side-effects explains why he teared up during a press conference.

So with no answers, the mystery continued.  Many wondered if his ailing health was somehow connected to why he missed a key budget vote in early December.

Just last week, when Flaherty was clutching his stomach while answering questions in the House, we all knew something was terribly wrong.

I suspect that’s when Flaherty’s new communications director concluded the news had to get out there.

I’ve been asked many times why I – or the 100’s of other Parliament Hill reporters – didn’t press Flaherty to disclose his health condition sooner.  After all, some argue, Flaherty holds a powerful role within government, and is in public life.

Let me answer this way:  I did inquire. Many times. I had been told Flaherty had visible lesions on his arms and neck. It was obvious there was a serous health issue. But the deeply personal disclosure had to come straight from Jim Flaherty.  My colleague Don Martin explains further in his excellent column.