A Fight Not Finished for Vets ; Canada Apologizes to Ex-Soldiers for Chemical Tests of Last Century. but for Many, It's Not Enough

By Doug Alexander Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Fight Not Finished for Vets ; Canada Apologizes to Ex-Soldiers for Chemical Tests of Last Century. but for Many, It's Not Enough


Doug Alexander Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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