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
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
"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
"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
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
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. …