Suicide was decriminalized for Canadian civilians in 1972, in 2020 self-harm remains a disciplinary offence for members of the military.
Randall Garrison, MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke and NDP Critic for National Defence, has reintroduced a bill to remove self-harm as a disciplinary offence for members of the armed forces.
Garrison’s Bill C-203 addresses issues of suicide in the military and barriers faced by those seeking mental health assistance.
This is the NDP’s third time tabling the issue. In 2019, Garrison first tabled a bill asking that the “archaic” section of the National Defence Act designating self-harm as a disciplinary offence for members of the military be removed. At the time, the Liberals blocked the bill.
The NDP also attempted to remove self-harm as a disciplinary offence by adding an amendment to Bill C-77 which sought to enshrine a Declaration of Victims’ Rights in the National Defence Acts which governs the military justice system. This was blocked by the Liberal government on procedural grounds, Garrison explained.
“The problem of death by suicide of Canadian Forces members is not going away,” he said.
Over the last 15 years, 212 serving members ended their lives, he said. In 2019, 17 members of the military were lost to death by suicide – “more than one serving member per month.”
While military officials have testified that “the self-harm offence is rarely enforced,” Garrison feels the fact the offence remains in the Military Code of Service Discipline discourages service members from seeking mental health assistance.
Garrison explained that currently, members who come forward about self-harm are often “confined and subjected to administrative punishments” rather than given mental health assistance.
He pointed out that punishing those who “put their lives on the line to defend Canada” because they reach out seeking mental health assistance is wrong.
With the reintroduction of Bill C-203, Garrison is hopeful that his fellow MPs will “listen to the voices of the hundreds of families that have lost loved ones to death by suicide” and work together to improve the response to self-harm within the Canadian Armed Forces.
In the next two weeks, Garrison plans to ask the Defense Committee to start a study looking at mental health and death by suicide among serving members.