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Emails reveal how Ottawa sought to explain PTSD treatment for man who killed cop

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Newly released documents offer a glimpse into how high-level government officials grappled to respond to the revelation that Veterans Affairs was funding the PTSD treatment of a Halifax man convicted of killing an off-duty police officer.

Emails obtained by The Canadian Press through Access to Information and Privacy legislation reveal a slew of people within the Veterans Affairs office — including the deputy minister, policy analysts and communications officers — were involved in shaping the message that was relayed to media about Christopher Garnier’s benefits.

The news came out during Garnier’s sentencing hearing for the second-degree murder of Catherine Campbell, a Truro, N.S., police officer. The court heard Veterans Affairs was covering the cost of his psychologist because his father is a veteran who has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Within the hundreds of pages of emails deliberating how to respond to the inundation of media inquiries, officials discussed pertinent policy and what messages would “support the rationale for including family members in a veterans treatment plan.”

Trevor Nicholson, a senior policy analyst with Veterans Affairs, outlined for several of his colleagues how the  department’s mental health policy functions.

“Who may be included in a veteran’s treatment plan or rehabilitation plan … is at the discretion of the decision-maker
based on the recommendation of the veterans treating health professional, and in consultation with the veterans,” said Nicholson in an Aug. 28 email.

“[Veterans Affairs Canada] may include family in treatment sessions with the veteran patient and/or provide session to family members on their own in order to address the impacts that the patients’ mental health condition is having on the other members of the family unit.”

In an email to nine of her colleagues the next day, Veterans Affairs official Sandra Williamson wrote that “it must be made clear that the full range of benefits and services offers to veterans is NOT offered to family members.”

Mary Nicholson, director of health care and rehabilitation programs for Veterans Affairs, agreed with Williamson’s approach.

“I’m sure it’s part of your messaging but also important to note that family members were only ever granted access to recognize the important part they play in supporting ill or injured veterans — part of the well-being framework,” she wrote in an email on Aug. 29.

Even Veterans Affairs deputy minister Walt Natynczyk and associate deputy minister Lisa Campbell weighed in on what the department told the media.

“[The deputy minister and associate] have asked us to update our lines to include two things…. That the focus of providing counselling etc. to a family member is always based on the best interest of the well-being of the veteran … and a line around what services we may provide and what correctional services might provide, and including that there is no duplication or overlap of these services,” communications officer Steven Harris wrote on Aug. 29.

Policy changed in September

In a statement to The Canadian Press about the Garnier case, Veterans Affairs said communications lines are developed and reviewed regularly as part of a daily work process.

“It is part of normal business processes to connect to different areas of the department to ensure that messaging accurately reflects department policy and activity,” spokesperson Martin Magnan said in an email.

In September, the Trudeau government ordered officials to adopt a more critical eye before approving funds and services for the family member of veterans — particularly relatives convicted of serious crimes.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan told the House of Commons that benefits would in the future not be provided to a veteran’s family member who is incarcerated in a federal facility.

But when it came to Garnier’s benefits, O’Regan repeatedly cited privacy considerations for refusing to discuss the case while indicating the order would not be retroactive.

Feds flooded with angry emails

The federal government was also apparently flooded with letters from the public, as widespread outrage mounted over Garnier’s receipt of financial assistance for a mental condition that was brought on by the murder.

“Quite frankly this is an outrage and a direct slap in the face, towards veterans, by a Liberal government that has already lost major support from the veteran community. Catherine Campbell’s parents deserve better from [Veterans Affairs Canada] and from the government of Canada,” a citizen, whose name is redacted, wrote on Aug. 29.

Another member of the public, whose name is redacted, wrote: “I can only imagine what mental repercussions must come from strangling a female police officer to death here at home in Canada. The murderer must be truly appreciative of the flood of support from [Veterans Affairs Canada], while surviving members of our veteran families struggle.”

In September, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan said future benefits would not be provided to a veteran’s family member who is incarcerated in a federal facility. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In an Aug. 30 email to several other Veteran Affairs officials, Anick Bedard wrote that O’Regan was receiving a “large number of emails” reacting to the news.

In response to one letter, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Sean Fraser conceded that his initial reaction was one of disbelief.

“It was difficult at the outset to understand how someone who suffers from PTSD as a result of a murder they committed should be eligible for health benefits from Veteran Affairs Canada,” Fraser wrote on Aug. 30 in an email attached to the file.

“Despite my first reaction, I want to be extremely careful about how policy may develop in response to the extraordinary facts of this case. The system that provides medical coverage to veterans and their families is a good one, and a political knee-jerk reaction to this case has the potential to deny coverage to veterans and their family members who need it, which I don’t believe is a result that anyone wants.”

Garnier, who strangled the 36-year-old woman and used a compost bin to dispose of her body, is appealing his second-degree murder conviction and sentence.

The conviction carries an automatic life sentence, but a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice ruled in August that Garnier would be able to apply for parole after serving 13 and a half years — less 699 days for time served.

During his trial, Garnier repeatedly told the jury he did not remember using the large green compost bin to dispose of the body near a harbour bridge, where it stayed undetected for nearly five days.

Garnier had also argued that Campbell died accidentally during rough sex that she initiated after they met at a downtown bar earlier that evening.

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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