Veteran urges Ottawa to extend the deadline for contaminated water compensation

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A veteran is urging the federal government to extend the deadline to apply for compensation for military personnel who drank contaminated water coming from a Canadian forces base.

“They got caught. Now they’re playing sore loser,” said Ed Sweeney, a former corporal who once served at CFB Valcartier, a military base north of Quebec City.

In 2020, the Quebec Court of Appeal awarded millions of dollars in compensation to some residents of Shannon, Que. Among those eligible were some current and former military personnel and their families who lived nearby at CFB Valcartier’s married quarters between 1995 and 2000.

Claimants were eligible for up to $1,000 for each month they lived in the small city. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld that ruling.

Claimants have until Jan. 15, 2023 to apply to join the class-action settlement. 

For decades, a cancer-causing industrial degreasing agent called trichloroethylene, or TCE, was used at Valcartier’s research facility and a nearby ammunition factory. It contaminated the water in and around the base. The court concluded the chemical was used over an “indeterminate period” from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Evidence put before the court pointed to an underground contamination plume extending northwest from the research centre and munitions factory to the Jacques-Cartier river, passing under the municipality of Shannon and the military base.

In December 2020, tests by a local public health authority found TCE in many wells in the community. Residents were told to stop drinking the water. An environmental group has mapped several locations where the chemical was found.

An appeal court concluded the Canadian government violated area residents’ right to security under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The accumulation of red flags … the knowing pursuit of an unacceptable polluting practice over a long period and the indifference of the responsible authorities to the consequences of such a practice on the population concerned leads to the conclusion that there was an unlawful and intentional interference with the right to security of the person,” says an English summary of the Quebec Court of Appeal decision.

But as the deadline to join the class-action draws closer, class-action lawyers say they’ve struggled to get the message out to claimants that compensation is available. In part, they say, that’s because the military so far has refused to release a complete list of current and former military personnel eligible for compensation.

“[The Department of National Defence] contaminated a town’s water source,” Sweeney said. He’s calling on the government to release the list of eligible personnel “so that these people can make their claims.”

WATCH | Veteran says his family was among thousands exposed to a chemical in drinking water on military base: 

Veteran calls on Ottawa to contact people who drank tainted military base water

A Canadian veteran is calling on the Department of National Defence to make more of an effort to contact people entitled to compensation after drinking tainted water on a Quebec military base. 

In a media statement, the defence department told CBC it publicized the compensation plan through the media and made a generic email available to current and former military members worldwide.

“By consensus, the parties developed the claims protocol to create a rigorous, fair and efficient claims process for claimants, including a dissemination plan to inform potential class members of their rights,” says a statement from Andrée-Anne Poulin, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence (DND).

“The Quebec Superior Court approved this plan, which has been in effect for almost eighteen months.”

Poulin said DND also provided class-action lawyers with the names and email addresses of current military personnel who would have been exposed to the tainted water. But those lawyers told CBC News the department never released a list of former military members who would have been exposed to the chemical.

‘The government gave them poison water’

One of the class-action lawyers, Steve Clarke, said he is asking the government to not oppose a court request to extend the deadline to apply for compensation to July 15. Clarke said he doesn’t believe the government will support changing the deadline.

“The government gave them poison water. And the government won’t let us find these people,” Clarke said. “They’ve done everything they can to thwart us from finding clients.”

One of the class-action’s lawyers, Steve Clarke, is asking for more time to find impacted veterans.
One of the class-action lawyers, Steve Clarke, is asking for more time to find affected veterans. (Chris Rands/ CBC)

A Quebec environmental group, Société pour vaincre la pollution in Montreal, estimates about 3,000 to 4,000 current or former military members could be eligible for payments. But only 2,500 submitted a claim in early December through the claims process, the organization said.

“The Department of Defence has to understand that the enemy is not us,” said Daniel Green, co-president of Société pour vaincre la pollution in Montreal.

“They’re supposed to serve and protect us, not contaminate citizens living around the base and military personnel serving on a base.”

With or without the military’s help, Sweeney said, he’ll keep searching for his former comrades and their families to make sure they get compensated — one email and one phone call at a time.

“I got this inner rage going right now,” Sweeney said. “That’s what’s fuelling my fire …” 

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