Government MPs have voted down the proposed creation of a board to review historical combat actions, including those of Private Jess Larochelle, with an eye to recommending Victoria Crosses where warranted.
Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole drafted a detailed proposal after New Democrat MP Niki Ashton tabled a 14,129-name petition on May 19 urging the federal government to re-evaluate Larochelle’s decorated conduct in Afghanistan.
The consent motion required unanimous support from all members of the House, after which O’Toole’s pitch for a military honours review board would have been debated and likely passed by a simple majority of MPs in the minority parliament.
“All of the parties except the Liberals voted for it,” said a statement from the group Valour in the Presence of the Enemy, which has been championing a review for Larochelle and 26 other veterans as far back as the First World War.
“To those members who heckled Mr. O’Toole while he presented the motion, we ask that you do some serious soul-searching.”
With several of his comrades-in-arms dead or otherwise out of action, a badly wounded Larochelle was left alone in a perimeter observation post spearheading the defence of a strongpoint near Pashmul in southern Afghanistan.
“All of the parties except the Liberals voted for it.”
The Oct. 14, 2006, attack by Taliban fighters was ultimately repelled and Larochelle was awarded the Canadian military’s second-highest honour, the Star of Military Valour (SMV).
“Although he was alone, severely injured, and under sustained enemy fire in his exposed position at the ruined observation post, he aggressively provided covering fire over the otherwise undefended flank of his company’s position,” said his citation.
“Private Larochelle’s heroic actions permitted the remainder of the company to defend their battle positions and to successfully fend off the sustained attack of more than 20 insurgents. His valiant conduct saved the lives of many members of his company.”
“I have always felt that his actions were commensurate with the historical awarding of a Victoria Cross.”
It had been the job of his battle group commander, then-lieutenant-colonel Omer Lavoie, to nominate Larochelle for a decoration. Other than to designate “for valour,” which limited him to one of three possible awards, Lavoie could not recommend which one he thought his unassuming private should receive.
“I personally witnessed the valour of Jess Larochelle as he continued to fight while wounded and in the midst of his wounded and dead comrades,” said Lavoie, who retired a lieutenant-general.
“I have always felt that his actions that day in continuing to fight despite being wounded in order to break the enemy attack was worthy and commensurate with the historical awarding of a Victoria Cross.”
Valour in the Presence of the Enemy is made up largely of Afghanistan vets headed by MP Ashton’s partner Bruce Moncur—himself a wounded veteran and a Larochelle platoon mate. The group has found broad support from historians, politicians and retired generals, including the face of the organization, former defence chief Rick Hillier.
But the awards process is primarily a military one, and it is complex. Any witness can nominate a VC candidate, but it must be endorsed by the nominee’s unit commander and is subject to reviews and revisions before a final decision is made by the Chancellery of Honours, on behalf of the Governor General.
Among 1,355 British Empire and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and aircrew awarded the original Victoria Cross are 98 Canadians, the last of them Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a pilot with Britain’s Fleet Air Arm, in 1945.
In 1993, Canada followed Australia’s precedent and established its own VC. New Zealand did so in 1999. But while Australia has awarded four of the new VCs and New Zealand one, Canada has awarded none.
There were 109 actions honoured with intermediate gallantry awards in Afghanistan, including 20 SMVs, Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier, the military’s director of honours and recognition, said in 2018.
A committee of general officers representing all commands reviewed all the citations and nomination processes, concluding they were fair and consistent throughout. They even compared them with Commonwealth VCs dating to the Vietnam War.
A spokesperson for the chief of the defence staff, General Wayne Eyre, has said the country’s top soldier was consulting with Commonwealth allies and reviewing Larochelle’s file. The Royal Canadian Legion endorsed the effort.
In a June 14 letter to MPs, O’Toole, a veteran himself, said a review board would “serve as an independent review body to advise the [chancellery] with respect to errors or omissions related to military honours within the Canadian Honours System.”
While Australia has awarded four of the new VCs and New Zealand one, Canada has awarded none.
“Specifically, it will allow for decisions made by the Directorate of Honours and Recognition within the Department of National Defence and its historic precursor bodies to be reviewed in light of new evidence that would suggest an error or omission was made by the [directorate] with respect to military honours.”
O’Toole acknowledged that unanimous consent motions can be dropped on MPs without notice as political tools. Describing the matter as non-partisan, he provided MPs with copies of the motion and backgrounders three days in advance.
“Currently, there is no process for Canada to review decisions made related to military honours like the Victoria Cross,” he wrote. “This is the case even when new evidence demonstrates that errors were made due to incomplete information, or when there was an historic omission related to bias or intolerance in our history.
“When a Canadian demonstrates conspicuous bravery for their country and may have even been injured or killed in their service to Canada, there should be no limitation period attached to recognizing such heroic conduct, nor should we be satisfied that there is no mechanism to review decisions related to recognition.”
Canada’s main allies—including the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia—have review processes and “have acknowledged that their systems are imperfect and have acted to address this. Canada must act as well,” he added.
Indeed, in August 2021, the Americans launched a five-year review of all Black and Indigenous soldiers who received medals for actions during the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam.
Daniel Minden, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Anita Anand, told the National Post the government isn’t against O’Toole’s proposal, but it needs a closer review.
“We are always looking at new ways to honour the sacrifice and bravery of CAF members and veterans, and will be taking the necessary time to examine this particular proposal,” said Minden.
Valour in the Presence of the Enemy criticized the 2012 SMV review, conducted two years before the last Canadian soldiers left Afghanistan. It quoted one unnamed participant who said the committee “struggled with the understanding [of] where the threshold was.”
“Currently, there is no process for Canada to review decisions made related to military honours like the Victoria Cross.”
“In other terms he did not understand how the bar was set, and interpretation came down to adverbs and adjectives,” said a group report. “He said it was very subjective and it was clear to him at the time part of what was going on was a sense of just waiting for someone else to come along and do something incredible.
“He had an overall feeling that the general mindset was that of being conservative and a tendency to be critical and judicious.”
The group notes that citations for gallantry awards among allies tend to run one to two pages, while most Canadian citations “can fit in the amount of space to send two tweets.”
“It is hard to review a citation based on so little information and in particular this is why a review with eyewitness testimony and interviewing, researching and conducting a thorough review” is necessary.
Jones was finally recognized on Feb. 22, 2010, when Ottawa posthumously awarded him the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service.
O’Toole’s proposed review board would include representatives from National Defence, academia, the Governor General’s office, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Canadian War Museum and The Royal Canadian Legion, amongst others.
Until Canada got its own VC in 1993, decisions were made by British authorities, who brought their own biases about race, religion and “colonials” to the table. The attitudes weren’t limited to VCs, either.
Jeremiah Jones, a Black man from East Mountain, N.S., was already 58 years old by the time he reached the First World War front in February 1917 as a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment. Two months later, he crossed the bloody battlefield at Vimy Ridge and took an enemy machine-gun nest.
“I threw a hand bomb right into the nest and killed about seven of them,” Jones recalled years later. “I was going to throw another bomb when they threw up their hands and called for mercy.”
Jones ordered the half-dozen survivors out of their hole, then marched them at bayonet-point back to Allied lines, carrying their weapon. He had them deposit the machine gun at the feet of his commanding officer. “Is this thing any good?” he asked.
His exploits earned him acclaim at home and abroad, but they remained the subject of debate from London to Ottawa for almost a century. His commander recommended him for a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), at the time the second-highest valour award after the Victoria Cross, but the bid was rejected or ignored.
To give a Black man a bravery medal in 1917 would have been a political bombshell at a time when the military’s top brass—and some senior politicians—opposed Black enlistment. “Coloureds,” they claimed, wouldn’t make good soldiers.
“Jeremiah Jones put the lie to perceptions of the day,” the author, historian and later senator Calvin Ruck told The Canadian Press in 1995 amid a campaign by the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia to recognize the soldier’s deeds.
“His actions served to change the view of the ability of Blacks under fire,” said Ruck. “He showed people Blacks could be as good soldiers as anybody else and the majority community didn’t have a monopoly on bravery or devotion to duty. Blacks were just as proud and as loyal to king and country.”
The centre’s campaign, however, stalled in Britain that same year.
“Regardless of the right and wrong of the perceived or real discrimination against blacks in the Canadian Army there can be no question of a retrospective award,” wrote Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Bird of the British Defence Ministry.
“State awards for both gallantry and meritorious service are announced within a year or so of the citations to which they refer. There were many servicemen like Jones who did not receive recognition for their gallant deeds.”
Jones, who died in 1950, was finally recognized on Feb. 22, 2010, when Ottawa posthumously awarded him the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service, which wasn’t created until 1989 and was intended for individuals and groups who are not active members of the Canadian Forces.
The advocacy group makes the case for a diversity of service personnel who were, or were likely, denied appropriate recognition.
Besides several Afghanistan veterans and others from earlier wars, the advocacy group makes the case for a diversity of service personnel who were, or were likely, denied appropriate recognition due to the attitudes of their times:
• Samuel Moses (Moe) Hurwitz was the Second World War’s most highly decorated non-commissioned member of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and possibly the most decorated Jewish Canadian. Hurwitz received the Military Medal—then Canada’s third-highest valour award—for extraordinary heroism and leadership during the August 1944 Battle for the Falaise Road. He was then awarded a DCM for taking two German machine guns and capturing 25 prisoners at Philippine, Netherlands, the following month. He later helped knock out an 88mm anti-tank gun. Hurwitz was eventually captured and died in a PoW camp. Anti-Semitism was widespread at the time; some say it’s why Hurwitz was denied a VC.
• Francis (Peggy) Pegahmagabow, an Anishinaabe of the Wasauksing First Nation, amassed 378 confirmed kills and took 300 prisoners during the First World War. Gassed twice, he was one of 39 Canadians awarded the Military Medal—with two bars. But after the war, his Indian Agent Alexander Logan denied his Soldier Settlement Act request to start a farm.
• George McLean, a Boer War veteran and rancher from the Head of the Lake Band in the Okanagan district of British Columbia, was wounded at Vimy Ridge, yet carried an incapacitated officer to safety, then returned to the battle, killed 19 Germans and captured 14 more before he was evacuated. He was awarded a DCM but, said Moncur’s group, “if you read the citations for the other four soldiers given the Victoria Cross for Vimy, the only difference in the stories is the color of the skin.”
• Nursing Sister Margaret Brooke was aboard the ferry Caribou when it was torpedoed and sunk off Newfoundland by U-69 on Oct. 14, 1942. One hundred and thirty-seven aboard were killed, including civilians. Fighting for her own survival in the frigid waters of the Cabot Strait, she grabbed her friend, Nursing Sister Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie and, with a rope attached to floating wreckage wrapped around her wrist, held onto her until a rogue wave swept the then-unconscious woman to her death. Brooke was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1943 and recently had a new icebreaker named after her. Medals were for men.
“There can be no denying that [racism and sexism] played a role in our past, not just our military but our society as a whole,” said the valour group. “It would then behoove us as a nation looking to reconcile its past to reevaluate…and see [if] we can right the wrongs of the past.”
Advocates say time is of the essence in Larochelle’s case. His war wounds have severely curtailed his mobility and he is tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder. Some fear he hasn’t much time left.