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Veterans Exposed To Radiation To Receive Compensation

Members of the Canadian military who were exposed to nuclear radiation during allied countries’ atomic tests or in cleaning up accidents at one of Canada’s nuclear reactors will be recognized and compensated for their service.

National Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson announced Sept. 2 that eligible veterans will be compensated with an ex gratia payment of $24,000.

“Through this program, a remarkable group of individuals will finally get the acknowledgment and respect they so rightfully deserve,” said Thompson while making the announ­ce­ment in Calgary, just days before the general election was called.

The payment is similar to the compensation offered through the Chemical Warfare Agents Testing Recognition Program, created in February 2004 to compensate those veterans who volunteered for chemical warfare tests at Canadian Forces Base Sussex, Alta., and Ottawa during and just after the Second World War (Victims Of Secret Experiments Receive Compensation, May/June 2004).

The Department of National Defence has said the program is still being finalized and another announcement will be made regarding details and eligibility.

“We have been fighting for this for 50 years. Some of the widows’ husbands have been dead for 30 years,” said Jim Huntley of Airdrie, Alta., the spokesman for the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association. Although the association has had several conversations with officials at both National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, Huntley said the first he heard of the compensation deal was when a reporter called him. “We have to know what is in the package.

“We are looking for three things. We want recognition. We want compensation and we want pensions for the widows,” said Huntley.

The association launched a class action suit against the government in February saying that exposure to radiation during the tests caused illness, suffering and death and that its members deserve compensation (Journal, May/June).

“We have no information. If we sign, does it mean we have to drop the class action suit?” asked Huntley. “The only thing we want to sign is the back of the cheque.”

Canada sent military personnel to several above-ground nuclear tests carried out by the United States and Britain from the end of the Second World War until the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963. Military exercises were carried out during trials conducted in the U.S., Australia and the South Pacific.

During the same period, Canadian military personnel were deployed to assist with emergency decontamination efforts following two major accidents at Canada’s nuclear laboratories in Chalk River, Ont., 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. The accidents occurred in 1952 and 1958.

MacKay’s predecessor as minister of National Defence, Gordon O’Connor, commissioned a report to determine the extent of Canadian participation in these tests and the Chalk River incidents in August 2006. The department was made aware of the issue by the number of veterans who applied for compensation under the chemical testing program but did not qualify for compensation.

Dr. John Clearwater, an Ottawa-based historian who has written several books on nuclear weapons programs, was contracted to investigate the matter. His report, Atomic Veterans: A Report To The Minister Of National Defence Regarding Canada’s Participation In Allied Forces’ Nuclear Weapons Trials and Decontamination Work, was published in January 2007.

Clearwater’s report identified approximately 700 former Canadian Forces personnel who had participated in up to 29 U.S. and British nuclear weapons trials between 1946 and 1963. These trials were considered important training exercises under the conditions of a nuclear battlefield.

The report also identified approximately 200 military personnel who helped with the clean-up and decontamination at Chalk River. Duties there consisted of mopping and scrubbing of contaminated buildings.

Huntley was a young rifleman with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada when he was sent to Nevada in July 1958. The group of about 40 stayed in the desert in tents until September. “We witnessed six bombs. For the last bomb, we were only about 10,000 metres away in a trench—and that caved in on us,” he said. “After that we were picked up by a helicopter and flew through the cloud to a plateau where the enemy (in the exercise) was supposed to be. It was going into that cloud where we got the worst radiation.”

Huntley spent 20 years with the military and has suffered from an infected gall bladder.

As for recognition, Huntley said there had been some discussion of a certificate saying their service was above and beyond the call of duty. “If we were in a war, we would have a medal, or oak leaf, or something,” he said.

The Royal Canadian Legion has welcomed the announcement of the compensation. Veterans wanting more information on the program should contact The DND-VAC Centre for the Support of Injured Members, Injured Veterans and their Families at or make an application by calling 1-800-883-6094 or e-mail (English) or (French).


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