Royal Military College Cadet Deaths: What Happens Next

The deaths of four Royal Military College cadets who died on the Kingston, Ont., campus last week will be further investigated once the initial investigation is complete, but the exact type remains to be determined.

At around 2 a.m. on April 29, a vehicle carrying the four cadets, all nearing their graduation year, fell into the water off Point Frederick, a peninsula between Kingston Harbor and Navy Bay on the St. Lawrence River.

The four cadets have been identified as Andrei Honciu, Jack Hogarth, Andrés Salek and Broden Murphy.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) — the independent arm of the military police — and Ontario’s Chief Coroner are investigating. The CFNIS said it did not suspect foul play and appealed to the public for more information on how the vehicle ended up in the water.

The Royal Military College is featured in Kingston, Ont., last week. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CFNIS investigation reports are not made public but can be obtained through an access to information request, said Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who practices military law and teaches at the University of Ottawa

Normal practice would lead to a board of inquiry convened by the Department of National Defence, Drapeau said.

In an emailed statement, the department said it generally convenes a Board of Inquiry or Summary Inquiry to investigate the death of any member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) for reasons “other than injuries received in combat”.

The ministry said it had not yet decided what form the “administrative investigation” would take.

Advice reserved for “complex” cases

Both a Board of Inquiry and a Summary Investigation are intended to help military leaders “better understand incidents affecting the functioning of the CAF,” the department said.

Military attorney Rory Fowler, who is also a retired lieutenant colonel and a former attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s office, said the two processes seek to establish three key findings:

  • The cause and contributing factors of deaths.
  • If the members were on duty at the time.
  • Whether the deaths were attributable to military service.

While commissions of inquiry are intended for “complex or significant events”, summary investigations are normally reserved for “simple” matters, the department said.

Fowler called a summary investigation a “scaled-down version” of a commission of inquiry – “like a pedal bike for an SUV”.

While several members of the armed forces sit on a board of inquiry, a summary investigation is conducted by an officer “who lacks the capacity to compel attendance,” Fowler said.

Rory Fowler, a legal officer, says boards of inquiry are meant to inform Canadian Armed Forces policies. (Radio Canada)

Process can frustrate families: lawyer

The commission of inquiry process has raised concerns in the past.

Drapeau said a family’s level of involvement in counseling is limited and often leaves them frustrated because parents are not represented by a lawyer who can cross-examine witnesses.

Parents can only attend if they are asked to appear as witnesses themselves, he added.

“This process is not open to the public,” Drapeau said.

Michel Drapeau, who practices military law, hopes that a coroner’s inquest will be launched into the deaths of the Kingston cadets, which would be more helpful for the families of the victims. (Radio-Canada)

A 2014 review of the Office of the Military Ombudsman examined the engagement of Canadian Armed Forces families at Boards of Inquiry. The report noted several previous recommendations, all of which have been implemented with the exception of including families in all phases of a counselling.

Fowler said the purpose of a commission of inquiry is often misunderstood.

“He’s looking at practices and procedures and whether or not there’s a need to change them,” he said. “They are not conducted for a public good.”

The findings aren’t necessarily related to systemic issues, Fowler added.

“Sometimes, in the end, it’s just an unfortunate circumstance. There’s not much you can do to prevent it.”

The chairman of the board of inquiry — usually a senior officer, Fowler said — acts as the point of contact for the families, according to the ombudsman’s website. The chair will meet with the families at the start to outline the process, give updates on progress, and provide a redacted copy of the council’s post-investigation report.

Cadets carry flowers to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., last week following the deaths of the four officer cadets at Point Frederick. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Coroner’s inquest is also possible

A coroner’s inquest can also take place in addition to any form of administrative inquest, Fowler said.

Drapeau said that would serve the public better than a commission of inquiry.

“You don’t have to be in the military to have suffered and been a victim of this particular action,” said Drapeau.

“So let’s find out what happened, how it happened, and make sure we, as a society, families, military and civilians, all learn from it.”