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The Royal Military College cadet deaths: What happens next

The deaths of four Royal Military College cadets who died on campus in Kingston, Ont., last week will undergo further scrutiny once the initial investigation is over, but the exact type remains to be seen.

At about 2 am on April 29, a vehicle carrying the four officer cadets, all in their graduating year, went into the water off Point Frederick, a peninsula that sits 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 has said it does not suspect foul play and has appealed to the public for more information about how the vehicle ended up in the water.

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

CFNIS investigation reports are not made public but may 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 called by the Department of National Defence, Drapeau said.

In an emailed statement, the department said it typically agrees either to a board of inquiry or a summary Canadian investigation to look into the death of any Armed Forces (CAF) member for reasons “other than wounds received in action.”

The department said it has yet to decide which form the “administrative investigation” will take.

Boards reserved for ‘complex’ matters

Both a board of inquiry and summary investigation are meant to help military brass “obtain a better understanding of incidents affecting the functioning of the CAF,” the department said.

Military lawyer Rory Fowler, who is also a retired lieutenant-colonel and former legal officer in the office of the Judge Advocate General, said both processes seek to establish three key findings:

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

While boards of inquiry are meant for “complex or significant events,” summary investigations are normally reserved for “uncomplicated” matters, the department said.

Fowler called a summary investigation “a scaled-down version” of a board of inquiry — “as a pedal bicycle is to an SUV.”

While several members of the armed forces sit on a board of inquiry, a summary investigation is conducted by an officer “who does not have the capacity to compel attendance,” Fowler said.

Rory Fowler, a military lawyer, says boards of inquiry are meant to inform policies at the Canadian Armed Forces. (CBC)

Process can frustrate families: lawyer

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

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

Parents can only attend if asked to appear as witnesses themselves, I have added.

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

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

A 2014 review from the military ombudsman’s office looked at the Canadian Armed Forces’ engagement of families during boards of inquiry. The report noted several prior recommendations, all of which were implemented with the exception of including families during all phases of a board.

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

“It looks at practices and procedures and whether or not there’s any need to change those,” he said. “They’re not conducted for a public benefit.”

The findings may not necessarily relate to systemic issues, Fowler added.

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

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

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

Coroner’s inquest also possible

A coroner’s inquest may also take place on top on whatever form of administrative investigation occurs, Fowler said.

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

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

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

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