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Military law experts surprised by form of internal investigation into 4 cadets’ deaths

Military law experts say they’re surprised that an on-campus incident that ended with the deaths of four cadets at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston last spring is getting a “less robust” form of internal military investigation.

At about 2 a.m. ET on April 29, a vehicle carrying four officer cadets — all in their graduating year — went into the water off Point Frederick, a peninsula between Kingston Harbour and Navy Bay on the St. Lawrence River that is home to the RMC campus.

The four cadets were Andrei Honciu, Jack Hogarth, Andrés Salek and Broden Murphy.

While few details about the crash are known, foul play was ruled out early — which is why Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner has taken the lead in investigating the deaths. The Kingston Police and the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) — the independent investigative arm of the military police — are assisting. 

Maj.-Gen. D. Craig Aitchison, commander of the Canadian Defence Academy, also ordered an internal summary investigation which began on May 17. An internal summary investigation is one of two types of administrative investigation the military typically orders after the death of a member.

They’re not meant to assign legal or civil blame or mete out punishment. In the case of the four cadets, the summary investigation will look into the service-related circumstances of the incident and make recommendations to prevent similar future deaths. 

In a summary investigation, a single officer handles the case.

“An SI is typically chosen when the matter is less complex,” a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence (DND) said. 

military law experts surprised by form of internal investigation into 4 cadets deaths
The Royal Military College campus in Kingston, Ont., in April, 2022. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The second form of administrative investigation is a board of inquiry, something the department said “is typically for something more complex.” It’s a panel of military members that hears evidence and testimony from people under oath. 

“I was actually a little surprised that they weren’t using a board of inquiry,” said military lawyer Rory Fowler, a retired lieutenant-colonel and a former legal officer in the office of the Judge Advocate General.

“Typically in the past, senior decision makers in the Canadian Forces, when dealing with high-profile non-combat deaths, have generally defaulted to ordering a board of inquiry.”

“Given the severity of the accident as a tragedy and so on, I would have expected a board of inquiry, to be more formal, if for no other reason [than] not to leave any stone unturned,” said Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who practises military law and teaches at the University of Ottawa.

Board of inquiry could still happen

While a summary investigation is “far less robust than a board of inquiry,” the military may have reasons for choosing that route, Fowler said.

The Canadian Forces may feel the parallel military, civilian police and coroner investigations are thorough enough, he said.

“If there are other investigations that are going to be performing that fact-finding function, it’s likely unnecessary to conduct a more robust board of inquiry …” Fowler said.

“Because this particular tragic circumstance attracted so much media attention, the convening authority may well be of the view that sooner is better than later with respect to the completion of the administrative investigation.”

The launch of a summary investigation doesn’t preclude a board of inquiry at a later point, said the DND.

Waiting on post-mortem reports

During a summary investigation, the investigator contacts families to ask questions and later shares the results with them, said the department.

The findings “are not made public in their entirety given the sensitivities and personal information they contain,” the DND added.

A spokesperson for the RMC said last week that no changes have been made to the infrastructure on Point Frederick “at this time” as the military is waiting on final reports from the Office of the Chief Coroner and the summary investigation.

“It would be premature to initiate any change until the final recommendations of the summary investigation have been submitted,” the spokesperson said. 

military law experts surprised by form of internal investigation into 4 cadets deaths 1
Authorities pulled the vehicle from the St. Lawrence River on Friday, April 29, 2022. (CBC)

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for the coroner’s office said it’s waiting on final post-mortem reports, including toxicology results, before it provides the results of the four death investigations to the CFNIS and the officer conducting the internal summary investigation. 

The results of the death investigations may also be provided to the families upon request, the spokesperson added. 

The DND has made no commitment to release any of that information publicly.

“When the Office of the Chief Coroner investigation is complete, the CFNIS may communicate findings with due regard to the wishes of the families and privacy laws as appropriate,” said the department spokesperson.

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