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How we can heal the invisible wounds of war

Canadian graves on Vimy Ridge, July 1917. (Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada)

When Canadians commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, one name that passed with little recognition was Sam Sharpe – one of two members of Parliament who gave his life for our country in the Great War, but today is almost forgotten, for the tragic reason that he took his own life.

We have the chance to address that – to pay homage to Sharpe and better recognize the mental effects of war that so many of our brave combatants continue to suffer. It’s a chance we’ve been sitting on for nearly two years.

In 2015, the Canadian government announced the placement of a plaque in Parliament’s Centre Block to honour Sharpe’s service and sacrifice. All three political parties gathered for the announcement, which was intended to right nearly a century of neglect. But since then, nothing has happened, even though a design for the plaque was unveiled.

A lawyer in the Town of Uxbridge, Ont., Sharpe was first elected to the House of Commons in 1908. Following the outbreak of the First World War, the MP raised the 116th Battalion and used his influence to keep the 116th together overseas instead of being broken up into reinforcements as were many others. Arriving in France in 1917, Lieutenant-Colonel Sharpe led his battalion through the battles of Vimy, Avion, Hill 70, Lens and Passchendaele. He witnessed hundreds of his men killed and wounded – many of them friends and constituents that he had personally recruited.

In December, 1917, Sharpe was the only MP re-elected to Parliament while fighting in France. The same year, he received the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry under fire. However, overcome by the mental strain of the front, he was hospitalized for nervous shock, until his release to Canada in May, 1918. His deteriorating mental state was evident in his letters, including his last message to a friend: “If I could only sleep at night I would be better. I suffer frightfully from insomnia.”

Just days after arriving back in Canada, on May 25, 1918, Sharpe leapt from a window of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.

Politicians, newspaper editors and the public viewed his death as a wartime casualty. He was included in Canada’s Book of Remembrance because his death was considered directly attributable to his service. The editor of the Toronto Globe eulogized, “He gave up his life as truly ‘on the field of honour’ as if he had fallen in action.”

A fellow MP and Great War veteran expressed the same sentiment in the House of Commons following the war, “I trust that a place will be found to erect some monument to his memory.”

Sadly, a place was never found.

In 1924, Parliament unveiled a life-sized statue of Lt.-Col. George Baker, which stands gloriously in the foyer of the House of Commons. Baker was also a serving MP who fought in the Great War until his death at the Battle of Sanctuary Wood. But a hardening of attitudes toward mental injuries during the war meant Sharpe’s service would be unrecognized, although like Baker, his name appears in the Book of Remembrance displayed in the Peace Tower.

Before a century of his death passes, we can properly honour Sharpe and use his story to reduce the stigma associated with talking about mental health and suicide. Operational Stress Injuries like PTSD have existed throughout our history, but it is only in recent decades that Canada and our allies have begun to recognize and treat them. As the Sharpe story demonstrates, a mental injury can strike anyone, regardless of rank or social status.

Not all injuries are visible, but today all injuries can be treated if people come forward to seek help. Next week is Mental Health Week, a fitting time for Parliament to honour one of its own, an MP who suffered and died as a result of his service. If we can’t do that, what kind of signal does it send to our military members, RCMP and first responders at a time when we are trying to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health?

Sharpe and Baker served in Parliament together, they both fought overseas and they both died as a result of serving Canada. They deserve to be recognized, side by side, in Canada’s Parliament.

Erin O’Toole is the MP for Durham and former minister of veterans affairs. Matthew Barrett is a PhD candidate in history at Queen’s University.