OTTAWA – Hidden away somewhere on Parliament Hill is the bronzed relief of Lt.-Col. Samuel Sharpe.
Finished two years ago, the sculpture appeared destined for a spot in the foyer outside the House of Commons to commemorate the former MP and recognize all Canadian veterans struggling with psychological injuries.
Yet despite mounting calls for the Trudeau government to have it unveiled, the sculpture remains in storage, raising fears that Sharpe and other veterans suffering with mental trauma won’t get the recognition they deserve.
“He was hospitalized and then sadly he died by suicide,” said Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, who occupies Sharpe’s old seat and, as veterans affairs minister in 2015, first started the push to recognize the former MP.
“Let’s use that sad legacy to help people today make sure they come forward to get help. It’s not a political project; it’s the right thing to do.”
Sharpe was a sitting member of Parliament when he helped raise the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 116th battalion and then headed overseas to command the unit during the First World War.
Not only was Sharpe involved in some of the biggest and bloodiest Canadian battles of the First World War, he was re-elected in absentia only a few weeks after Passchendaele, where he received an award for gallantry.
But Sharpe would never retake his seat. The strain and trauma of Passchendaele, where more than 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded, including one of his closest friends, would be too much.
Sharpe was hospitalized for “nervous shock” a few months later and returned to Canada. On May 25, 1918, he jumped from a window at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal and killed himself.
There is already a sculpture in the foyer dedicated to the only serving MP to have died in combat; Lt.-Col. George Baker was killed during the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916, and his statue was erected in 1924.
But O’Toole, whose tenure as veterans affairs minister was dominated by concerns about vets suffering from psychological injuries, felt it was time to honour Sharpe — and send a message of support to those in need.
“By talking about it, and by putting a small plaque up to honour him, we’re going to show that we recognize there can be mental injuries just as severe as physical injuries from war,” O’Toole said Wednesday.
The initiative received support from the Liberals and NDP, as well as retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire, whose experience in Rwanda and subsequent struggle with PTSD are known to many Canadians.
“Putting a commemoration plaque not far from Baker’s is to recognize that they don’t all die on the battlefield. A bunch of them die at home from injuries of the battlefield,” Dallaire said. “And it should not be hidden away.”
Several Liberal MPs have also quietly come out in favour of the project.
Yet the space originally set aside for the relief, which was created by artist Tyler Briley, who himself has struggled with PTSD from his days as a firefighter, remains empty.
The sculpture’s fate currently lies with Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan, who will have to bring the matter to the House of Commons and Speaker Geoff Regan if he wants it in the foyer.
Spokesman Alex Wellstead said O’Regan’s commemoration advisory group, which is comprised of veterans and other stakeholders, are reviewing the matter and will come up with a recommendation on where it should go.
Wellstead would not say when a decision will be made, but Dallaire said he has heard some advisory group members are worried the Sharpe statue will be seen as glorifying suicide, which he called a “cop-out.”
One Liberal MP who supports the sculpture being placed in the foyer said he has also heard that officials are weighing whether to put the sculpture in a mental-health facility for veterans or inside the minister’s office.
O’Toole said his concern is that the Liberals are dragging their feet because they associate the initiative with the previous Conservative government, even though it had support from all parties in 2015.
And with Centre Block set to close next summer for 10 years of renovations, the fear is that Sharpe will be forgotten again if the sculpture isn’t erected soon.
“He deserves his place on the wall,” O’Toole said.
“And if the minister wants to cancel this project, he should come out and say he’s cancelling this project. Don’t defer to some committee of veterans or political excuses. Take ownership.”
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.