Jan Ravensbergen, CanWest News Service, October 9, 2006
MONTREAL — Chester Bednarski of Kirkland, Que., contends his officer training during the late 1970s at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick exposing him to defoliant Agent Orange triggered the cancer that today is killing him.
A further 1,400 Forces vets or family members with Gagetown in their past have raised a spectrum of concerns about the health effects of Agent Orange and are trying to get their day in court under a class-action law.
“We spent a lot of time crawling around the training area eating a lot of dust” at the base outside of Fredericton, says Bednarski, 60, harking back in particular to inhaling “constant plumes of dust” raised by tanks.
His doctors says he’s months from death, from inoperable kidney cancer.
He’s one of many ex-Gagetowners who have documented a wide range of medical problems after “really rolling around in the plants and the dirt, in intimate contact with the flora” on the base, as Bednarski phrases it.
Thousands of Canadian soldiers were exposed to 1.3-million litres of defoliants, including Agent Orange, sprayed at Gagetown between the mid-1950s and 1984, according to Department of National Defence records.
Most of the time, Ottawa argues, the defoliants were identical with those being sold and sprayed commercially in the rest of Canada.
But Agent Orange, tested by the U.S. military in Gagetown in 1966 and 1967, was produced south of the border under accelerated conditions during the Vietnam War and has been shown to have contained higher-than-usual levels of dioxin, rated a Group 1 carcinogen “known to be carcinogenic to humans,” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The U.S. National Toxicology Program also classifies dioxin as “known to be a human carcinogen.”
Bednarski’s nine months at Gagetown led to junior officer status, as a second lieutenant. He soon left the military for more lucrative work, first as a business executive and then as a stockbroker.
Since 1995, Veterans Affairs Canada has approved five applications for disability pensions submitted by ex-Gagetowners claiming ill effects from Agent Orange exposure at the base.
Between June 1, 2005 and Oct. 2, 2006 Veterans Affairs rendered 1,203 decisions on requests for Agent Orange disability pensions. “The majority” of those applications were related to service at Gagetown, department official Julie Daoust said.
Veterans Affairs accepted two of those applications and turned down the rest of the ex-Gagetowners, she added.
Bednarski was among those rejected. Undaunted, he has chosen to stay on the front lines of this fight from his sickbed.
He’s emerged as the Quebec lead plaintiff in a far-reaching lawsuit over the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange, Agent Purple, Agent White and other herbicides at Gagetown.
Along with Bednarski, some 1,400 former members of the Canadian military who served at the base, or their family members who were housed there, have to date enlisted in a class-action request filed in Federal Court of Canada in July 2005.
They claim “devastating illnesses in men, women and children” and “premature and wrongful death” because of “negligent spraying of harmful chemicals including Agent Orange.”
Ottawa “is committed to a timely response to Agent Orange concerns,” Daoust said, and is developing “compensation options for government consideration that are fair and compassionate.”
While those options will likely be “considered later this fall or in early 2007,” she added, no timeframe has been set for them to be implemented.
The class-action suit, which several Ottawa officials say is completely independent of the compensation-options process, has already raised a series of legal issues that boost the prospects for appeals along several steps of the way.
And with a final court verdict likely years away, Bednarski has no illusions he’ll last the distance.
“There’s no magic pill for what I’ve got,” he said. “I’ve made my peace with God.
“I’m doing this because I think it can help the others,” including his wife, other veterans and their families.
The case stalled temporarily after Ottawa filed court papers in March contending herbicide producers Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. should both be parties to the action because they produced the Agent Orange used at Gagetown in 1966 and 1967 – and should be liable to the Crown for any damages awarded.
On May 3, for that reason, the lawsuit was moved to provincial jurisdiction from Federal Court.
On Sept. 22, the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench ruled the request for class-action certification a necessary step to keep the case moving should be heard in that province.
The Crown, which argued vigorously that the case should be tried in N.B., hadn’t yet announced by week’s end whether it will appeal.
None of the claims has been proven in court. The plaintiffs haven’t pinpointed actual and punitive damages sought.
– About 291,000 people U.S. military veterans who served in Vietnam and family members obtained a $180-million U.S. class-action settlement in 1984 with Dow, Monsanto and five other companies for damages suffered as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange used to defoliate large swaths of South Vietnamese jungle and parts of Cambodia between 1961 and 1971. Those payments ended in 1997. While the U.S. settlement “is no precedent for liability,” a Federal Court judge in Canada ruled last May, it “illustrates the rationale for the claim” over CFB Gagetown.
– An extensive website has been developed and maintained by the Agent Orange Association of Canada, an advocacy group for ex-Gagetowners: www.agentorangealert.com
– Veterans Affairs Canada says the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) “is the leading scientific authority on Agent Orange” and has concluded there is “sufficient evidence of an association” for five types of medical conditions resulting from exposure: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), Soft-tissue sarcomas. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and Chloracne
– The IOM has also found “limited or suggestive evidence of an association” for seven other conditions, the department notes: Respiratory cancer (of lung and bronchus, larynx, and trachea). Prostate cancer, Multiple myeloma, Early-onset transient peripheral neuropathy, Porphyria cutanea tarda, Type 2 diabetes and Spina bifida in the children of veterans
– Veterans Affairs says it “accepts the findings of the IOM” and adds that “we use these findings to help rule on pension applications in relation to Agent Orange.”
Click on “Agent Orange” at: www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general or: 1-866-522-2122
– Department of National Defence has posted a variety of reports and information on the use of herbicides at Gagetown: www.forces.gc.ca/site/Reports/defoliant/index_e.asp
– The Base Gagetown and Area Fact-Finders’ Project has a mandate to report to the federal government on herbicide spraying programs at Gagetown: www.basegagetownandareafactfindersproject.ca or: 1-866-830-9090
© CanWest News Service 2006