By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
The horrors of war extend far beyond the battlefield, and nowhere is that sentiment more apparent than in the tragic story of Lt./Col. Sam Sharpe.
Now, following years of effort, Durham Conservative MP Erin O’Toole has succeeded in ensuring that tale will never be forgotten.
But first, let’s take a step more than 100 years into the past.
In 1872, Sam Sharpe was born in the small Uxbridge hamlet of Zephyr. He would call Durham Region home for most of his life. He practised law in Uxbridge and acted as the town’s solicitor for 10 years before moving on to pursue political aspirations.
In 1908, he was elected to the House of Commons in the riding of Ontario North (now Durham), and reelected in 1911.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Sharpe was initially passed over for service. However, in 1916, he would form the 116th Battalion which would arrive in England for training in the summer of that year. In February 1917, the batallion would be deployed in France, taking part in some of the bloodiest battles of the Great War.
Sharpe commanded his unit through the Canadian successes at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and later took part in the horror that was Passchendaele, where more than 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the fight, some of them drowning in the thick mud covered battlefied.
The battle would see Shapre receive an award for gallantry. However, he would later be hospitalized for “nervous shock.”
Sadly, on May 25, 1918, while hospitalized at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Sharpe jumped from a window, killing himself.
For O’Toole, who now occupies Sharpe’s former seat, when he was elected in 2012, he knew of Sharpe’s story, but not of his tragic demise. However, when he went looking for further information or commemoration, he was stymied.
“I was a veteran, Conservative MP, lawyer, a very similar background to Sharpe, and then when I realized he wasn’t even on the Parliamentary history of the Great War on the House of Commons website and I looked around and he was basically forgotten in Ottawa,” O’Toole says.
It was made more surprising by the fact that the other serving MP who died in combat, Lt./Col. George Baker, is currently commemorated with a life-sized sculpture in the foyer of Parliament. The significant difference there being that Baker died on the battlefield.
O’Toole believes that the stigma around suicide and mental health that existed 100 years ago may have kept government from honouring Sharpe’s impressive legacy.
Additionally, O’Toole says there may have been a more accidental reason for the lack of commemoration for Sharpe, that being the fact that when the war ended, Parliament was meeting in an Ottawa museum, as the main buildings had burned down in 1916.
“They didn’t actually move back into the Centre Block of Parliament until 1920, and then in 1924 the statue of George Baker, the other MP was erected, so now you’re looking six years after Sharpe had passed, a number of the MPs had left,” O’Toole says.
However, with the past aside, O’Toole says it is more relevant than ever to honour Sharpe’s legacy.
“It doesn’t mater that it’s almost 100 years after, it’s the principle of it and it also allows us to talk about mental health injuries from service and uniform and lets us help people and reduce stigma today, while also rectifying a miss that nobody’s responsible for,” he says.
The last week of May marked 100 years since Sharpe’s death, and O’Toole succeeded in bringing both sides of Parliament together in support of a motion to place a plaque in Sharpe’s honour in the foyer of Parliament. The plaque was created in 2016, but the change in government kept it from ever being erected.
“It doesn’t matter what background you come from, you can be impacted by a mental health issue,” O’Toole says. “Sam Sharpe shows that this type of injury can hit anyone, let’s make sure that people get the help that they need and don’t feel isolated or alone.”
O’Toole, a veteran himself, hopes that moving forward, the plaque and the recognition of Sharpe’s story will help to encourage others who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress or mental health issues to seek assistance.
“By telling the story of Sam Sharpe today, we’re actually encouraging people to not be worried about getting some help if they have post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety, or depression as a result of their service. It’s encouraging them to get help faster because we’re reducing the stigma,” he says.
Currently, plans are in place to have the plaque erected before Remembrance Day this year, which will commemorate 100 years after World War I. Unfortunately, in the fall of this year, the Centre Block of Parliament is set to close for 10 years of renovations. However, O’Toole says that plans have been approved to have Sharpe’s plaque relocated during the work to the Operation Stress Injury Clinic in Ottawa.