From the outside, the Canada Training Centre in Kemptville, Ont., 50 kilometres south of downtown Ottawa, looked like nondescript military barracks. But its mission was anything but ordinary.
The building, now demolished, was used for nearly 20 years as a training facility for a covert Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) squad tasked with spy operations. Inside, agents learned how to crawl into tight spaces and drill holes through walls to secretly install surveillance equipment.
Years later, some of those officers are wondering whether the building might have been responsible for their own health problems — and for the deaths of some of their colleagues.
“The first thing as you walked in, you would smell the mould from the basement. It was almost sickening,” recalled Mike, an active RCMP officer who spent weeks training at the facility.
CBC has agreed to give him a pseudonym because of the sensitive nature of his work.
“There were literally hundreds of dead flies in our rooms. We had cleaning staff that would clean the rooms, [but] by the end of the day, we would go back to our rooms and find more dead flies. It was a running joke — a sad one, though,” he said.
Mike completed four three-week stints at the training centre in 2004.
“We trained there, we slept there, we ate there,” he said.
Mike remembers one time when colleagues used the oven to warm up a pizza. “A few minutes later, they took it out, and there were a bunch of bugs and silverfish crawling out of it.”
The RCMP used the building from 1988 until it closed in 2006. Today, the lot at 270 County Road 44 sits empty.
The training centre housed a school used mainly for recruits of the force’s Special I unit, whose members are called upon to install electronic surveillance equipment during undercover investigations.
For that purpose, the building, constructed in 1961 as a Cold War bunker, was ideal because it allowed the agents to practise their craft away from prying eyes.
“Without getting into the specifics of our techniques, because I’m bound to keep some information secret, we had to drill into concrete, cut into drywall, put wires in the ceiling, work on the roof,” Mike said.
Several other Special I agents Radio-Canada spoke with confirmed both the nature of their training and the state of disrepair at the facility.
“We would be within the structure of the building, up in the ceiling. I mean there was probably not an inch of that building that we would not be in at any given time,” one said. “There would be mice feces. We were expected to do scenarios in the basement, and there was black mould. It was a dump.”
A long list of contaminants
What some RCMP officers didn’t know back then was that the building was not just dirty but also contaminated.
Tap water contained lead levels 14 times higher than permitted limits, according to a 2005 report done for Public Works, the federal department in charge of real estate assets, including the Canada Training Centre.
“The paint work on the wall is also lead paint and flaking, peeling and mouldy in many areas, ceiling tiles throughout are old, and many show signs of water damage, carpeting is mouldy,” wrote an RCMP health and safety officer in another report, also from 2005.
“The kitchen facility used by trainees and staff does not meet public health standards…. Utensils, pots and pans … are stored in mice-infested drawers and cabinets.”
According to inspection reports produced between 1997 and 2007, there was asbestos in building materials, including “the ceilings and floor tiles, roof and siding shingles, drywall tape and plaster.” Silica was used “in concrete and bricks throughout the building.” Mould was also found, including toxic spores.
Tests also revealed excessive levels of lead as early as 1997, according to the documents.
Fungus in the lungs
“I remember being sick every time I trained there. Stomach problems,” Mike said.
The health problems lingered long after he left the facility. In 2010, he nearly died from histoplasmosis, a lung infection caused by fungus. Doctors had to remove part of his right lung, and the disease went on to attack his nervous system.
In a 2011 letter, Mike’s physician established a direct link between his condition and earlier “workplace environmental exposure.” Mike was forced to take a powerful antifungal drug for nearly two years in order to stop the disease’s progression.
Despite all that, Mike considers himself lucky.
Following a months-long investigation, Radio-Canada identified at least six RCMP members who had trained at the facility and who died prematurely. Radio-Canada also reached out to half a dozen members who suffered or are suffering from ailments, including Parkinson’s disease.
Mike believes some officers might be suffering from diseases without knowing they were exposed to toxic agents.
Over the years, the training facility hosted members of different RCMP units, including the Special Entries Section, as well as employees from different agencies, such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. Maintenance personnel also worked there.
During the 1998 ice storm, the building housed military personnel, emergency workers and community members.
6 troubling deaths
The story of a man nicknamed “Charlie” frequently came up during interviews with Special I members.
Sgt. Charles Moore, a member of the Special I covert squad, was co-ordinator at the training centre from 2003 until 2006.
His widow, Jane Moore, said her husband was never one to complain, but she remembers he used to talk about the mould in the building and how the carpet under his feet was always damp.
Moore said her husband’s health issues started in 2003. He was an avid sportsman but had to gradually stop physical activity when he began to feel weak and unsteady. Later, he suffered from dropping blood pressure and incontinence.
Around the same time, an inspection report raised severe issues with the facility.
“The health and safety of our personnel are in jeopardy by using the existing facility,” wrote an RCMP occupational health and safety officer in 2005.
“This also goes for Sergeant Moore, who at the present time is using the facility three days a week to prepare and maintain the training aids and equipment.”
Despite that report, Moore was still working inside the facility in 2006. That same year, he was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder similar to Parkinson’s. He died six years later at the age of 57.
Moore’s case unusual
Dr. Christopher Skinner, a neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital who treated Moore, agreed to speak about the case with the permission of Moore’s widow.
“The unusual thing I find about this case was that it was fairly rapidly progressive. From visit to visit, you could see that he was changing quickly,” Skinner said.
According to Skinner, Moore’s medical record didn’t include toxicology reports, making it hard to establish a direct link between his disease and his exposure to contaminants. Nonetheless, a link is possible, Skinner said.
“We’ve known for years that certain heavy metals, such as manganese and lead, can affect the motor system, which then causes these symptoms,” he explained.
“But it’s becoming increasingly known within the neurology world that what we call autoimmune forms of Parkinson’s occur when you get exposed to some sorts of virus or a fungus, and then your immune system reacts to that, and then it turns on the brain.”
According to Skinner, one of the two scenarios might have been at play in Moore’s case.
“There is no doubt that he was subject to a fairly toxic environment and that any one of those possibilities — whether it’s heavy metal or an autoimmune-triggered disorder — could have been perhaps an explanation for why he had a relatively rapid progressive disorder.”
Skinner said that a genetic predisposition, combined with an exposure to such triggers as toxic products, can also cause a variety of cancers.
A tale of 2 twins
Radio-Canada spoke to the families of five other RCMP members who trained at the Kemptville facility and later died of various cancers.
The five men were between the ages of 39 and 53 when they died. Two died of colon cancer; the others died of eye, throat and liver cancer, respectively.
Chris Fedor died of colon cancer in 2002 at the age of 43. His identical twin, Greg Fedor, is also an RCMP officer, but never trained at the Kemptville facility.
“It was weird that one twin would be so sick and the other one not, the DNA being exact,” Greg Fedor said. “I got checked right away and have to get checked every two years.”
The disease that took his twin was extremely aggressive, Fedor said.
“It was so quick. The doctors said they couldn’t understand how quickly this had occurred,” Fedor recalled.
It was a common remark from families of the deceased officers, one of whom died of colon cancer three years after undergoing a colonoscopy and being given a clean bill of health.
Relatives of the deceased men also told Radio-Canada they didn’t know their loved ones had been exposed to contaminants.
Without in-depth toxicology reports, CBC is unable to establish a direct link between the building in Kemptville and the diseases that took the officers’ lives.
‘Suck it up, buttercup’
“We complained a lot during debriefings following courses. Everyone was talking about it,” one Special I officer who trained in Kemptville in the early 2000s told Radio-Canada.
“The complaints went on for years,” confirmed another Special I member who trained in Kemptville for a total of 12 weeks between 2001 and 2003. “But you know, it’s a good old boys club, and it’s like, ‘Suck it up, buttercup.'”
In 2005, with no sign of improvement at the facility, Mike and other officers decided to fill out a “hazardous occurrence form.”
According to internal RCMP documents, that’s what finally led to the scathing 2005 report by a health and safety officer.
“For reasons too numerous to count, this facility should not be used for future training,” the officer wrote.
After conducting tests a few months later, a firm specializing in hazardous environments issued a similar warning.
“Due to the water damage, the basement has been deemed to be a high-level mould contamination area and cannot be accessed unless wearing appropriate personal protective equipment,” its report stated.
The building was closed in 2006 and demolished the following year.
Mike said he doesn’t blame his current bosses at the RCMP because they weren’t in charge back then. But he believes the force has a duty to contact all members who spent time at the facility to inform them they may have been exposed to hazardous materials.
Mike discovered the extent of the contamination inside the facility only after he filed access to information requests.
In April 2019, he filed a complaint against the RCMP with Employment and Social Services Canada, alleging the police force violated its obligations. Mike also accused the RCMP and Public Works of having failed to inform employees, partner agencies and members of the public of the hazards that had been identified.
He decided to speak out publicly after his complaint was ruled inadmissible, in part because two years had elapsed since the alleged violations.
“If the RCMP is made aware of new concerns regarding the health and safety of personnel who worked or trained in this facility, it will take follow-up measures,” RCMP spokesperson Daniel Brien told Radio-Canada in French in an email.
However, the RCMP insists “staff and those who received training at the centre were informed back then of the presence of contaminants.”
The RCMP acknowledges it’s responsible for the health and safety of its employees and insists their wellbeing is a top priority. Yet several officers told Radio-Canada they were never made aware of all the contaminants in the building.
Public Services and Procurement Canada, formerly called Public Works, referred questions about the building to the RCMP.