Hon. Julian Fantino:
Let me thank you for stepping in. We wish him well, of course.
I thank you for the opportunity to appear today as part of the comprehensive review of the new Veterans Charter.
I thank you for having introduced our deputy and the general, as well. I'll move on to my comments.
In 2011, Parliament passed Bill C-55, which created one new monthly payment, expanded the eligibility for two monthly financial benefits, and allowed veterans to break their lump sum into more flexible terms of their choice. It also added a requirement that these new measures be reviewed by Parliament in 2013.
Upon taking office, I heard clearly from the Veterans Ombudsman, veterans groups, and stakeholders that a wider review of the new Veterans Charter was needed. I therefore asked my parliamentary secretary to ensure that a comprehensive review of the new Veterans Charter be taken up in short order. I am pleased to be here today to discuss how we can improve the new Veterans Charter for veterans and their families.
As you undertake this review, l'd like to take a minute to discuss my hopes for your work.
It is my firm belief that you should focus the review on how the new Veterans Charter serves the most seriously injured, how our government supports Canadian veterans' families, and how Veterans Affairs delivers the programs that have been put in place.
Some have said this should be a travelling road show. I disagree. I believe Canadians and veterans from across the country should be able to submit their comments or insights to you directly, and I believe we should remain focused.
Colleagues, the new Veterans Charter was unanimously passed by Parliament under the former government after years of debate and study among experts, veterans' representatives, and veterans themselves. While we can never say everyone, the vast majority obviously concluded that the old pension system had outlived its usefulness.
I encourage members to read the Senate's report on the new Veterans Charter, issued last year.
I would also highlight a comment Senator Roméo Dallaire stated upon its introduction in the other place:
||...it is with great anticipation that I am speaking to [the new Veterans Charter], which proposes to modernize our veterans' assistance and compensation program...in fact, a new social contract between the people of Canada and our veterans, both past and present.
Advances in medical knowledge and disability management, and changing demographics among the veterans population were just some of the changes that led to this new approach in 2005. As the situation facing Canadian veterans changed from 2005 to today, so too has the new Veterans Charter and how it is applied.
We will be distributing copies of a report my department has produced, which outlines 160 adopted recommendations which led to 107 improvements to the administration of benefits and services under the new Veterans Charter. These changes represent our collective effort to keep pace with changing times, but I will be the first to agree that more needs to be done.
Colleagues, since 2005 we have seen the effects of the war in Afghanistan on our military men and women. With the new payment and options introduced in 2011, more financial support has been directed to those who have been seriously injured. However, I am convinced, as I stated earlier, more can and should be done.
Our commitment to veterans is absolute, and has been so since our government was first formed in 2006.
One must only look at the overall Veterans Affairs budget to see how, even during a recession and a government-wide cost reduction exercise, Veterans Affairs spends approximately $700 million more today than in 2005.
The work our government does each day has been and can be called many things: duty, responsibility, commitment, social contract, obligation, sacred or not, or covenant. Colleagues, I believe it is all of those things.
Therefore, as part of this review, I ask you to determine how best to state our commitment to Canadians and their families and what is the best format to do so in the new Veterans Charter.
It is important that Canadians express through the parliamentary process exactly what is our shared duty, responsibility, mandate, obligation, commitment, or covenant to Canadian veterans.
Returning to the changing times, Veterans Affairs offices in eight locations across Canada have seen demand drop, and so yes, they are being closed. However, where veterans need them most, our government has maintained 26 Veterans Affairs Canada service centres, has established and supports 24 integrated personnel support centres and 17 operational stress injury clinics. In total, Veterans Affairs will have 67 locations across the country to meet the changing need but this is again only part of the story.
Imagine how many times a veteran has driven past a Service Canada office on the way downtown to pick up a brochure from a Veterans Affairs district office. Now, in locations where Veterans Affairs has never operated before, veterans and their families can visit one of 600 Service Canada sites to get the information they need.
As times have changed, so too have the rates being paid under the funeral and burial program. The average cost of a funeral today is just over $7,000. That is why last spring our government increased the maximum payment to $7,376 while providing an additional $1,200 on average to a veteran's family for any burial costs. In so doing, we have one of the most robust programs of our allies. By comparison, the United States provides just over $2,000, the United Kingdom provides $3,500, and New Zealand provides $1,800, all noted in Canadian dollars.
It is clear this program has kept up with the changing times, because of improvements made by our government.
I will also take a moment to speak about the supplementary estimates (B), which this year includes a request for another $20 million to support Canadian veterans' funeral costs, our commemorative promotional programs, and to increase the war veterans allowance and other health-related benefits. This further request for new financial support builds on our government's record of almost $5 billion in new financial support since 2006. With our administration costs on the decline, this means every new request for additional funding from Parliament will more and more directly affect Canadian veterans.
I have one final thought before I take your questions. The exercise you are embarking on is not one of the elusive pursuit of perfection, but rather is about finding the reasonable solutions that will focus on the veterans and their families who need them the most, especially the critically injured and the homeless as examples.
Mr. Chair and members, thank you.
Mr. Sylvain Chicoine:
It's a shame that you continue to evade the question. We have an obligation and we should all recognize that. We have a duty to look after our veterans. We don't understand why the government is skirting the issue and refusing to use the legal terminology in question, when it would be easy to acknowledge that we have a sacred obligation to look after our veterans.
Since you persist in evading the question, I'll use my time to ask you another, this time, about funeral expenses.
The funeral benefit was increased to $7,300, but the eligibility criteria are still so restrictive that very few families can access it. Despite raising the amount, the government isn't spending any more money because the eligibility criteria are such that very few people qualify.
Is any consideration being given to relaxing the eligibility criteria so that the money in the Last Post Fund is used to actually help families in need? If the veteran's estate is valued above the $12,000 limit, a paltry amount, the veteran's family is denied the funeral benefit. The estate exemption limit hasn't been increased in years; in fact, it was even reduced 20 years ago. Do you have any plans to broaden the criteria at all?
Hon. Julian Fantino:
Thank you for that question.
As I indicated in my comments, this is an opportunity for us not only to do the review that was required of Bill C-55, but to amplify the work, the research, the kinds of review that will enable us to better define what our commitment is to veterans.
We heard about different terminology, different dialogue. I think it's important for us to come to a consensus or an agreed reference on what it is we are in fact endeavouring to do, whether it's a social contract commitment, social obligations, the sacred obligation, or all of those things. I think we should try to find what it is exactly we need to address. Hopefully those words will then reflect into meaningful action throughout the whole of our service and support for veterans.
I believe the new Veterans Charter should reflect this more clearly. We should state that up front. It should be our vision, our mission, and something that all of us can embrace as a purpose and intent for why we're here in our responsibility to our veterans and their families.
I think that should be something that you, I hope, can come up with and we can embody in this revisiting of the new Veterans Charter.
Hon. Jim Karygiannis (Scarborough—Agincourt, Lib.):
Thank you, Chair.
Minister, your department is closing nine centres. That affects 26,788 veterans. A lot of the veterans are saying they don't want these centres to be closed.
Of the centres that are to be closed, for example Sydney, people will have to travel to Halifax. I'm not sure if you have ever done that trip. I had the opportunity to do it. It's about a four-and-a-half to five-hour drive. People from Windsor will have to drive to London. That's a two-hour drive.
A lot of the veterans, especially the older ones, don't have access to a computer. They don't have access to the 1-800 number. When you are 80 or 85 years old and you dial the 1-800 number, and hear “press one, press two”, some people get frustrated.
The other thing is, these veterans fought in order to put us in front of the line.
Sir, I put it to you that your department is making these veterans go to the back of the line because when you tell them to go to the Service Canada centre, a lot of the Service Canada centres are not equipped to deal with the veterans' needs. The veterans are asked to use the phone and to call the 1-800 number and usually they get the 1-800 number for Service Canada. I'm not sure if you yourself have dialed it, but if you haven't, I suggest you do.
One of my questions to you, sir, is why don't you take a trip down to Sydney? Look the veterans in the eye. Ronald Clarke, for example, he's a good Tory; tell him you're closing the centres. We've got some vets in this room. Maybe you want to look them in their eyes and say you're closing their centres.
Further, your department in 2009 ordered 27,388 medical records. These are boxes. I'm not sure if in one box there is one veteran, or two, or three, but usually in one box you probably have two or three, but let's say for the sake of argument you have three. That translates to about 90,000 veterans whose medical records were destroyed. Are you going to tell me that some of them were people who had passed away?
Sir, I put it to you that there are records in there of people who are alive. One of them is trying to get his records. He couldn't get his records, and neither could others. There are a lot of veterans out there who want to get their records, but they're scared to come forward because of what is happening in your department.
Medical files are being breached. I'll give you a couple of examples: Dennis Manuge, Sean Bruyea, Harold Leduc. These people's medical files were breached. People are scared to come forward and ask for their medical records and to say, “Am I alive as far as you're concerned, or am I dead?” I put to you that Kenneth Young is very much alive and yet your department thinks he's dead because you destroyed his medical records.
Minister, would you go to Sydney, Nova Scotia, look the vets in the eye and say, "I'm not going to close your centres" or look them in the eye and say, "Yes, I'm closing your centres"?
Mr. Bryan Hayes (Sault Ste. Marie, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Minister, welcome.
I appreciate the efforts your department is doing to provide training to Service Canada centre personnel. My riding in Sault Ste. Marie never had a Veterans Affairs office; it was always in North Bay. Now the folks in Sault Ste. Marie can go to the Service Canada centre to receive pertinent information specific to Veterans Affairs. I want you to know that they appreciate it.
Also, Minister, I want to thank you on behalf of the Korean War vets in my riding, for your efforts with respect to the recognition of Canadian Korean War veterans. I had an opportunity to host a great event in my riding in partnership with the Legion. In Sault Ste. Marie we had 23 Korean War vets come out, and I hosted a lunch and presented your certificates and had speeches.
I have a picture here of that particular event, and I'll be sure to send an electronic version to your office. Once again, I want to thank you for your efforts.
With regard to my first question, and Mr. Chicoine alluded to it, you stated that veterans now have access to $75,800 for post-secondary education and trades training or certification. Having supported paying for both of my sons' university tuitions, that is an appropriate amount. That covers four years of education.
I want to get a sense of how this is different from the previous amount and what was previously in place.
Hon. Julian Fantino:
Thank you for the question.
Surely, one of the things we hope we can improve on is our service delivery to veterans. To that end, any recommendations that come forward from this body will be well received and certainly will be very helpful.
We obviously are on a mission to cut red tape wherever we can, optimizing the ability to serve the needs of our veterans. There's also the misgiving that's in place. There's so much misinformation for someone who's come into this world relatively new in terms of having to learn the issues from many different perspectives, and sort out truth from fiction and misinformation, and who has some difficulty in understanding some issues. The one thing I can say is that we have many challenges, but surely one of them is to ensure that especially veterans, veterans advocacy groups, and stakeholders are empowered with the proper information to enable them to make decisions.
One of the items which I think needs to be done is how we communicate in a more efficient, more effective, way to veterans in terms of what they need to know. We probably need to do some work in that particular area. There are things which I hope this committee will consider and will share with us.
One of the misgivings of course, as we heard earlier, is the business about closures of offices. The offices are being closed for what we believe to be all the right reasons, but there are things in place. Nobody is requiring veterans who are in need of support or in need of direct contact with people to drive two hours anywhere. We will come to their homes. Case managers or case workers, nurses or whomever, will come to their homes. It's things like this that we need to work on.
It isn't always about how we do things, but it's also about empowering people to know what their rights entitlement is also about and to be able to sort out fact from fiction.
Hon. Julian Fantino:
Mr. Chair, and members, I happen to come from a profession where in my experience I dealt a lot at the community level, obviously, with homelessness issues. It was not specific to veterans, but homelessness generally.
I feel that any veteran who is homeless is one homeless veteran too many. In actual fact, there's a pilot project under way involving a number of cities across Canada. There's great data coming together. A number of stakeholder groups are working very hard to help us identify and help homeless veterans realize their hopes and aspirations rather than be on the street.
I was recently in Calgary, where there's a homelessness program with a veterans focus which is achieving tremendous success. Our intent is that we need to do more in this particular area. We need to broaden our partnership with a lot of the entities that are now working in this particular area, such as the Royal Canadian Legion and Good Shepherd Ministries in Toronto. There are so many of them.
We need to do more in this particular area, because as I stated, fundamentally, one homeless veteran is one too many. I think we can do much better in this particular area.
Here again, Mr. Chair, and members, if you have any suggestions or recommendations that can address that very issue, we would be very pleased if you would share them with us.
Hon. Julian Fantino:
Thank you for the question.
One of the things in our research and in just looking back on history, if you will, I needed to know how the new Veterans Charter came to be and why, and all of that. That was a very, very important learning experience, certainly for me, to be able to compare what was in the old pension system to what the new Veterans Charter brought on board.
I appreciate fully that this was something that came about as a result of a lot of input from veterans themselves and veterans groups, and the various political parties all joined in to provide enhanced benefits, services and programs, and support for veterans and their families, which then became known as Bill C-55, and then, of course, the new Veterans Charter and all of that.
Since that time, it truly has been a living document, because in the interim period and up to recent times, there have been well over 100 very significant improvements made. In fact, I think the number of actual changes is something in the area of 160. It has been a consistent ongoing effort to better align services, programs, and support for veterans and their families, keeping pace with the changing times up to this point in time.
Granted, we can do better, and I think it's a very responsible thing we're doing, with your help and support, in that we'll now have a review and see if we can move forward in continuing this effort, but there has been a lot of effort to date, and I think that has to be acknowledged. We can't just constantly be negative about the progress, the support, and the commitment of almost five billion more new dollars to veterans programs and services since the new Veterans Charter came into being.
That's not chump change. That's a lot of commitment translated into program services. We have to thank the Canadian taxpayer for their contribution, their efforts, and their support to veterans, which continues.
We hope you can help us do even better.
The Vice-Chair (Mr. Peter Stoffer):
Mr. Minister, thank you very much for that.
As the chair, I have the prerogative to take the next opposition time for four minutes.
I have the following question for you. If you can't answer it for legal reasons, just say so, okay?
In the Equitas case, when the crown stated, and I'm paraphrasing, that the only fiduciary or social responsibility was towards the aboriginal community and not necessarily the veterans community, that sent shivers up the spines of a lot of veterans and their organizations out there.
There's a simple question I have for you. You sort of danced around it a bit in your preamble. I understand the difficulty in answering the question, but I'll ask again. Does the government, in your view, have a moral, legal, social, or fiduciary responsibility to care for those they asked to put in harm's way? We think it's a yes or no answer, but if you can't answer it in that regard, I'll accept that as a legal concern not to interfere with a court case.
The Vice-Chair (Mr. Peter Stoffer):
Thank you very much for that.
As you know, Mr. Semianiw, I asked this question last time you were here, along with the deputy minister, about the Canada pension disability clawback or benefit reduction. As you know, if you are 50 years old and you are seriously injured from the military or the RCMP and you are permanently disabled where you can no longer work, you can apply for Canada pension disability. If you have, say, 25 or 30 years in, you also get a portion of your superannuation. However, if you apply for CPP disability and receive it, that CPP disability at 50 is clawed back from your superannuation which, by the way, upsets an awful lot of people out there.
I had asked the last time if it was possible that the department could look at this and come back with any kind of a response. I haven't received that yet so I'll leave that with you again. Perhaps it's possible to get a written response of what the government plans to do, not about the CPP clawback at 65, but the CPP disability clawback which affects everyone in the federal public service, mind you, but it's specifically RCMP and military veterans.
There are two other things I have for you before you go.
The national monument is a beautiful piece that's out there. It's just gorgeous. I'm not a wordsmith to describe how beautiful it is, but it is missing something very important. If you served in the Boer War, Bosnia, or any other conflict of war of that nature, you're not there. They have World War I, World War II, and Korea.
I suggested a while back the words “in the service of Canada” be imprinted on that monument in order to reflect every single person in the past, currently, and in the future. You can't have every battle and conflict on there—I understand that—but if the words “in the service of Canada” or something of that nature were there, then the modern-day veterans, those who served in other areas like Bosnia, Cyprus, etc., would feel more inclusive towards that. I personally believe this because this is what they've told me.
I'll just leave that with you. If you'd like to respond, go ahead.
The Vice-Chair (Mr. Peter Stoffer):
Thank you. This is my last question for you.
With the Last Post Fund, as you know, the limit of $12,000 was implemented by a previous government in 1995. It went from $24,000 to $12,000. With the new moneys that were passed by Parliament, according to retired Lieutenant-General Lou Cuppens, two-thirds of applicants will still not be eligible for the fund.
Are you at all contemplating raising the $12,000 limit—if it were the $24,000, and with inflation at least $35,000 to $40,000—so that more veterans and their families would be able to qualify for this? With the $12,000 limit, there are still two-thirds of applicants who will be denied.
On my final question, could I have a response from you, sir.
Hon. Jim Karygiannis:
Thank you, Chair.
The deputy said that over the phone you can help a veteran fill out the forms. For an 80-year-old veteran from Korea or an 85-year-old or a 90-year-old veteran from World War II, it would be very difficult to fill out the forms and to listen to somebody over the phone telling them, “Fill in here, fill in there”.
I go back to ask you, sir, why we are closing down these centres where the vets need them the most. Mr. Stoffer said he had 11 vets on the phone, and these people are probably still waiting to be contacted. There are 27,688 vets who are being affected by the closure of the nine centres. As has been revealed, the only people who will get home visits are people who are case managed. I will put it to you further that for an 80-year-old or a 90-year-old trying to fill out the form over the phone it will be very challenging. Would you reconsider, sir, the closing of your centres? Would you consider leaving them open?
Last week Bill C-11 was introduced, and it said we're going to give priority to veterans to be at the front of the line to get jobs with federal departments. While you're saying you'll give them priority, you're closing centres and you're destroying jobs.
Having heard everything that has been said here today, I ask you again if you would reconsider and look the vets in the eyes and say, “Let's talk about it”, and maybe we should leave the centres open because an 80-year-old cannot fill out a form over the phone.
Here is one last chance, Minister. Would you reconsider leaving the centres open, yes or no?