Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore, NDP)
|| That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) honour the service of Canadian military and RCMP veterans and their families by committing to not cut Veterans Affairs Canada in the upcoming budget; and (b) provide programs and services to all military and RCMP veterans and their families in a timely and comprehensive manner.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I thank the federal NDP for the opportunity to use one of our rare opposition day motions to highlight the very serious concerns facing our military and RCMP veterans and their families. I wish to inform you that I will be sharing my time today with the great member of Parliament for Québec.
The motion says very clearly that we are trying to help the Minister of Veterans Affairs maintain the fiscal budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that all programs and services will continue and so military and RCMP veterans and their families will have access to those services right now.
It is no secret that the last few Fridays I have mentioned in the House the situation of 90-year-old Ted Shiner from Bedford, Nova Scotia, who was denied VIP service to assist him. Ninety-seven year old Louis Dionne, a World War II veteran from North Vancouver, was told that it would take up to 16 weeks to get an answer as to whether he was eligible for VIP service, the veterans independence program, that would help him with housekeeping and groundskeeping services. This would allow him to stay in his home longer. That is the current level of service. If the department is cut, future military and RCMP veterans and their families will have a harder time accessing the benefits and services they so richly deserve.
Dan Slack of the Veterans Advocacy group told me something that I thought was very poignant. We and the government say that we send the very best to Afghanistan. We give the men and women the best training, the best equipment and the best mission in the world to deal with the situation. That is three bests in a row, but when they come back and ask for services and benefits, they do not get the best. What happened? We send them over there and praise the fact that they are the best in all aspects, but when they come back, a lot of them end up homeless. A lot of them struggle to get the benefits they require.
Bear in mind, we are talking about the proudest, bravest and most honest Canadian citizens there are, including their families. Our best and brightest serve in the RCMP and military. Simply calling the 1-866-522-2122 number looking for help is a tremendous feat, admitting they may have a problem, either medically or psychologically. Instead of telling them that they require these forms and that we will get back to them in 16 weeks, we should be asking them, very clearly, how we can help them. We should be asking them what they need to get back on track. However, that does not happen.
I want to praise the front-line staff members of VAC. I have met many of them across the country. The front-line workers of DVA do an outstanding job with what they have and they deserve our credit. The problem is they are restricted on what they can give. Certain things have to go up the chain for authorization and in many cases military and RCMP veterans have to go before the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and that is the crux of the problem. This politically-appointed board, and very few members of which have any military service and none are medical doctors, adjudicate on behalf of the Government of Canada through DVA on cases before them.
We remember all too well the case of Steve Dornan from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, who fought for nine years to get the benefits he required because he had cancer, which the doctors and everyone else admitted may have been caused by his exposure to chemicals and depleted uranium during this tour in Bosnia. He had to go to Federal Court to get the DVA to admit that it was not qualified to adjudicate medical evidence because the members were not medical doctors. What did VRAB do? It sent it back to the minister of the day and just before the election, the minister indicated that Mr. Dornan could receive benefits.
Why would a hero of our country, a sergeant in the military who has cancer, not be eligible for benefits? His wife had to stage a sit-in in the office of the member for West Nova to get the attention of the government. They have already fought for our country once. Why should they have to fight again?
The motion proposed motion today did not originate from the NDP. It came from every veterans advocacy group in the country. The Royal Canadian Legion, The Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada Association, the National Council of Veteran Associations, the National Aboriginal Veterans Association and the Canadian Veterans Advocacy Group support the motion. Many men and women in the service, although they cannot say publicly, have called to support the motion.
Every veterans advocacy group supports the motion and they did so in writing to the minister, asking that the department be exempted from the cuts in the March 29 budget. It was not us, but we are advocating on their behalf in order to help the minister ensure that the current level of benefits to the services will be maintained.
Later on members will hear the minister and others say that there will not be cuts to the programs and services to our current veterans. They may be correct, but the question is this. How do they get the service in the first place? That is the difficulty.
Right now the average case worker has over 900 cases with which to deal. Some of those cases are veterans with multi-injuries from psychological to severe physiological changes. Some have lost arms or legs and there are psychological injuries that create problems within families. They need an intensive amount of help, not just a “hi” and get passed on to someone else. They need time in front of someone in order to get help. Unfortunately, a lot of these case workers just do not have the physical time to do that.
Although I wanted to ask for an increase in the budget, my party said, no, that we would go with this and fight for further increases down the road. If the we can maintain what we have, that is a start.
I know the Minister of Veterans Affairs in his heart of hearts truly cares about the men and women of our services, in the RCMP and their families. I know a lot of these decisions come from the Treasury Board. I would often like to put a prophylactic barrier around the Treasury Board so it would stop doing to Veterans Affairs what sometimes Veterans Affairs does to our veterans.
The men and women of our country deserve the best. When the department picks up their numbers, the only response should be: “How can we help you and what is it that you need?” However, that is not how it works. Many veterans are told they can appeal, but they just give up on those folks and do not appeal at all. Let us not forget that we have close to 750,000 retired service and RCMP personnel along with their spouses. DVA admits that it only looks after around 215,000. Therefore, two-thirds of that community is not being serviced by Veterans Affairs.
Many veterans have not called in for a benefit yet. Many have said that they tried, but the department said no and they gave up. A lot said that they were not going to go through two, three, four or five years of fighting only to be told by people, who are politically appointed to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, that this was their final decision and if they did not like it, they could always go to the federal court. It is a shame.
I could go on all day and occupy the time of the House, but I know other people would like to speak to the motion. However, I ask the Government of Canada, the Conservatives, to join with us and all the veterans advocacy groups on the motion to maintain the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs so all veterans, RCMP veterans and their families will receive services in a timely and comprehensive manner. That is all we ask.
On behalf of my party, God bless all the men and women who serve and their families.
Ms. Annick Papillon (Québec, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my party for giving us this opportunity to debate a very important issue. I would also like to thank my colleague from Sackville—Eastern Shore, my party's lead veterans affairs critic, for his excellent work. He has been a member of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for many years. All across Canada, particularly in Halifax, where we went recently, I have met people who recognize and appreciate the work he does. This motion is his latest effort on behalf of veterans. Our party is proud to support veterans. We believe in honouring the heroes who went where nobody wanted to go. They went proudly, and they rose to every challenge brilliantly. I think we can all be proud of that.
This motion is actually very simple. It would exempt Veterans Affairs from the government's budget cuts. All departments and agencies are expected to cut between 5% and 10%. We want to spare veterans, as other countries, including Australia, the United States and even Great Britain, did when the time came for them to cut their budgets. Those countries spared their veterans. I think that we should do the same thing. We must support them and show them that we do not want them to feel abandoned and alone in this situation.
This motion has the support of the Royal Canadian Legion and the ombudsman's office, which are very worried about the government's looming budget cuts. We hope that the government will not proceed with cuts that would affect the care and services provided to our veterans.
As we know, 90% of the Veterans Affairs budget is spent on benefits, services and programs for veterans. Therefore, any cuts to the budget would clearly affect those services and benefits. Some 70% of Veterans Affairs staff provide direct services to veterans. With very limited resources, they manage to provide all necessary care. Although much remains to be done, they address these challenges remarkably well with very limited means. If the Veterans Affairs budget is cut, the services offered and the staff who provide direct care will be affected.
Let us talk about cuts. The Minister of Veterans Affairs said he wants to cut red tape and make it easier for veterans to access these programs and services. Yet he also announced the transfer of Ste. Anne's Hospital, the last hospital dedicated to veterans' services. This will cut 1,800 jobs. This means 40% of the department's staff will be cut. And 40% is huge. It is unbelievable.
Furthermore, the government is saying that despite the budget cuts, it will maintain the same services, if not do better. That is impossible. That logic is absolutely absurd. Everyone knows that, except perhaps this government, unfortunately. That is why we are sounding this latest wake-up call, to ask all the parties to come together to adopt this motion on behalf of our veterans, in order to put an end to that.
After taking a closer look at the problems facing our veterans, we think it is appalling that veterans have such a hard time accessing programs and services. There is also a shortage of resources. According to the ombudsman's latest report, that is precisely where we should be focusing our efforts. Of course, there is a shortage of human resources, for instance, but the department does not have the financial resources needed to provide all services. Problems in terms of mental and physical health also need to be considered.
Far too often there are waiting lists. In that regard, allow me to say a few words about Ste. Anne's Hospital, which is considered to be a hospital for veterans, mainly those from the second world war and the Korean War. We know that their numbers are decreasing. However, a few beds—I can count them on one or two hands—have been reserved for young veterans. Not only would we like to have more beds for young veterans, but we have every reason to believe that more beds are needed because there is a waiting list.
There are no long-term services provided for our modern-day veterans, and that is a problem. That is what we need to work on, by deploying more resources and certainly not by making budget cuts, as this government is doing.
These cuts have an impact on the quality of the services provided and how quickly they are delivered. We have very few resources right now. The department is dealing with that, but it still takes far too long before a veteran is able to receive benefits. Sometimes we are talking about months, even years before veterans get their benefits. If the government were to cut staff and resources, that would obviously have a very serious impact on our veterans.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the great importance of conducting health research for veterans. There is a desperate need. Although the claimants may fewer in number than during World War II or the Korean War, the complex nature of the cases of today's veterans requires a certain number of resources that really must not be overlooked. We must not think that we need fewer resources. Quite the opposite is true. These modern veterans need more resources. Information must be obtained and research must be conducted on mental and physical health.
If I may, I would like to provide some context. A few months ago, during Veterans' Week, a number of veterans spoke out about this situation. In my riding, Pascal Lacoste stood up to denounce the fact that he was having difficulty receiving care, as were many other veterans. These veterans' actions at the time, during Veterans' Week, showed that from coast to coast to coast, throughout Canada, many veterans are having problems obtaining care.
At that time, the Minister of Veterans Affairs indicated that he was aware that problems existed and that improvements needed to be made. He thus set up the scientific advisory committee on veterans’ health. To date, we still do not know exactly what this committee does. We know that it has met several times. The minister promised that the first subject that the scientific advisory committee on veterans’ health would address would be exposure to depleted uranium. He did this to reassure our veterans—including the veteran from my riding, Pascal Lacoste—and to let them know that this was important and that the problem would be looked into.
However, since that time, there has been complete radio silence. I was told to stay tuned. I remember asking a question, here in the House, to find out how all this was going to work, what the mandate of the committee was going to be and whether the committee would be tabling a report in the House, but we have heard nothing. There has not been any response from cabinet. It is absolutely shameful. This is a problem.
We are not going to abandon our veterans. We are going to push harder for more health research and more investments to support these veterans. We want to send a message to those who want to join the army: when they become veterans, we will not let them down. We will not leave them without care and services.
Hon. Steven Blaney (Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is always a great honour for me to rise in this House of Commons to speak and an even greater honour when it comes to speaking about our veterans. To begin, I want to say to our veterans who are watching us and to their families that all hon. members, regardless of their political differences—there are always differences—want to salute them and thank them for everything they do for our country, what they have done and what they continue to do. Veterans are at the heart of our society and our democracy. All parliamentarians can say thank you to our veterans and their families for what they have done and what they continue to do for us.
It is an honour for me to speak as a member of a government that, for six years, has been putting its heart and soul into improving the quality of life of our veterans.
I want to commend the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore on his motion. I know that he works hard for veterans. He is an honourable colleague for whom I have a great deal of respect. However, I must point out that when it comes time to stand up in the House for veterans—and not just talk about them—by voting funding for them, with the exception of Bill C-55, the opposition members fail us, unfortunately. They are not there when we need them in the House to implement budget initiatives to improve the quality of life of our veterans.
As I just said, I certainly acknowledge the work of this member and the opposition regarding our veterans, as well as their great speeches today in support of our veterans. However, there have been times when I think those members had wished they had stood with our government and supported our new investment in veterans and their families.
Unfortunately, time and time again, the New Democrats and the Liberals have voted against the veterans and against our budget initiatives. For that reason, I find it rich that the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore would bring forward a motion questioning our government's support and commitment to our veterans and their families, which is rock solid.
We have a motion in front of this House that deals with providing programs and services to all military and RCMP veterans. We are also serving RCMP veterans. I want to salute them today, including for their valour.
Our Conservative government has a record of investing in our veterans and their families. Let us be clear, as I have said over and over in and outside this House: we will maintain benefits to veterans, because we believe in our veterans. However, and let me be crystal clear, this will not prevent us from cutting red tape for our veterans.
Our veterans deserve a streamlining of the processes. Our government will keep on improving our processes and making this the hassle-free service they deserve. For this, I seek the support of the opposition. Are they willing to maintain the cumbersome red tape facing veterans?
I think we have an opportunity today to say clearly that we will maintain veterans' benefits but also make sure that we are making life easier for them when they deal with the government and Veterans Affairs. That is why in this form, the motion is not helping veterans. Our country must be there for veterans when they need us, and in clear and plain language. Of course, our government is committed to providing these men and women with the benefits and services they need and deserve.
I am very proud to hold the portfolio of veterans affairs minister within this Conservative government. My predecessors have gone to great lengths to improve the lives not only of our traditional veterans but also of our modern veterans, and their families as well. That is what this government is committed to, and why this government's record over the last six years is unprecedented.
Canadians have not seen such a commitment to our veterans since the end of the World War II. That is a fact. That is the truth. The numbers tell the same story, whatever the opposition might try to say.
First and foremost, we have been making significant investments in the programs, benefits and services that our veterans, our Canadian Forces members and their families depend on. Everything we do is a reflection of our commitment to supporting our veterans with the care they need, when and where they need it, and for as long as they need it. In the last six years, our government has consistently increased its budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve the care and support we provide to our veterans and their families. We have increased the budget for the last six years.
Where were the opposition? They were opposing our budget initiatives. They were voting against our budgets. Which members supported our veterans, steadily and readily, in this House for the last six years? They can be found here around me, the Conservative members of this government. I want to thank every single member who has supported our veterans' initiatives.
Just last week, we demonstrated our commitment once again when we tabled the 2012-13 main estimates. These estimates provide Veterans Affairs Canada with nearly $3.6 billion, an increase of $44.8 million, or 1.3% of it overall annual budget shown in the main estimates.
Last week, we went back to ask for additional funds to ensure that our veterans have access to the programs and services to which they are entitled and which they deserve. Tomorrow, I will be appearing before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and I hope to have the support of opposition members to approve not only the supplementary estimates (C) required to close out the current fiscal year, but also the budget for next year.
Once again, as in the past six years, we are increasing our investment. Why? For a very simple reason: we are creating programs for our new generation of veterans.
Just a few weeks ago, I was in Winnipeg announcing the cutting red tape for veterans initiative. This plan will reduce cumbersome red tape and provide our veterans with the hassle-free service they deserve. That is why we need the support of the House to make sure that we are cutting red tape. That is why we need to change the motion to make the lives of our veterans better when dealing with our department.
As I said during the announcement, much of what is needed to make these improvements simply involves returning to the basics and overhauling how the department works. With that in mind, we are putting in place updated and more efficient technology to significantly reduce bureaucratic delays. We are modernizing the tools that our officials use when they are serving our veterans.
I want to raise the high profile of our officials working in the department. They are dedicating their hearts and souls to making the life of our veterans better. It is not always easy and not always perfect, but they are doing their best to make sure that the veterans get the best service they deserve in a timely manner and that they, of course, respect the rules to which they are entitled and under which they have to apply.
Therefore, we are providing our officials with a new tool called the benefit browser. This tool is aimed at helping our employees make sure they get information on all the services our veterans can receive.
I announced our red tape reduction initiative two weeks ago in Winnipeg. This will ensure that our veterans have access to the services to which they are entitled in a more timely manner and with less red tape. I am very proud of this initiative.
We listened to veterans and the veterans ombudsman. They asked us to cut red tape and to communicate with them in clear and plain language. The work began a few years ago. The ombudsman has acknowledged that there has been some improvement and that our correspondence contains the elements for communicating with our veterans. Almost 41,000 letters a year are sent to veterans. However, there is a problem: the letters are often three pages long and can be difficult to understand because of the rather bureaucratic language.
We are therefore changing the way we communicate. We are improving it by providing reasons for the decisions rendered. That means that every letter sent to a veteran is divided into sections so that the veteran can understand the logical progression of the letter. What was the veteran's request? What is the decision? What is the evidence to support that decision? What factors, references, codes, regulations and tools allowed us come to that decision? How can veterans obtain more information or, if applicable, how can they request a review of the decision, sometimes with new information?
This is at the heart of the red tape reduction initiative. By communicating clearly and effectively with veterans, we will avoid many annoyances. Nothing is more insulting to a veteran, or to anyone for that matter, than to be sent a decision that he or she does not understand. That is why, as of two weeks ago, our department is communicating with our veterans in clear and concise language. I must say that we have already had very positive feedback from veterans. We are following up with them and we are receiving very constructive comments. Above all, this process is helping our veterans to better understand the decisions and avoid a certain amount of frustration.
Veterans are seeing a difference already with the consistent measures we are putting in place to make the lives of our veterans better. We have improved the response times at our national call centre and we are reducing the amount of paperwork veterans have to complete for many of the health benefits provided by the department. As well, with direct deposit now available for a number of benefits, veterans and their dependants are receiving their money faster and easier. That is why I invite the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore to support the amendment we will be putting forward because we want to make the lives of our veterans easier.
More than 41,000 disability benefit applications from veterans are presented each year and now we are responding in clear and plain language with the reasons for the decisions. We are moving forward and going ahead. We are cutting red tape, and this is only the beginning, because there are a lot of internal efficiencies we can make and many ways in which we can improve the way the government and the department are dealing with veterans. Are we getting support from the opposition to move forward and make the lives of our veterans easier? That is what I hope because this is where we want to go.
Our government will never be satisfied with the status quo. We will not do things just because they have always been done that way. We are looking at ways we can improve. It is most interesting that those improvements are coming from the veterans and from our officials who know how we can make things better.
That is why in January our right hon. Prime Minister announced funding for another great initiative that, unfortunately, the opposition decided not to support. However, the opposition was alone because we got support from the unions, provincial governments, workers and veterans because this program is called “helmets to hardhats”. The program is aimed at ensuring that military personnel who are leaving the forces can transition in a seamless manner into civilian life. This is a huge success. Everyday I receive calls from entrepreneurs who want to hire veterans. I hear from many groups that are willing to join in the helmets to hardhats initiative. We are ensuring that our veterans go into high paying jobs in the construction industry. Do members know who the winners are? Our country, our veterans and our economy are the winners.
We want to be on top of the wave when it comes to health, research and all aspects regarding our veterans' physical and mental health. Last December, I established the new scientific advisory committee on veterans' health. All veterans who want to get in touch with the committee can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be able to submit their information to the committee, which is working on health issues, the first one being depleted uranium. We are hearing the veterans, working with them and we are delivering.
That is not the only thing. Last fall, thanks to the leadership of this government, we announced significant enhancements to the new veterans charter which is at the core of our new program to meet the needs of modern veterans. Once again, we listened and took action with the committees, the Royal Canadian Legion and all the great stakeholders of this country. They told us that the charter that was initiated awhile ago did not go far enough. They said that it needed to be adjusted to keep pace with the care and support they required. It is a living document and these enhancements are doing just that.
Within the next five years, there will be an additional investment of $189 million. I will be going to committee tomorrow to ask for additional funding because there is a strong uptake by our modern veterans into our new programs. We expect that more than 5,000 veterans will benefit from these programs. The accrued costs are $2 billion.
Our government is investing in veterans. We are moving forward.
I spoke briefly about the improvements to the new veterans charter. Obviously, we have achieved many things over the past six years, whether it be the creation of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, the creation of the veterans charter or the broadening of the scope of many programs, including the veterans independence program. We are moving forward.
However, I had a bit of a problem with one thing that the hon. member said earlier in his speech, and that is when he said that he wanted to help me. And so, I actually found a way for the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore to help me.
If the member wants to help our veterans, he should support them, support our government, support our budget and support the amendment I am willing to bring forward.
Mr. Sean Casey (Charlottetown, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, at the outset, on behalf of my party and my leader, I want to thank the members of Her Majesty's Canadian armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their service and dedication to Canada. I also want to thank the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing this motion before the House today.
The motion is timely as it relates to the unveiling of the federal budget at the end of this month. My friends in the NDP will certainly remember that day last fall when the Liberal Party presented a motion to the veterans affairs committee calling for public hearings into the cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We presented that motion precisely out of concern that the Conservatives were going to continue with more cuts to the department, cuts that will harm our veterans and impact their services, cuts that will make it almost impossible for those who serve veterans to do their jobs. There was an embarrassing moment when the motion came up for debate. The Conservatives were opposed to my motion to have public hearings and voted against it. When the motion came up for debate at committee, some Conservative members did not show up on time for the vote. As a result, the Liberal motion passed. It did so thanks to the support of the NDP members who, I would point out, were on time.
As one might imagine, the Conservatives were very angry at losing a vote in Parliament. Instead of doing the honourable thing by accepting the democratic decision to have public hearings, they took revenge. At the very next meeting, without consulting anyone in the opposition, including me as sponsor of the motion and vice-chair of the committee, the Conservatives brought in their own witnesses who dutifully, one might say robotically, recited the talking points issued by the minister, “Nothing to see here. Move along. All is well. Services will not be impaired”.
However, the minister's witnesses did give evidence that up to 500 jobs, not including the lost jobs due to the budget cuts or the transfer of the last veterans hospital in Canada, would be lost within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the Conservative witnesses had their say, they moved to an in camera secret meeting. They emerged from that secret meeting with a motion that shut down public hearings.
I share this background information to highlight the fact that the opposition parties and veterans groups have been on this issue for many months calling on the government to halt its cuts. However, it is not just Liberals or the official opposition who are concerned about the cuts to veterans. The vast majority of Canadians, including young Canadians, want to preserve the benefits and services we provide to our veterans.
Just this past weekend I had the honour of participating in the annual Prince Edward Island model parliament. These young people get it. They understand that veterans deserve respect. They had two days of debate, two days in which to identify their priorities and pass bills in their model parliament. One of the bills passed in those two days was the veterans tax act, exempting veterans from provincial income tax. That displays a deep appreciation from young people for the sacrifices our veterans have made for Canada. These are people whose great-grandparents, three generations removed from them, may know what it is like to be a traditional veteran. Many of them would be shocked to hear that the Conservatives are engaging in a process to cut money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
If the example of our young people is not enough, let us consider what other countries are doing for veterans. The United States, which is in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, is exempting veterans from any budget cuts. Likewise, the United Kingdom, which also is in the midst of a terrible financial crisis, has exempted veterans from budget cuts, as has Australia. Canadians from all walks of life, from young people to seniors, are wondering why the Conservative government is not exempting Canadian veterans from cuts as well.
The parliamentary secretary and the minister, or whoever else is responsible for reading the Conservative roboscript, will say that the opposition is just trying to scare veterans. That simply is not true.
The proposed 5% to 10% cuts and the ensuing job losses at the department will have immediate and lasting impacts on the quality of service to our veterans. It must stop. The government must exempt veterans from cuts.
The minister's talking points repeat continually, regardless of the question posed, that veterans' benefits are statutory or quasi-statutory, meaning those benefits are automatic and not subject to yearly budget considerations. Again this is false. The fact is that the veterans affairs committee approves the yearly estimates. As the minister himself pointed out a few minutes ago, the money is allocated to the department by Parliament and the committee could at any time decline to authorize those amounts earmarked for benefits. Veterans' benefits are not guaranteed. They are discretionary. That discretion rests with the parliamentary committee and with Parliament.
As indicated, tomorrow the committee will deliberate on the estimates. The committee has the right and power to reject the minister's request for approval of additional funds. Again, the Government of Canada must exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from any budget cuts.
I want to disabuse another falsehood, that being the contention made by government that due to ongoing demographic changes in the makeup of veterans, almost all of the budget cuts will be achieved through attrition. Again, this is misleading. This really means that the Conservatives are on a death watch. They know that upward of 1,500 World War II veterans and Korean veterans, the traditional veterans as we call them, die each month. The Conservatives see the death rate as an opportunity to direct funds previously paid to veterans to other priorities, such as more politicians and bigger jails. If there are to be savings as a result of dying veterans, why would the government not invest those savings into providing better and more comprehensive services for veterans?
For example, it is disgraceful that a Canadian Forces member currently would receive upward of $13,000 for burial costs should he or she die in service, and yet veterans, if they qualify, receive around $3,600 when they die. For years the Last Post Fund has been pressing for an increase to no avail.
An uncomplicated application for a hearing aid from a veteran takes 16 weeks. In Halifax last week we heard from a family doctor who has restricted her practice to caring only for veterans. She has a patient who was recently released from the Canadian Forces. While in the Canadian Forces he was in regular need of nerve blocks. After his release he was treated as any other civilian. The wait period for his nerve blocks is 18 months. This is wrong and it must change.
We also know that the department conducts a national client survey wherein it polls veterans with respect to how they view the services provided. These surveys we now know have very low participation rates among veterans and are now under scrutiny from veterans organizations. I had the opportunity last week to meet with the president of Our Duty, a wonderful veterans organization, which today released a comprehensive examination of how the department conducts its national client survey. People should remember that these surveys help guide the department in how it serves veterans. Suffice it to say there are grave concerns about the very methodology used. I invite Canadians to review the study conducted by Our Duty.
The point I am trying to make is that the notion the government can simply use savings from dying veterans to pay down a deficit which the government created is very offensive to veterans who want better, not fewer, services.
We know well the record of the government when it comes to cuts and providing services. My colleagues from Cardigan, Malpeque and Cape Breton—Canso all remember how Canadians were impacted when services were cut. We all remember how cruelly the Conservative government treated EI claimants this past Christmas, when thousands of Canadians who were expecting their money waited for weeks upon weeks to get their money, all because the Conservatives failed them by cutting staff and services. More recently within that same department, Service Canada, the online service for jobs seekers has been out of service for weeks. We need investment in services to veterans, not cuts.
Consider what great work might be achieved if the government invested, for example, in the veterans transition program at the University of British Columbia. This is a group-based therapeutic program that helps veterans make the difficult transition back to civilian life after physical or emotional injuries suffered in combat. This program is able to survive, thanks to the Royal Canadian Legion, not the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Here, the Department of Veterans Affairs could use the money it apparently is saving as a result of the death of traditional veterans to invest in programs such as this. This program works; the committee saw it first hand. It should be supported by government.
Consider also the tremendous initiative led by Dr. Alice Aitken at Queen's University who, along with her team, has founded the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, CIMVHR, dedicated to optimizing the health and well-being our veterans and active military personnel through world-class research.
Does the government not think that providing financial support to these efforts might result in new understandings and treatments for such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder, and in doing so provide better services for our veterans?
Some Conservative backbench members of Parliament know these cuts are wrong and will hurt veterans. I wish they would stand up and be heard.
I will close by suggesting that in the midst of this debate on cuts, there really is a meaningful context. Just two weeks ago, I spoke in the House about the life of the last surviving World War I veteran. Her name was Mrs. Florence Green and she died this past September. She was 110 years old when she passed away. I expressed at the time how deeply meaningful it was to consider the sacrifice made by so many to fight tyranny and to defend the liberty, freedom, democracy and, yes, the right to vote without impediment. Tens of thousands of Canadians have given their lives for these rights. I really do believe that sometimes we forget that. We work and are busy with life and sometimes we forget that we really do owe our veterans a debt of gratitude.
I would end by just saying this, and I hope my colleagues will remember it: We say to all those Canadians who have served in our military in conflicts past and present, they have already made their sacrifice. They stood for us and now we must be there for them, and we say no to any cuts.
Mr. Randall Garrison (Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will I am splitting my time with the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue.
It is a great pleasure today to speak to the opposition day motion put forward by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. I want to start by recognizing the fact that the member has been a tireless advocate for veterans, despite some of the comments the minister made in his speech, asking him to stand up for veterans. That is exactly what he has been doing since the day he was elected to Parliament, whether it is in this opposition day motion or in the many private member's bills that he has brought forward for the consideration of the House, all of which have been opposed by the Conservatives. There is no question about who has been standing up for veterans and certainly the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore is one of those.
I also want to thank veterans' organizations across the country that provide many services to veterans, whether they are funded directly through Veterans Affairs or through their fundraising, through bingos and other charitable events. In my riding veterans' organizations raise a lot of money for programs supporting veterans and also for other community organizations in my community.
I also want to thank the front-line staff at Veterans Affairs. I know they do the best they can to try to provide the best services for our veterans.
I want repeat something I have said in the House before. I honestly thought the Conservatives would be different than the Liberals when it came to the treatment of our veterans. If the Conservatives support this motion, that will finally prove to me that they have had a change of heart, that they have finally seen that our veterans deserve the full support of all members of the House of Commons.
In opposition, the Conservatives talked a good line. They talked about extending the veterans independence program to all widows. They talked about holding a public inquiry and ensuring there was full compensation for all the victims of agent orange. They talked about opposing the unfair reduction of veterans disability insurance payments, known as SISIP. However, the their record in government has been much more modest. In fact, it has been a record of only partial success.
The minister likes to talk about the continual expansion of the budget, which he apparently intends to undo in a single year. His proposed cuts will actually devastate service for veterans. It is a kind of new speak to imagine that we can have cuts up to $220 million and somehow magically none of the services for veterans will be affected by those cuts. We have numbers being tossed around in various papers, some public and some not, of 300 to 500 staff reductions in Veterans Affairs. How in the world can veterans expect to get the services they are entitled to as a result of their service to our country with those kinds of cuts to the personnel serving them?
The minister and the government have tried to justify these reductions by pointing to a decline in what are now called “traditional veterans”, those who served in World War II and those who served in Korea. However, what they are doing, in a way, is devaluing what I would call the modern day veterans, those who have served in peacekeeping operations around the world and those who have served in operations in combat, like in Afghanistan. It would also ignore those whom I had the privilege of welcoming home last weekend on the HMCS Vancouver, which returned from seven months in an active combat zone in Libya.
How are these modern day veterans somehow less entitled to veterans benefits than what are called the traditional veterans?
This new budget planning exercise we have been going through with the government reveals the real program of the Conservatives, and this is, as I mentioned, cuts of somewhere, and we do not know the exact figure but we will soon find out, between $150 million, $170 million and maybe as high as $350 million out of a Veterans Affairs budget of $900 million, cuts from somewhere between 300 and 500 jobs. In a kind of new speak, we are asked to believe that this will somehow result in better services for veterans.
Just the other day in the House, when it came time to vote on Bill C-215, which was also proposed by the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore and which I had the honour of seconding, the Conservatives voted against it. The bill would end the unfair clawbacks of pension benefits for veterans and members of the RCMP, benefits which they had paid for throughout their careers by paying into CPP. The clawback would result in reductions of up to $800 a month for some of these veterans and RCMP veterans, $800 a month which would go a long way for those veterans in maintaining their independence in our communities and not having to rely on provincial or federal government services.
Again, the Conservatives have been clear and they continue to make the point that somehow veterans should get by on their own, that they do not really deserve the kind of support that veterans have traditionally received.
Now that the Conservatives have a majority, they seem to be on course to cut that support. However, allies like the United States and the U.K. have exempted their veterans affairs departments from the across-the-board government cutbacks, recognizing that a general cut in government spending ought not to apply to those who have risked their lives in the service of their country.
In contrast, what would an NDP program for veterans look like? We would start by ending the clawback for retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP service pensions. We would extend the veterans independence program to include RCMP veterans and all widows. In the case of marriage after 60, we would grant pensions and health benefits. We would provide better care for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, shorten wait times for disability applications and eliminate or reform the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
There is a large number of things about which I could talk. This is something which may seem small, but it has been a very big problem for many veterans and their families in my riding, and that is the lack of an increase in funeral benefits over the last decade. Even in death, we place a hardship on veterans by refusing to increase those benefits.
The hon. member from Toronto who sits in front of me raised the question of veteran homelessness. I think there is probably no greater shame for a country than for those who have served their country in our forces ending up on our streets without the dignity of a home to call their own.
I find it somewhat surreal to hear that one of the priorities of the minister is to come up with clearer language for the veterans who get a denial of benefits so they will understand exactly why those benefits have been denied. We ought to be working on ways to ensure veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled rather than to find better ways to tell them why they are not entitled to those benefits.
There is also a disturbing tendency on the other side when it comes to seniors as a whole, and many of our veterans are seniors, to refer to them as a burden on our society. We heard this is the discussions about health care transfers, where it was argued that seniors were taking more than their fair share of health care services. We heard it in the discussions on the necessity to reduce the OAS, where somehow seniors who worked and contributed all of their lives would have to take less in the future. Once again, this is being applied to veterans in that somehow those who have served their country are not really entitled to fair treatment when they come back from that service.
I began my speech by talking about veterans' organizations, and all the things they did in their communities, and the staff of Veterans Affairs. I would point out that many legions across the country do incredible work in their communities. In my community, one very good example is the charity fundraising that the Royal Canadian Legion of Esquimalt does. We have Esquimalt Neighbourhood House, which provides service to both military and other families in our community. When the Esquimalt Neighbourhood House needed a new roof, the veterans of the Royal Canadian Legion stepped up and made a grant to the house in order to help it put on a new roof so it could continue its services to families.
Like all seniors in our country, veterans continue to contribute in their community, they continue to volunteer and they continue to raise money for charity. I would like to see us recognize the service they have given and continue to give across the country.
I want to conclude by thanking all those who have served their country, whether in the Canadian Forces or the RCMP. It is something I will try to remember to do on all the appropriate occasions and not just once a year on Remembrance Day. I invite all members to join me in those attempts to ensure that it becomes built in to our Canadian culture to recognize the sacrifices made both in times of war and in peace in terms of defending our country.
Today I do so by rising to support the opposition motion. In the budget consultations that went on previously, every veterans' organization called on the minister to back away from cuts to them. I hope when it comes times to vote on this, we will see the unanimous support of all members in the House in recognition of the service veterans have given to their country.
Ms. Christine Moore (Abitibi—Témiscamingue, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, as a former member of the armed forces, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this motion. I have wonderful memories of various evenings spent at the Royal Canadian Legion. We always had a very pleasant time. It is an honour for me to speak to this motion.
Since 2007, the government's strategic review has focused on cutting various federal programs and services. These cuts have affected all departments, including Veterans Affairs. The goal of this exercise is to cut 10% from each department. In the case of Veterans Affairs, 90% of the budget is spent on programs and benefits for veterans, and 70% of the staff deliver services directly to veterans. There is not much room for cuts.
In this situation, the math is simple: if the government wants to cut Veterans Affairs Canada's budget, it will have to cut the services and benefits that go directly to veterans. Budget and staffing cuts will inevitably compromise the department's ability to deliver services to the country's veterans.
Our veterans already have trouble accessing some of those services, and many of them have noticed that the quality of services has suffered over the years. In particular, there have been problems with case processing. It is getting harder to reach an agent by phone because there are fewer call centres. If this keeps up, veterans will find it easier to speak to someone at their ISP's customer service centre in India than to a Veterans Affairs Canada agent in our own country.
The agents now have less time in which to make decisions about veterans' needs. In contrast, once the decision has been made, it takes just as long as ever for veterans to receive psychological care and services. The cuts are already being felt. Agents have to work faster, work overtime and make decisions more quickly. This means that they may not be able to take the time required to do their work properly.
Currently, a number of organizations are speaking out against the cuts to Veterans Affairs. Among others, the Royal Canadian Legion and the Veterans Ombudsman have shed light on the problems these cuts will cause and the problems encountered as a result of the staffing cuts. Veterans returning from Afghanistan, just like current soldiers, need and deserve services.
I am a nurse by training and when I talk to soldiers returning from military operations, I know the consequences that these operations can have on a person. I am talking about physical and mental health problems and post traumatic stress disorder. These are all serious consequences that require immediate care, and aftercare as well.
Roughly 20% to 30% of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan have mental health problems or have post traumatic stress disorder, not to mention physical injuries. These are not problems that can be left unaddressed for two years before something is done. We are talking about serious health situations that require immediate care and assistance.
Since 2001, 40,000 members of our Canadian Forces have been deployed to Afghanistan. Some are still in active service, of course, but some have become veterans. An average of 25%—roughly 10,000 veterans—have health problems. They compromised their health to serve our country. These huge numbers come from the Department of National Defence. They show the critical importance of taking services for veterans seriously.
I am talking about veterans, but we should also talk about their families. Soldiers return home at the end of their mission; unfortunately, some do not. In both cases, the families need assistance. It is very difficult to support someone who is living with post traumatic stress disorder.
Consequently, the families also need help. The children of these soldiers need help supporting their mother or father who has experienced these problems and who may be injured.
When we talk about veterans, we are not just talking about soldiers, veterans and former members of the RCMP, but also about the families of these people. We must never forget that.
Today, we are asking that the Department of Veterans Affairs be exempt from cuts in the 2012-13 budget. This budget is vital to maintaining a certain level of service and the quality of the programs and benefits to which members of the military are entitled. We must take into account that there are already some problems with this program. It is not a program that works seamlessly. There are already problems and budget cuts would only add to them. At this time I believe that our request to exempt Veterans Affairs Canada from budget cuts is reasonable.
Every day in this House, between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., I hear the Associate Minister of National Defence or the Minister of National Defence repeatedly say that I do not support our troops when I ask for explanations and answers that the opposition and Canadians are entitled to regarding what is happening with the F-35 program. When we talk about the men and women in uniform who return from a mission, people who have given many years of service to this country, who have risked their lives, who have been lucky enough to come home, and who often need psychological, financial and professional support, we are met with budget cuts.
The government can afford jets that are not yet operational, at a cost that is increasing astronomically and with a delivery date that keeps being postponed, but it cannot provide financial support for our veterans who come home after serving their country. This makes absolutely no sense to me. It makes you wonder who in this House is really supporting our troops.
When that party was the official opposition, it said that it would extend the veterans independence program to widows of World War II and Korean War veterans, but it did not.
In 2005, that party, which is now in office, called for a public inquiry into Agent Orange and full compensation for veterans and civilians who were exposed to it, but it has not followed through.
In 2007, the government committed to take action to address the unfair nature of the service income security insurance plan and long-term disability benefits for members of the Canadian Forces who are medically released, but it did not do so.
In 2005, that party committed to reforming the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and replacing it with a board made up of qualified members with a medical or military background, but it did not do so.
I am wondering what it really means to support our troops. I think that asking this government not to make cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada is a much better way to show our support.
The NDP has asked the government many times not to make cuts to services for veterans, but without success. The NDP has proposed many measures to improve services for veterans, including health care centres of excellence for modern-day veterans, improved access to veterans' hospitals, reforms to the new veterans' charter, an increase in funeral expenses, and concrete action to combat homelessness among veterans.
The NDP's proposals show what it means to support our troops.
In addition, the NDP continues to ask the government to stop clawing back the pensions of retired and disabled Canadian Forces and RCMP personnel; to extend the veterans independence program, which also applies to former members of the RCMP; to eliminate restrictions on pensions and health benefits for spouses in the case of marriage after 60; to provide better care for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; to reduce waiting lists for disability benefits; to fairly calculate annual leave entitlements for retired members of the Canadian Forces who want to join the public service; and to eliminate or reform the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. We are thus calling for a number of measures. Again, this is what I call supporting our troops.
In order to support our troops, it is essential that the government not cut Veterans Affairs Canada's budget. This is really the only reasonable attitude that this government can take toward our veterans.
Mr. Chris Warkentin (Peace River, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is indeed a pleasure for me to join this debate in the House of Commons on the quality of care for Canada's veterans. Some misinformation has been put out in the House today with regard to cuts or possible cuts to veterans' services and benefits. Many of my colleagues, including the minister, have corrected this misinformation in question period a number of times. Once again, I am pleased to set the record straight.
As the Minister of Veterans Affairs just mentioned in his speech, our government will always ensure that there are the necessary funds to provide Canadian Forces members, veterans and their families with the care and the support that they need. It is true that the number of traditional war service veterans served by the Department of Veterans Affairs is decreasing. While there are younger veterans entering the system at Veterans Affairs, the overall number of veterans served by the department is decreasing.
Their needs must be addressed. If we look at this government's record over the last six years, members will see that the benefits provided have actually expanded. I would like to point out all of the programs to which veterans are entitled are quasi-statutory. Many people will ask what exactly this means. There may be some uncertainty on the other side of the House. What it means is that the Government of Canada must provide these funds to administer those programs.
I will say that one more time for clarity. The Government of Canada must provide the funds to administer those programs. Veterans have the right to various programs and services that they need. The Treasury Board sets aside whatever money is necessary each year to make sure that the department can continue to provide those benefits.
The member presenting the motion is either misinformed or trying to misinform. The fact is the Minister of Veterans Affairs has said it very nicely. He has clearly summarized that the improvements our government has made over the last six years have been in the name of veterans. We know that the needs of veterans are changing and the care of veterans is evolving. It stands to reason that the way veterans access and receive those benefits should change as well.
Our government recognizes this. It has chosen to invest in new programs and initiatives and not just maintain the status quo. Veterans Affairs Canada is creating a more responsive environment for veterans to make sure that they have faster and easier access to the benefits that they deserve with as little stress as possible.
I am splitting my time with the member for Huron—Bruce.
The department serves close to 215,000 modern-day veterans, war service veterans, members of the Canadian Forces, members and former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their families. All of these people in these groups have their own individual needs. It is our job to ensure that these needs are met effectively and efficiently.
How are we achieving this? A lot has changed. The minister announced two weeks ago that he is cutting red tape for veterans' initiatives. Most of these changes enhance front line services and reduce processing times. The minister launched the cutting red tape for veterans' initiatives, which will provide our veterans with the hassle-free service they have asked for without bureaucratic roadblocks. There were resounding responses from veterans saying this is exactly what they have been asking for.
We have also taken action in the following areas. We are communicating with veterans in plain language. Information provided to our veterans, whether it be decision letters or brochures on benefits and services, will be written in a language that is easy to understand.
We have invested in technology which allows the department to make greater use of digital imaging and electronic records.
We have supported the helmets to hardhats program, which helps veterans who are trying to find high paying opportunities to see those opportunities in trades and areas where their skills are needed. We have implemented directed deposits for some VIP payments or reimbursements for treatment benefits.
We have also reduced by one-third the time it takes for a veteran to receive a decision on applications for disability benefits. We have cut in half the time that it takes for a veteran to receive a decision on applications for rehabilitation programs. We have established an Afghanistan and serious injury unit to fast-track the benefits for Canadian Forces members and veterans who have become seriously injured or ill while serving in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
We have added case managers to areas of high demand across this country to deliver one-on-one service for veterans. They have been given more authority to approve vocational rehabilitation plans and work with the veterans to resolve complex challenges. We have reduced the amount of paperwork for veterans when they apply for veterans independence programs which now help 107,000 veterans, survivors and their caregivers remain independent in their homes for as long as possible.
That is an impressive list of accomplishments. Long overdue some would say. Nevertheless, real progress has been made by the department to update the care for Canada's veterans.
I know that the work is far from done. In fact, the Minister of Veterans Affairs has stated very publicly that he intends to lead by example. He wants his department to be one of the most efficient and responsive in all of government. After all, Canada's veterans deserve nothing less.
As the minister stated in his remarks, Canada's veterans have done far more than their fair share to build our great country, to defend our shared values and to make Canada's red maple leaf an enduring symbol of peace and freedom around the world. This government is doing its fair share in ensuring that they are well looked after.
The motion of the member--