Hon. Julian Fantino (Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC)
moved that Bill C-11, An Act to amend the Public Service Employment Act (priority hiring for injured veterans), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, it is indeed an honour to rise before the House today to speak to this important issue and changes that will further enhance the way our government supports Canada's veterans and their families. It is also a pleasure to do so soon after our nation came together as one to express its great pride and profound gratitude for what these men and women and their families did for our country.
The outpouring of respect and admiration we saw from coast to coast to coast on Remembrance Day and throughout Veterans' Week was truly heartwarming and reassuring to me as Canada's Minister of Veterans Affairs. I have always believed that this support and recognition for veterans and still-serving members must extend year round, and the changes we are discussing today are another example of how our government is doing exactly that.
Before I turn to the specifics of the amendments before us, I would like to take a moment to talk about the reasons why we are proceeding with these changes and how they fit within our ongoing effort to help veterans and releasing members of the Canadian Armed Forces to make seamless transitions into civilian life.
As Minister of Veterans Affairs and previously as the associate minister of national defence, I have had the privilege to see personally and up close why the men and women who have worn our nation's uniform and those who continue to wear it reflect the very best of who we are as Canadians. I have been impressed by their skill and professionalism, their character and courage and their commitment to serve without hesitation or reservation. I have listened with pride and awe to their stories and experiences. I have been amazed by their modesty and have appreciated their frank discussions about the issues that matter most to them and their families.
One concern I have heard many times is the challenge some of them have faced, or are facing, as they make the transition to civilian life. Central to this are the difficulties some experience trying to start rewarding new careers.
We know that former personnel sometimes face barriers trying to demonstrate how their military training, skills and experience translate into the civilian workforce. Our government understands this and that is why we have been doing everything we can to promote veterans' skill sets to potential employers. That is why we were a founding partner and financial supporter of the Helmets to Hardhats Canada program that provides veterans with opportunities for employment and apprenticeship in the construction industry and why we launched our hire a veteran initiative in partnership with employers across the country to assist veterans in finding new and meaningful work.
My department has been doing its part by specifically targeting veterans for hire by treating military experience as an asset in our selection process. Now our government is proud to take these efforts an important step further. Through our proposed amendments to the Public Service Employment Act and through changes to its regulations, we are moving veterans to the front of the line when it comes to hiring qualified Canadians for federal public service jobs.
With the proposed amendments before us, we will create a five-year statutory priority entitlement for Canadian veterans who are medically released for service-related reasons. This change will give veterans the highest level of consideration for jobs above all other groups in recognition of their sacrifice to Canada. With this change, we are recognizing that while these men and women have suffered injuries that prevent them from continuing to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, they still have so much to contribute to our country. This is the right and honourable thing to do.
Also, through changes to the act and accompanying regulations, full-time, regular and reserve force veterans who are medically released for non-service related reasons will see their existing level of priority extended from two to five years. This will also allow them a longer period of priority entitlement for positions they are qualified to fill. Simply put, these changes will offer qualified veterans the employment and career opportunities that never existed before for those injured and while they were serving as members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
What is more, we will extend these opportunities to Canada's cadet organization administration and training services and to Rangers by adding them to the definition of who is considered “personnel” with the Canadian Armed Forces.
Finally, the proposed amendments we make to this legislation will be retroactive to April 1, 2012. This means that if a veteran previously had priority status under the regulations and that status expired during the past 18 to 19 months, we will reinstate it with a full five years. It is the same for those veterans who still have priority entitlement. We will extend that out to a full five years as well.
We are doing all of these things because we believe veterans deserve such considerations and because Canada will also be better for it.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to work with veterans on a daily basis, we understand that without these changes, we run the risk of continuing to lose the valuable contributions of highly-qualified individuals when they honourably end their military careers because of an injury or an illness. That is why we believe these amendments are common sense and that is why it is incumbent upon us to work in close consultation with key partners such as the Public Service Commission, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and the Department of National Defence, so Canada can continue to reap dividends from having invested in and supported veterans' military careers, ensure our nation's workforce is bolstered and enriched by the contributions veterans have to offer and, most certainly, at the same time continue to provide injured and ill veterans with the chance to keep serving their country and develop their experience and skills in a civilian capacity.
The measures I have outlined today are yet another way we can continue to honour veterans in a meaningful and practical way and ensure they share in the wealth and security that they helped create.
To summarize, every year, many military members transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces. For those Canadian Armed Forces members who cannot deploy and meet the demands of operations, finding meaningful employment is a key factor in making a successful transition to civilian life.
When a position becomes open in the public service, different groups have different levels of access. In spring 2014, when this regulation is expected to come into force, those regular force and reserve force members who are medically released from the Canadian Armed Forces for service-related reasons will receive a statutory priority for a period of five years. This will provide veterans with the highest level of priority consideration for public service positions above all other groups in recognition of their sacrifices and service to Canada. This recognition will also apply to their families.
It will move veterans who are injured in the service of Canada to the front of the line. Those full-time, regular or reserve force veterans who are released for non-service related medical reasons will continue to receive their existing level of priority. However, the duration of their access will be increased from two years to five years, allowing them a longer period of priority entitlement for positions. Veterans who make use of this measure must qualify for the postings they are seeking. The changes will apply to medically released veterans who received a priority entitlement on or after April 1, 2012.
When I announced this legislation in Toronto, Shaun Francis, the chair of True Patriot Love Foundation, said:
|| The leadership skills, experience and expertise that our personnel develop in uniform is second to none, and makes them an invaluable asset to any new organization they choose to join...We are proud of our ongoing partnership with the Government of Canada to ensure that soldiers, sailors and air personnel can continue to build on the incredible commitment they have already shown to Canada.
In addition to the proposed legislative and regulatory changes, our government continues to work with corporate Canada to help veterans find new opportunities to successfully make the transition from military to civilian life. Partnering with corporate Canada allows veterans to put their training and skills acquired during their service to good use in the civilian workforce, while at the same time also providing a quality of life for themselves and their families. We also provide opportunities to train and upscale their abilities to better qualify for available jobs in the federal public service and elsewhere. We recently announced in excess of $75,000 for such training and upscaling.
I would like to close by calling upon all members of this honourable House to lend their full support to these important changes and ensure that our men and women, who have given so much to our country and who are now becoming our veterans, receive their full entitlement and our respectful support for this proposal.
Mr. Sylvain Chicoine (Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased today to speak to Bill C-11, introduced by the Minister of Veterans Affairs. This is only the second bill since the Conservative government came to power. That is very little considering all the issues that have been raised, including in the ombudsman's reports, and the recommendations on how to improve the new veterans charter.
It is a little disappointing that our government has so often ignored our national heroes over the past six years. The worst part is that the new veterans charter was supposed to be a living document, but the bill we are about to debate does not deal with the new charter. Contrary to what the minister was saying in response to the parliamentary secretary, the new veterans charter has not been routinely improved; it was improved only once.
When the charter was adopted in 2006, the concept of a living document meant that the charter would be amended as problems emerged. In the mission in Afghanistan, our troops suffered heavy losses. There were 158 deaths, and over 2,000 wounded soldiers came back, not to mention those who will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in the coming years. According to a recent study, that is 14% of our troops, but we suspect that the number of injured soldiers and soldiers affected by stress is much higher.
It is against that backdrop that the new veterans charter was adopted by Parliament on the condition that it be a living document. That meant that it was going to be amended a number of times if required, as needs arose, or if the charter proved to be inadequate, as has been shown by the issues and comments raised in the past two years.
Since they came to power, the Conservatives have not kept that promise. The charter was amended only once in 2011, by means of Bill C-55. After seven years, a minister has finally decided to review the new charter in its entirety. It is not official, however, because the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs has not yet begun the official review. As specified in Bill C-55, that study was supposed to have begun on October 4. Today is November 21 and the House adjourns on December 11, so we will have hardly any time to begin studying the new charter before the House adjourns for the holidays, and we will not be starting again until next February.
That leads us to today's debate on Bill C-11, An Act to amend the Public Service Employment Act. Essentially, this bill seeks to give priority to veterans and members of the Canadian Forces who are released for medical reasons that are attributable to service. If, during the hiring process, the veteran demonstrates the essential qualifications required, the Public Service Commission will have to appoint that person in absolute priority, ahead of employees who are considered surplus or on leave. They will henceforth be in the highest category of hiring priority.
A second provision of the bill deals with the extension of the entitlement to priority, from two years to five. At the moment, veterans are in a regulatory category whereas public service employees are protected by the act. The government has therefore decided to include veterans in a category that is protected by the Public Service Employment Act.
This is a noble gesture on the part of the government. However, like the measures it has taken previously, such as the Last Post Fund, and the reimbursements for training and post-secondary education, these are half-measures that will have little impact on the quality of life of most veterans.
We will therefore support this bill at second reading, but we consider that it does not go far enough and that it raises questions that the government will have to answer. Moreover, in a climate of budget cutting, where we are seeing massive layoffs in the public service, this bill unfortunately will not really help veterans to get jobs in the public service, at least in the medium term.
This bill is actually a reaction to poor human resources management. The Conservatives have laid off so many public servants that veterans are no longer successful in being hired from the priority list.
What is most disappointing about the measures this government has introduced is the little impact they have had. I will not start listing off everything from 2006 on. I will only go back as far as the last budget, tabled in 2013.
The Conservatives announced with great fanfare that they were going to improve the Last Post Fund and double the refundable amount from close to $4,000 to a little under $8,000. An ombudsman, Patrick Stogran, had been mentioning this problem since at least 2009. The government waited some three or four years before addressing it. I would like to point out that it was a Liberal government that gutted the program in 1995 or thereabouts.
More recently, the Conservatives announced that they were increasing aid for training and post-secondary education, with maximum funding of $75,800 per veteran and a maximum envelope of $2 million over five years. As they say, the devil is in the details.
Although I do not know exactly how many veterans will apply for assistance under the program, let us take the amount of $2 million, for example, and divide it by $75,800, which is an accurate amount for someone going to university. If veterans receive the maximum amount, only 27 of them will have access to the program over this five-year period. Therefore, a little over five veterans a year will have access to the program.
I do not see how these measures will help our veterans. The Conservatives say they are increasing aid, but the criteria are often so strict that no one qualifies for it. It is easy to pull numbers out of the air and then make sure the criteria are so restrictive that the government will not be out of pocket at the end of the day. That is what the Conservatives are doing. They are using these tactics and saying that they are helping veterans, when what they are really doing is balancing the budget at their expense.
Now there is this bill that gives veterans priority for appointment to public service jobs. At first glance, it is a wonderful measure. However, on closer inspection, this bill is much less attractive because few public service jobs will be available in the coming years.
From 2006 to 2011, about 2,000 veterans made use of this priority entitlement. Of that number, 1,024 veterans secured a job in the public service. Of those 1,024 veterans, 739—72%—got a job with National Defence.
At Veterans Affairs Canada, the situation is somewhat more dire. Between 2006 and 2011, only 24 veterans got jobs at VAC, which corresponds to only 2% of all jobs.
However, our veterans, who have experienced the difficulties involved in the transition to civilian life, should be ideal candidates for jobs at Veterans Affairs Canada. They should play a key role in the development of VAC policies to ensure that those policies are designed for them and meet their needs.
The second-largest employer of veterans in the public service is the Correctional Service of Canada, which hired 54 veterans during that period, or 5% of all veteran hires. The Department of Human Resources and Skills Development is not very far behind with 44 hires, or 4% of the jobs obtained during this period.
When we look at these figures, it is clear that not all departments are making the same effort to hire veterans. Indeed, most departments have hired fewer than ten veterans, while others have hired none.
Therefore, these departments would have to undergo a major culture change to ensure that such measures actually help our veterans. As things stand right now, I am not sure that this will help even things out in terms of hiring more veterans in our public service.
The Ombudsman has found that about 4,500 veterans per year participate in vocational rehabilitation services. On average, 220 veterans put their names on list of those eligible for job priority status, and, as a result, 146 veterans on average get a job in the public service. This is a very small number. This does not make much of an impact on the majority of veterans or even on many of them.
Moreover, the job priority status for veterans applies only to a very specific group.
The vast majority of jobs in the public service require bilingualism, a post-secondary diploma or even university education. Two to four years of experience is often also required.
Under current regulations, veterans are given a two-year priority entitlement. The veteran must already have a diploma in hand because there is not enough time to start a university degree. Even now, with the new deadline, there is not enough time for a veteran to go to university, if he so wishes, and be available within the time prescribed.
In addition, veterans who do not have a university degree are not overly interested in going to university for the extended period required. As I said earlier, 4,500 veterans participate in the vocational rehabilitation program each year. Only 63 veterans chose university-level programs; 32 received support from Veterans Affairs Canada and 31 received support through the service income security insurance plan. The other participants chose vocational training or college-level programs that lasted anywhere from 12 to 24 months.
That number, 63, caught my attention. Is it true that only 63 veterans chose university-level programs, or are people being discouraged from choosing such programs because of the severely restrictive criteria?
The Ombudsman wrote the following in his report:
|| While...Veterans Affairs Canada profess[es] to consider the needs of the client/Veteran, they normally do not permit training or education in a new career field if, at the time of release...the client...has skills that are transferrable to the...workforce....
They are required to take a job that does not interest them or one that pays less than a career requiring post-secondary education, simply because they have skills.
The government does not want to do anything that will cost a lot of money. That is the conclusion. In the end, it is not need that influences the decisions, it is the cost of funding education.
The government is putting a lot of focus on the Helmets to Hardhats program, as though the construction industry were the miracle cure for job transition for our veterans. I agree, it is a good program, but it is not available in every province and it does not cover all trades. As I said, it is not available in Quebec, unfortunately. I have received calls from veterans who are disappointed that they cannot access this program because it is not available in Quebec.
I believe this restricts our veterans' ability to improve their quality of life and their job prospects. For example, the ombudsman recommends entering into partnerships with other industries and organizations, such as the Retail Council of Canada, the Canadian defence and security industries and the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada. We have to have more collaboration from private sector players, who are not always aware of veterans' skills. Unfortunately, human resources departments do not know how to interpret the CVs of military candidates. A recent study revealed the scope of the task. The Navigator study, conducted for the Veterans Transition Advisory Council in late August, found that most of the 850 employers consulted have little or no understanding of veterans' skills. Only 16% of employers make a special effort to hire veterans.
Almost half of employers believe that a university degree is more important than military service when hiring. Only 13% said that their human resources department knows how to interpret a resumé from a military candidate. We have to do more in this regard.
To my mind, this bill has a major flaw. First, we have to remember that only Canadian Forces members medically released for service-related reasons will have access to the program. Previously, to be given priority, members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP had to be released for medical reasons, whether they were service-related or not. That is also the spirit of the new charter. To qualify for Veterans Affairs Canada benefits and services, the injury has to be service-related. If the department ruled otherwise, the veteran could appeal the decision to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and then the Federal Court. Unfortunately, this is no longer clear.
In addition, if a veteran needs to appeal a decision before a Canadian Forces tribunal or the VRAB, the procedures involved in these administrative tribunals can be very long. Does this mean that the duration of the priority, which begins the day the soldier is released from duty, continues to run out while these administrative procedures drag on? The ombudsman had this to say recently on his blog:
|| However, under the new legislation, the system will have to adjudicate an individual’s file to determine if the medical release is related to service or not. This could add additional red tape to the release process and potentially delay the ability to access priority hiring upon release.
Like the ombudsman, we are worried about this uncertainty. Would it not be better to use the recognition of the link between the injury and the service to determine the accessibility and length of the priority entitlement? This could be done two ways: either the reason for release is designated “service-related medical release” or the link between the injury and the service is recognized by VAC or the VRAB. Either way, the system remains consistent, some of the red tape can be avoided and we could ensure that veterans do not lose their entitlement priority.
This bill also creates categories of veterans, and we are against that approach. The NDP supports the principle of having a single category of veterans. That is not what this bill does.
Veterans of the RCMP are not included in the bill and remain in the regulatory category. I think that a member of the RCMP who suffered a trauma and wanted to get out of the policing environment to start a new career could have benefited from priority hiring under this bill. Including veterans of the RCMP would have been a way of thanking them for their service and sacrifices. Now members of the Canadian Forces released for medical reasons attributable to service will have this priority entitlement and others will not.
This bill should have gone further. One major problem facing the Canadian Forces is the principle of universality of service, which requires members who cannot be deployed to be dismissed from the Canadian Forces. This is not entirely fair. We understand the importance of this principle to cohesion and morale, but would it not be possible to include the duty to accommodate principle?
Do those who served their country not deserve to be given a job where they could continue to serve? That is what the RCMP does for its members. The Minister of Veterans Affairs says that the Department of National Defence wanted to maintain the status quo on this. However, would it not be possible for the Standing Committee on National Defence to study this issue? Does this government not owe it to our troops and our veterans?
For months now we have been asking the government whether it realizes that it has a moral, social, legal and fiduciary obligation toward injured veterans. The government's lack of response would suggest not. The NDP has said time and time again that it will honour this century-long commitment made by successive Canadian governments, except for this one.
Again, the NDP will support Bill C-11, but the government will have to address our concerns in committee and make the necessary changes to ensure that this bill benefits the largest possible number of veterans who need this priority entitlement for a smooth transition and a better quality of life for them and their family.
Hon. Jim Karygiannis (Scarborough—Agincourt, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, you were sitting in the chair yesterday when there was an exchange between this side of the House and the government side about medical records that have gone missing.
I understand the parliamentary secretary has said something to the effect that after looking into it, there could be some people whose files could be missing.
I want to quote from an article that appeared today in The Globe and Mail on page A4. It is headed “Veteran continues to search for missing medical files”, and it reads as follows:
|Former infantry corporal Kenneth Young tried for years to obtain the medical records related to his treatment at a now-closed veterans’ hospital only to learn they had been destroyed in 2009, along with more than 27,000 boxes of other veterans’ medical files.
That is 27,381 medical boxes of files to be exact.
The article continues:
|| He kept pestering the bureaucrats to find them “and it got to the point where they said ‘don’t write us any more. If you have any other problems or questions, contact the Privacy Commissioner.’ Which I did,” he said. “A few months later [the Privacy Commissioner] called me up and said ‘well, your files were destroyed.’”
|| The Privacy Commissioner’s office sent Mr. Young an e-mail from 2009 in which Valerie Stewart, the supervisor of national information holdings for Veterans Affairs, explained to department staff that Library and Archives Canada had “reviewed the hospital patient files and determined that they do not have archival value.”
|| Ms. Stewart went on to say that officials at the Veterans Affairs department had “determined there is no potential research value in these files,” and urged that “we proceed with the destruction of these files ASAP.”
The article goes on to quote the parliamentary secretary, mentioning him by name, which I shall not do because I know we cannot in this House, who said, “Indeed, no active, living veteran's file was involved in this process.”
There we have it. I know I am not supposed to show this to the House, but here is the picture of the veteran. He is alive. He is 65 years old, yet the department had him as dead.
There are many other such veterans whose files have gone missing, have been “plucked”, if I may use that word, as a lot of veterans are saying. There are even orderlies coming forward saying that they were ordered to cleanse the files and encouraged to pull stuff out of the files.
I accept my hon. friend's view of his mistake, and I hope we both wish Mr. Young to live to be a very old man.
That said, in the spirit of friendliness, allow me to speak to Bill C-11 and say that we will be supporting it.
However, I will start off by proposing a change straight off the bat. Maybe the minister will take this as an offer that we on this side of the House would like to work with him.
I could be mistaken, but in looking carefully at this bill, I did not see any funds allocated in order to provide a bridge for the veterans so that they can learn the job they are applying for or to give them training for the job they are applying for.
A lot of the veterans were in the army. We taught them one skill: to kill or be killed, to survive in order to be able to kill tomorrow, if I can put it bluntly. From the stories they have been telling us, not only have they learned how to do a lot of things, but many have said that they were trained to provide us the democracy we have here today.
I am sure that the minister, in his previous life as an officer, was also trained in some of these very skills. However, we also have to provide the necessary tools to apply those skills in new jobs that have supposedly been opened in the department.
That said, I hope the minister will take this as an offer and say that the government will provide the training and the money that are needed. Since this is a bill from the government, with changes that require money, this is something the minister can certainly look into.
There are two small problems. Placing injured veterans at the head of the hiring line is an empty pledge unless money for readjusting and retraining comes with it, especially in an era when the federal government is laying off government workers and there is a hiring freeze. On one hand, we are saying that we are going to give veterans the right to be at the front of the line, and on the other, we have hiring freezes. I still have a little bit of difficulty comprehending that.
Bill C-11 should not replace the government's obligation to help Canadian Forces members stay in the forces, if that is their wish. I keep referring to Corporal Dave Hawkins and Corporal Glen Kirkland. I will get to them in a few seconds.
Soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are coming forward about being discharged from the military against their will and before qualifying for their pensions. This breaks a Conservative government promise that service members injured in the line of duty should serve as long as they want in the Canadian Forces.
According to the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, soldier support centres have been left acutely understaffed and unable to provide for troops dealing with physical and psychological injuries. The purpose of the centres is to help injured soldiers and members of the forces return to active duty and transition to civilian life.
This brings me to the issue of the nine centres the minister is so bent on closing. I would invite the minister, if he wishes, to take a trip. As a matter of fact, I will go with him to see the veterans. I am sure that the NDP and everybody here would go and meet the veterans.
Look at Ron Clarke, who for years has been a Conservative member. If I were to repeat in the House what he said about the minister in that part of the world, I would probably get kicked out. He says, “my royal...” whatever. It is unparliamentary so I will not repeat it. Maybe I will let the member or somebody tune into YouTube to see it.
I will say, though, that they want to close nine centres. That is 26,788 veterans who will have to drive. Veterans will have to drive from Windsor, Ontario, to London, Ontario. That is a two-hour drive. Veterans will have to drive from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. If it is winter, and they have to go over Kellys Mountain, it is not a pleasant drive. It can take a veteran five or six hours to get across. If some of the veterans are 80 years old, are we asking them to do that drive? Is that what this country is asking a veteran to do? The veterans fought to put us in front of the line. These are the veterans who fought for us to have the democracy we have in the House. I am sure that is not what the minister wants.
Here is an opportunity for the minister to say that yes, he might have made a mistake. Yes, we are going to wait another 15 years until the Second World War veterans and the Korean War veterans, who are the primary people using the centres, have left us behind. We are not going to ask an 80-year-old man or woman to fill in a form with somebody on the line at the 1-800 number. We are not going to ask a veteran to be at the back of the line at a government services office, when he or she fought to keep us in front of the line.
I am sure that the minister, being a veteran of the Toronto, London, and Markham forces and the OPP force, knows for a fact that not only veterans have fought to protect this country. Police officers who risk their lives in duty on an everyday basis need to be respected and in front of the line.
Maybe the minister wants to reconsider the judgment made. Maybe it was made before he got there. Maybe he wants to consider that having the veterans go through all those hoops is not the Canadian way. When the minister swore an oath to protect some of us who live in Toronto, London, or York Region, and the majority of the members of Parliament in this House who live in Ontario, we needed to respect what he did for us.
Why, in the same breath, are we disrespecting the thousands of veterans who were not hesitant for 30 seconds to give up their lives for us in World War II, Korea, the United Nations, NATO, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Croatia? The list goes on and on.
The minister might have a change of heart and when he goes home tonight will say that we will keep those nine centres open for the next couple of years, especially for World War II and Korean War veterans.
In the past year, the Canadian Armed Forces has been forcing personnel with service-related injuries to leave the Canadian Armed Forces before they qualify for their pensions. Corporal Glen Kirkland, who suffers from physical and emotional wounds as a result of a Taliban bomb that killed three comrades, was being forced to leave the CAF because he did not meet the military universality of service requirements.
Last June, the Minister of National Defence said in the House of Commons that any Afghan vet injured in combat would not be released as a result of these injuries.
Recently, Corporal David Hawkins, a reservist from St. Thomas, Ontario, with post-traumatic stress, was forced out a year before he was able to collect a fully indexed pension. On October 30, 2013, the Minister of National Defence said in this House of Commons, “...we want to thank Corporal Hawkins...”. That is a great opening. He continued, “...for his service and sacrifice for Canada”. That is outstanding. He continued, “Before being released, members of the Canadian Armed Forces work with the military on a transition plan. Ill and injured Canadian Forces members are provided with physical, mental and occupational therapy services for their eventual transition to civilian life. Members are not released until they are prepared”. Well, Corporal Hawkins was released before he was well prepared.
If Corporal Hawkins were to apply to get a job with any department, he might have to get a bit of training. He might need a couple of bucks to get retrained in order to apply. Maybe some money will have to be allocated in the department so that this injured vet, suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, is able to qualify to do that job. Corporal David Hawkins was not prepared to be released.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs is trying to find a way to show that the Conservative government is caring for injured veterans while not coming clean on a lot of these issues.
I will continue. The Veterans Ombudsman stated in a press release, when he made the following observations on Bill C-11:
||...under the new legislation, the system will have to adjudicate an individual's file to determine if the medical release is related to service or not. This could add additional red tape to the release process and potentially delay the ability to access priority hiring upon release.
||...it will create separate classes of Veterans for federal priority hiring...all medically releasing [sic] Canadian Armed Forces members should be treated the same way, because there is an inherent service relationship for every Canadian Armed Forces member who is medically released because the individual can no longer serve in uniform.
||...losing one's career as a result of a medical condition is unique to service in the military.
Other questions were raised by the Veterans Ombudsman. Maybe the minister might want to stand up and answer them during question and answer.
Which department will do the adjudication? What documentation will be used in the adjudication process? Will benefit of the doubt criteria be established? How long will the process take? How much visibility will the member have in the process? Will there be an appeal process? If a definition is made that a medical release is not service related, will it affect the decision-making for another benefit program, such as the disability award?
I can say what is in the media. This is from November 8:
|| Sensing the lousy optics of unhappy vets during Remembrance Week, the government has pledged to give discharged soldiers first crack at civil service jobs. Given that the feds are cutting staff, this is an empty promise. And it’s doubtful many of those scarce jobs could actually be filled by soldiers unfit for military duty.
Here is another one from the National Post. “Ottawa fails veterans with cynical displays of show over substance”. Barbara Kay writes:
|| Recently the government proudly announced two new initiatives. The first pledges to give priority to veterans seeking civil service jobs. But Mr. Parent points out that thousands of veterans are incapable of working due to injuries suffered during their service. And since hiring freezes are in place over most of the federal departments,“priority” consideration for frozen jobs is not of much use. The other initiative increases funding for vocational rehabilitation programs to $75,800 per veteran. But the fine print belies the seeming generosity. The money is allocated at $2 million over five years, spread over 1,300 veterans. That comes to $1,500 each, unless 40-some veterans get all of it.
I hope that the Minister of Veterans Affairs has paid attention and will have the generosity today to accept the amendment from this side of the House that money be allocated for veterans to be retrained and that there be a sum for each veteran. Second, I hope that the minister stands up, after my pleading with him, and says that they will keep these nine centres open, which affect 26,788 veterans, for the next 10 or 15 years. If he gets up and says anything about the 600 points and “da de da de da and we're going to their houses”, the veterans are watching. They know that it is totally bellowing. We will leave it at that.
Mr. Parm Gill (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, let me first say that I will be sharing my time with the member for Etobicoke Centre.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to join in the debate today on our government's proposed changes to provide greater priority hiring opportunities for Canada's veterans.
These changes go to the core of so many Canadian values and priorities. We value devotion to duty. We value and salute those who are prepared to step forward and defend our way of life. We are grateful for the sacrifices of those who protect our shared values of freedom, democracy and human rights.
Of course, Canadians trust that their elected representatives will do everything they can to ensure that Canada's veterans are supported in every way during and after their military service. When we, as parliamentarians, accept that trust, we must also understand that it is not a simple promise entered into lightly. We cannot break faith with those who have displayed and continue to display the highest of ideals in the defence of our country and of our allies. Today we have an opportunity to further demonstrate that we are keeping our word.
As outlined earlier by the hon. Minister of Veterans Affairs, we are introducing important changes to create a five-year priority entitlement for Canadian veterans who are medically released for service-related reasons.
Before I go any further in reviewing the details regarding the proposed priority hiring of Canada's veterans, I would like to offer my congratulations and gratitude to the Minister of Veterans Affairs who continues to build upon the accomplishments of this government and his predecessor. It is that record of action that makes me so proud to serve in a government committed to ensuring that all those who wear our nation's uniform, past and present, have the care and support they need, when they need it.
As was noted in the Speech from the Throne last month, we have invested almost $5 billion since 2006 in new funding to enhance veterans' benefits, programs, and services. Through the new veterans charter, we are now providing full physical and psycho-social rehabilitation services. We are providing career transition services, financial support, health care benefits, and one-on-one case management services.
What does this all mean for a veteran?
On a practical level, as the minister has said on numerous occasions, it means many things. It means we can provide up to $75,800 in training assistance for eligible veterans to start a new career. If a veteran is too seriously injured to work again, we would transfer the vocational support to his or her spouse.
There are many other things we can do for veterans, such as helping veterans with shovelling snow from their laneways or cutting their grass, having meals prepared in their homes or delivered to their front doors, having health care professionals and a Veterans Affairs Canada case manager visit them in their own homes, and reimbursing veterans for the cost of travelling to their medical appointments.
We do all these things because we are determined to help injured and ill veterans make the best recovery possible as quickly as possible. We are also committed to ensuring veterans experience a seamless transition to civilian life.
The amendments before us build on that. With these amendments, we would create a five-year statutory priority for Canadian veterans who are medically released for service-related reasons. This change would give these veterans the highest level of consideration for jobs in recognition of their sacrifice and service to Canada.
We understand that while men and women with disabilities may no longer be able to meet the universality of service provision to continue serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, they are still capable of making significant contribution in service of their country. That is what these amendments would do, plain and simple. These amendments would allow them to continue leading and serving a great country.
Additionally, through changes that would follow in the act's accompanying regulations, full-time regular, and reserve force veterans who are medically released for non-service-related reasons would see their existing level of priority extended from two years to five years. We would make the regulatory changes retroactive to April 1, 2012, so veterans who may have lost their priority status since then are eligible again for another five full years.
I do want to be clear about one thing. These amendments would not guarantee veterans a job in the federal public service. Instead, they would ensure that qualified veterans have the highest priority for new job openings. Canada's veterans understand, given the terms and conditions of their own military careers, that there can be no guarantees about what tomorrow will bring.
However, these amendments before us do offer greater certainty. They are progressive and responsible steps forward to recognize the service and sacrifice of those who serve our country so well and who wish to continue to serve Canada after their military career has ended.
These amendments send a clear signal, a clear message, to Canada's men and women in uniform that our government places a high value on their skills, their training and their experience, and we do not want to lose that. These are skills we need to promote and retain, whenever appropriate and possible.
Put simply, these amendments are a logical reflection of our desire to keep the highly qualified individuals who have received world-class training and who have consistently demonstrated the ability to apply their skills in situations that the majority of Canadians would never face or know.
We have a potential talent pool offering demonstrated leadership and an ability to think strategically. In short, we have a group of Canadians renowned for getting the job done.
Any employer in the private or public sector would be foolhardy to ignore such skills or dismiss such potential. Our government would never make such a mistake, and we encourage other levels of government to follow our lead.
However, first we need to make good on these changes. We need to make sure they are quickly approved. We need to ensure that the Public Service Commission is a willing and enthusiastic partner, and we need to put measures in place to ensure the full intent and spirit of these changes is realized. We can do that.
Together, we can deliver further meaningful support for the men and women who have served Canada so well. I encourage everyone here to help us make it happen quickly.
Mr. Ted Opitz (Etobicoke Centre, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to acknowledge and thank fellow members who have joined the debate on this important matter before the House. It is very important.
I listened closely to my colleague, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, as he outlined the rationale behind those proposed amendments to the Public Service Employment Act and its regulations.
I want to point out that the minister is an outstanding Minister of Veterans Affairs. He cares and he works hard. He has been on many panels. I have known him since before both of us were elected to this House, and he was on the national committee and the provincial committee for the Canadian Forces Liaison Council. What that did was help reservists and others match up with jobs, as well as get employers to release reservists for very needed deployments overseas. As we know, our deployments need between 20% and 25% reservists on a regular basis to allow our missions to succeed and to be able to top up the manpower that was so critically needed in operational zones.
I thank the minister for that, and I want to congratulate him on this initiative, which marks another step in the significant progress our government has made in supporting Canada's veterans. Like many members, I am proud of what we have accomplished, particularly as it relates to helping veterans and their families make a successful transition to civilian life. That is a sacred obligation we have, a sacred obligation on which we are following through.
Yesterday this minister tabled and outlined the 160 amendments he is making because of what veterans stakeholders and advisory groups have advised us. This government is listening very closely to what our veterans need, and we are applying that.
As the minister said earlier, nothing is perfect in life. Things change, situations change, circumstances change and we have to adapt to that. That is what we are doing right now, right this minute. We are making this program the best it can possibly be today for the veterans of Canada, as they deserve and as this government has committed to do.
For example, I was pleased with our government's launch of the veterans transition action plan last year, because it sets out a long-term strategy for supporting veterans in their transition to civilian life. That is a key component of this action plan, the cutting of red tape for veterans initiative. That is something the minister also mentioned today. We are absolutely allergic to red tape. We do not like it. Nobody likes it. It is bad for veterans, and we have to cut that out, all of it, when we find it, to make it easier for them to access the services.
We launched it in February 2012 with the single-minded purpose of providing veterans and their families with faster, hassle-free service, and that is what we have been doing. That is what we are going to continue to do.
I would like to highlight just a few things. For example, Veterans Affairs Canada's business processes are being streamlined. The department's policies and programs are being simplified. New technology and e-services are being used to meet the needs expressed by Canada's veterans. The results so far have been impressive.
Turnaround times for processing veterans' disability benefits have been improved, and access to rehabilitation services is now being approved in just two weeks instead of four. That is just the start of the accomplishments.
By the time this five-year initiative is fully implemented, Veterans Affairs Canada's programs, benefits and services will be the most responsive, inclusive and flexible ever seen by Canada's veterans. We will be delivering them as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Veterans are already reaping many of the benefits. In October, for example, the Minister of Veterans Affairs announced a new approach to our vocational rehabilitation program, and that provides eligible veterans with up to $75,800 in training to start a new career. That is a great amount of money and that is helpful in helping them start in the new careers, new trades, new skills to which they need to take the existing skills they have, which are world-class skills they have learned in the military, and translate those to a civilian career.
That is great news for approximately 1,300 veterans presently participating in vocational rehabilitation and vocational assessment services. These changes also build on other recent enhancements.
For example, the process for reimbursing veterans for travel costs to and from their medical appointments has been simplified. That means that about 18,000 veterans no longer need to send receipts or verify their appointments with the department to cover their travel expenses. That is a big administrative burden lifted off their shoulders. This one change has eliminated a lot of cumbersome paperwork for eligible veterans and is putting money back into their pockets faster.
The same is being done for more than 100,000 veterans, widows, and caregivers enrolled in a veterans' independence program. In January, veterans began receiving upfront payments for grounds maintenance and housekeeping services. They no longer have to pay out of their pocket for these services and then wait to be reimbursed. This is yet another administrative burden lifted off their shoulders. The full suite of e-services also ensures that veterans and their families can access the relevant information that they are looking for at any time of day or night.
These kinds of changes make a real difference. That is what the proposed legislative amendments will also do. With these changes to the Public Service Employment Act and its regulations, we will create a five year statutory priority entitlement for Canadian veterans who are medically released for service related reasons. This will move qualified veterans to the front of the line for new positions in the federal public service so these remarkable men and women, these patriots, can continue to serve our great country if they so chose.
Additionally, through the regulatory changes that would follow, full-time regular and reserve force veterans who are medically released for non-service related reasons will see their existing level of priority extended from two years to five years. It will also allow them a longer period of priority access to positions that they are qualified to fill. That is an incredible improvement.
These changes are also about providing veterans with real and meaningful new employment and career opportunities and doing so in recognition of their service and the sacrifices they have made in the name of Canada. Once these changes take effect, Canadian veterans medically released for service related reasons will be able to pursue new careers in the federal public service on a higher priority and a longer term basis than ever before. This is something that we are very proud to be doing for our veterans.
I know Canadians support this kind of honourable recognition and support for Canada's veterans. It reflects our nation's gratitude for everything our men and women in uniform, past and present, have done to protect and defend our democracy and our way of life. It also reflects our collective desire to continue to have highly-qualified Canadians putting their hard-earned skills and training to work for our country and ensuring that our economy continues to grow on the strength of a well placed workforce and employees who are realizing their full potential. When employers hire a veteran, they are hiring somebody with a tremendous tool kit of skills right now.
These proposed amendments to the Public Service Employment Act should also be viewed as another way to strengthen overall skill sets and therefore the overall effectiveness of the federal public service. It is not only a fair thing to do; it is the right thing to do. Quite frankly, it is the Canadian thing to do. I would hope that all levels of government across the country will do the same and adopt similar policies.
Canada's veterans only want a fair opportunity to find meaningful and rewarding employment when their military service to Canada ends. However, they sometimes do not fully realize how marketable their skills are, or how to explain their experience and training to civilian employers. This is something we help with through programs like Helmets to Hardhats and other initiatives that help veterans to translate those numerous skills they have. In this job, my veteran colleagues and I, who speak about this often, always relate back to the great skills that we learned in the Canadian Forces and how applicable they are to everything we do in life.
The amendments before us are one way to tear down those barriers. They are an expression of the value we place on our men and women in uniform. It is the right thing to do.
I want to address something that a member mentioned earlier about how the two particular priorities for Canadian soldiers are to kill or be killed. Quite frankly, it is nonsense. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces have a whole myriad of skills in their toolkits. For example, the most obvious right now relates to the DAR teams deployed to the Philippines. They are providing badly needed assistance to people in dire need. The people in these teams are engineers, people producing water and sanitary conditions. They are bringing food, helicopters, and other logistics to do that.
Canadian Armed Forces members aid civil authorities, such as at the Olympics in 2010. They perform diplomatic roles, for example, as attachés in our embassies around the world. They work as trainers for other armies, as our soldiers are doing in Kabul right now or in the Canadian Forces College.
In fact, some of the soldiers have continuing education. There are many members of the Canadian Armed Forces presently with master's degrees and Ph.D.s. They are a very accomplished lot.
The point of all of this is to help our veterans make that seamless transition to civilian life where they can best utilize the incredible skills they have learned through a lifetime of service to Canada.
Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, first I personally want to thank the government for bringing forward this piece of legislation. I think it is an important topic. To me, any day that we can talk about veterans, RCMP members and their families, and the men and women who serve our country on a regular basis is always a good day for the House of Commons, because these are the types of subjects we should be discussing on a more constant basis.
Before I start, I want to give personal kudos to my colleague from Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, my personal friend and seatmate next to me in terms of the riding in Nova Scotia, for his father, who was known as W.L. “Red” Chisholm. He was in the Canadian Air Force. He received the DFC and bar. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2005. I want to offer the greatest round of applause and gratitude to my colleague, his late father, and all those who served our country for their tremendous service.
I understand exactly why the government brought this particular legislation forward. I am one of the few people here who had discussions with the late Jack Stagg, the former deputy minister and the former minister of veterans affairs, when it came to the actual implementation of the new veterans charter. Even though there are a fair number of concerns and issues with it, I am proud to say that I worked with our party to help the other parties get that legislation through, because in the end, when we compare apples to apples, it is a better program than it was before.
That said, there are many deficiencies within it.
Because it is a living document, everyone, including the veterans associations, was assured that when problems are recognized, the document could be opened up immediately and the problems dealt with right away. The unfortunate part is that the first crack in the charter was on Bill C-55, an important piece of legislation that received unanimous support from the House of Commons, in order to improve the lives of a lot of veterans out there financially.
We have heard other concerns with the new veterans charter. The reality is our committee will be looking at that hopefully in the most non-partisan way we can to, as the minister said yesterday, and in a proactive, non-partisan manner give recommendations to the minister so that the minister can then go to cabinet. We know that budget time is coming up and that all the departments will be looking at the same Canadian tax dollars and the best way to allocate them. I thank the minister and the parliamentary secretary for listening to the debate today. We would like to give him some basic recommendations that he can then take to cabinet to improve the lives of all veterans, RCMP members, and their families.
Getting back to the particular aspect of priority hiring for military personnel who leave the military either on a volunteer basis or through what we call a 3(b) release for either physical or psychological injuries, we applaud this idea, but in the veterans charter, priority hiring was one the major aspects. It shows us that the system did not really work well when legislation has to come forward seven years later to deal with this issue once again.
We found out over the years that the Department of National Defence was the biggest employer of veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs was next. All of the other departments did very little in hiring veterans in that regard. Hopefully, with this legislation, we can encourage on a proactive basis, through the Public Service Commission and everyone else, the opportunity and ability for the heroes of our country to remain gainfully employed, because the entire aspect of the veterans charter, and this was the key selling point, was care, not cash.
I say this very clearly. The ability for them to understand that although they are 24 years old and injured they still have worth, not just to themselves and their families but also to their country, and the ability of the government of the day to provide programs and systems to ensure that they and their families get the benefits they richly deserve in order to lift themselves up, be gainfully employed, and have economic opportunities right through the natural part of their lives was the key to this.
I am pleased to see that the government has now offered an opportunity through legislation to ensure that we get this right. However, there are some questions we have to ask when the bill gets to committee.
I would like to tell the minister and the parliamentary secretary that the federal New Democrats will be supporting this legislation. We hope to be able to make some friendly amendments when it gets to committee on several things, such as who will be monitoring, through the Public Service Commission and departments of the federal government, to ensure this works for veterans and RCMP members.
We want to include RCMP members as well. It may be an oversight by the government, but because RCMP veterans also have to go to DVA to get their benefits, we feel they should also be included in this important legislation so that they too can have the opportunities that our military veterans may have in future employment with federal departments right across the country.
As has been said before by my hon. colleagues on both sides of the House, the men and women who serve in our military and RCMP have tremendous skills. Whether it is Helmets to Hardhats or working for the Coast Guard or CSIS or whatever it is that they do, these men and women can provide great service to all of Canada in this regard.
I am pleased to say that we will be supporting the bill, but we would like to see the RCMP included.
My second point is also very important. I met with many groups. I met with Helmets to Hardhats and with people in other departments, and I can say that an awful lot of veterans leave the military with some sort of psychological concern. Certain triggers can affect different veterans in different ways.
Maybe the department can take notes and get back to us on this point: will the department offer intense training to companies and departments throughout Canada on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or operational stress injury so that they will be able to understand sensitivities that a veteran may be going through and watch for triggers? A company may have a well-qualified veteran working for it, but in a new environment the veteran may experience something that triggers that reaction.
Several years ago at the DND dockyards, there was a veteran who got a job with the DND firefighters. The problem was, and this is no disrespect to them, that they were not properly advised or trained on the individual, their new buddy. This person had some pretty serious psychological concerns, but the people he was newly working with did not fully understand or appreciate what he was going through, so he just could not work there any more. He could not handle the stress of that new environment.
This outcome can be avoided if we are proactive in this regard. When an individual who has PTSD, OSI, or a physical injury passes the qualifications and gets hired in a new department, the people in that department should already fully understand that veteran's situation. This is not only a hero of our country, but a person who has some concerns that he or she has to deal with on a regular or maybe a lifetime basis. We simply do not know. I think sensitivity shown to these individuals would be very helpful in integrating them into a new work environment.
I admit that I did not wear the uniform of Canada, but many of my friends and many colleagues in this House did. For those who have served for a long time, the military becomes a way of life. The RCMP becomes a way of life. For those who have been firefighters or police officers for many years, such as the Minister of Veterans Affairs, it becomes a way of life. However, the day comes when that uniform comes off. That is a pretty serious moment.
I remember many times people telling me that the proudest day they ever had was when they put on the red serge for the first time at Depot in Regina, and the saddest day was when they took it off. These are people who had a wonderful career, but when you talk to them after they leave, they are in a blue funk for a while. There is a feeling of “Now what do I do?”
Also very important is that we will be asking the government to give an individual prior to being released from the military and getting training for an occupation in a different field all the opportunities, the financial and human benefits, in order to walk them through that process, because many of these veterans believe, in some cases, that all they can do is work for the military.
That may not happen, but we have to be able to encourage them in a positive way by ensuring that there are benefits to help them get through, educational or occupational benefits or whatever it is, to be able to carry on and move through the next door, as they say, in order to obtain gainful employment and be a productive member of society. That is exactly what we would hope to do through the legislation.
I want to assure the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the parliamentary secretary that we on this side of the House will be supporting the legislation. We hope to be proactive and maybe work on amendments. We will bring witnesses and maybe other departments before the committee to explain exactly how they anticipate accepting the arrival of military and RCMP veterans and ask what they would do in order to enhance the comfort level of welcoming them into the new family they have, to make them feel very proud of what they have done. It needs to be understood that when veterans have injuries, either physical or psychological, it is a serious problem to deal with.
I look at Senator Roméo Dallaire and what he has done to work through the condition he has suffered over the years. He is a beautiful, classic example of someone who has a very serious psychological concern about what he experienced in Rwanda and elsewhere, and how, with the help of his family, the Liberal Party and others, he was able to manage his concerns and become a very highly respected citizen, not only of this country but of the entire world. He is a shining example of what can happen when one falls on one's knees, gets picked up and is able to move forward, and, as they say in the great province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to bash on. That is what we will be hoping to ensure with the legislation.
Again, I thank the parliamentary secretary, the Minister of Veterans Affairs and my colleague, the Liberal critic, for being here. In fact, I have to say that every single time we have debated a bill on veterans, the minister, regardless of what party, has always sat through the entire debate. On a personal level, I thoroughly enjoy that because it shows that the individual in question cares. Of course, I could go on and talk about all the failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but that would take another couple of hours. After winning that award yesterday, I do not think it would diminish my standing in the House of Commons.
At this time, I want to say that at the very end of the day the men and women who serve our country are our true national heroes. They and their families deserve everything we can do to assist them to become gainfully employed in employment that is meaningful and challenges them, so that they wake up in the morning and go to bed at night knowing they have done something that they and their families can be proud of. For that, I am very proud to say that the leader of the federal New Democrats and myself will be supporting the legislation.