Mr. Sylvain Chicoine (Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I move that the third report of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, presented on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, be concurred in.
This being Veterans' Week, I am very pleased to be the first to speak to this debate and to take the time to honour the memory of all of our Canadian veterans who made sacrifices to keep us safe and protect our values and our ideals.
This year, Remembrance Day will be especially significant for Canadians. The shocking events that took place just two weeks ago remind us of what our soldiers are ready to do, what our veterans are prepared to sacrifice to protect us. This year, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo and their families will be in the thoughts of all Canadians.
Following those incidents, veterans across Canada decided to guard their local memorials. With great pride, they once again answered the call to protect these sacred memorials. I would like to thank them all. Canadians are extremely proud of them.
I was also amazed by Canadians' great generosity following these incidents. In just one week, the Stand on Guard fund for the Cirillo and Vincent families raised over $700,000 to help these families. I would like to thank all of the generous Canadians who gave to help these families overcome these utterly inexplicable tragedies.
Lastly, I would like to congratulate my colleague from Scarborough Southwest on the bill he introduced this week to make Remembrance Day a statutory holiday for all Canadians as of next year. I would also like to thank all of my House colleagues, who almost unanimously supported this bill. We will never forget.
We are here this morning to concur in the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs' report on the new charter. On June 3 of this year, the committee presented its unanimous report on enhancing the new veterans charter. The committee held 14 meetings and heard from 54 witnesses. Naturally, the witnesses included many groups of veterans' representatives, veterans' health care research experts, and compensation experts. We heard from experts in all veterans-related sectors so that we could carry out a comprehensive study of ways to improve the new veterans charter.
From the beginning of the study, all the witnesses and veterans' groups testified to the urgency of the situation and the importance of improving the new veterans charter as soon as possible. Many also sent a clear message that the problems with the new veterans charter were known and had been identified much earlier in many reports and that the minister already had plenty of reports to support acting quickly to improve the charter.
Financial support, including the lump sum payment, the earnings loss benefit and the permanent impairment allowance; fairness for reservists; family, transition and employability were all among the most recurring themes raised by the witnesses during the study.
Of course the committee members really wanted to come up with a unanimous report because they did not want any ambiguity and they wanted to be able to act quickly to address the most critical and most obvious shortcomings in the new charter.
We therefore concentrated our efforts on the main priorities to show the government and the minister that certain points in the new charter had to be addressed immediately. Veterans have been waiting for these improvements to the new charter for eight years—eight years during which they have submitted various reports to our committee or the Senate committee and the ombudsman has also submitted reports.
Over the past eight years, since no changes were taking place and veterans' groups were increasingly dissatisfied, many tried launching class action suits. They felt the only way to get justice was to sue the government. Of course the government had every opportunity to improve the quality of life of our veterans, but it chose to make them wait.
The minister wants to wait. He says he supports the report, but the changes will have to wait because he needs more time. It is totally ridiculous. As I said, the witnesses were practically unanimous. The minister has all the information he needs to act quickly, but more than six months after the report was tabled, we are still waiting for the minister to do his part, make the changes to this new charter and improve veterans' quality of life.
We are extremely disappointed that the minister is saying that he needs more time. The report was unanimous. I had hoped that the minister and the government would listen to reason and act quickly.
The government has decided to adopt a two-phase approach.
First, the minister will study the non-budgetary recommendations and those that might be covered by Veterans Affairs' current budget. If the minister thinks we can improve the charter and the quality of life of our veterans without significant additional funding, then he is sadly mistaken. Veterans should not have to pay the price for the Conservatives' political choices and suffer because of the government's austerity measures. They made sacrifices for their country and deserve to get proper compensation befitting those sacrifices.
As far as the second phase is concerned, the fact that the government has not provided any timeframe worries me greatly. The way things are going, veterans might have to wait until 2016 to get tangible results when it comes to the lump sum payment or the earnings loss benefit.
If the government does not introduce financial improvements until the next budget, the election may very well be called shortly afterward and the budget bill could die on the order paper, which means we would have to wait for another bill along with the studies that go with it. Veterans might still have to wait for years. This is totally unacceptable. We need a bill right away. We must improve the quality of life of our veterans now—we needed to yesterday—not tomorrow, not in the next budget, which could die on the order paper given that the election will be held in October. We need the minister to act on this immediately.
I am not the only one to say this. In fact, the Royal Canadian Legion made largely the same comments in a press release.
Here are some excerpts from a press release issued shortly after the minister's response was tabled:
|| The Royal Canadian Legion is disappointed with the current government’s lack of progress...
||...it is the belief of the Legion that the government has had more than enough time, and certainly enough input from subject experts, to be able to take solid action on improving the [New Veterans Charter]...
|| The lives of these Veterans and their families’ cannot become an election or budget issue.
Like other veterans' groups, the Legion is also asking the minister to take immediate action and allocate the legislative and financial resources to ensure the well-being of our veterans and their families. They just cannot wait any longer.
The Veterans Ombudsman issued this statement:
||...I am concerned with the timetable of the phased approach...
|| Budget for these four substantive recommendations must be included in the Government’s 2015 budget or change will not happen for several more years.
The Legion and the ombudsman agree with us. They are also worried about the possibility that the key measures will die on the order paper. Our veterans cannot wait any longer. It is imperative that we take action right now. I cannot say it enough: the situation is urgent.
The minister had everything he needed to take action last month and the month before that, but we are still waiting for proposals to improve the new charter. That is completely unacceptable.
I will now talk about the main problems with the charter and about how the Conservatives and the minister have failed to take action on certain issues. These needs are urgent and I will explain why.
The committee studied the government's obligations and duties towards veterans. The veterans' group Equitas Society filed a class action lawsuit against the government, since it felt that the new charter was completely unfair and that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Over the course of this lawsuit, the government's counsel argued that the Canadian government had no sacred duty towards veterans and that there was no difference between veterans and other Canadians.
Most veterans' groups were quite rightly outraged by the counsel's statement. What is most shocking is that after these veterans' groups said they were outraged by the comments, the minister chose not to call in his counsel and instruct him not to make such comments, since that sacred duty has existed for more than 100 years.
No government before this one has dared question the sacred duty of all Canadians to take care of veterans wounded because of the nature of their duties.
The committee therefore decided to add a few amendments to the preamble of the Pension Act. The government responded that it would introduce a bill to amend the charter by incorporating this recognition of the government's duty to our veterans. However, it took months for the minister and the government to recognize this duty.
I am very pleased that the government is finally coming to its senses and acknowledging the existence of this sacred duty and of the pact between the government, Canadian citizens and our veterans.
Furthermore, the lump sum payment is another problem raised by most of the witnesses. Right now, the maximum lump sum payment to compensate for service-related disabilities is $300,000. If we compare that to the compensation provided by civil courts, the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, for example, offers maximum compensation of $350,000. That is a difference of $50,000.
Can we compare the injuries of a civilian employee with the injuries of a soldier? Obviously, they work in very different work environments. Directly comparing these two different kinds of compensation does not take into account the fact that soldiers face immeasurable risks to their safety and their lives. When soldiers are ordered to do something that puts their lives or their safety at risk, they cannot refuse. However, when employers ask civilian employees to do anything at all, they have the right to refuse if they feel that it puts their safety at risk. That is one of the key differences between military and civilian employees, so the two cannot really be compared.
The allowances disadvantage soldiers, and yet they cannot refuse an order even if it puts their life in danger. They deserve to be generously compensated, just like civilian workers. I think most Canadians would agree.
When the minister said that a veteran can get nearly $800,000, or something like that, there was a catch. He mentioned that a few months ago. I want to try to explain this a little. When the minister said that, he was adding up all the veterans' allowances and the benefits under the service income security insurance plan, which is something that soldiers pay into from their salary. Military personnel pay for their own insurance, while the government sends them into danger and they have no right to refuse. The minister should therefore stop considering this insurance as some form of benefit for veterans and active military personnel.
There is also another problem with how the amount paid out is determined. The amount is paid based on the table of disabilities. Sum X is paid depending on the type and degree of disability. Getting the maximum amount would require a total and permanent disability. A number of injustices were brought to our attention.
I am thinking about a veteran named Bruce Moncur, who is a striking example. He got a serious head injury and underwent several surgeries to save his life. He lost 5% of his brain in the process. Then he had to courageously face the side effects and the necessary rehabilitation.
After those surgeries to deal with the injury, he was awarded $22,000 in compensation from the government. That is right. This veteran received $22,000 for a major brain injury that greatly affected his quality of life. Obviously, that is nowhere near enough. This veteran, in his early thirties, will have to live the rest of his life with the scars and with unreasonably low compensation.
The government cannot continue to award lump-sum payments that do not adequately represent the degree of disability, as in the case I just mentioned. Veterans have to be awarded an amount that demonstrates the appreciation Canada has for those who have sacrificed their physical and psychological well-being, especially in light of a deployment to Iraq. The government needs to resolve these issues quickly, so that our soldiers serving overseas can have peace of mind knowing that they will be adequately compensated. Should they get seriously injured, they should not have to be concerned about their financial security afterwards, as is the case for far too many veterans.
One of the other priorities presented to the committee was the amount for the earnings loss benefit. It is set at 75% of the soldier's gross income. In comparison, injured federal public servants receive 85% of their net income as compensation, as stipulated in the Government Employees Compensation Act.
I could go on for much longer. I will quickly conclude my remarks. As I mentioned, the earnings loss benefit was one of the key elements. An amount equivalent to 85% was proposed, the same amount paid to federal public servants. Our veterans and military personnel deserve the same compensation as other government employees. That is not the case, as they receive 10% less. We must quickly fix this.
Another problem brought to the attention of the committee concerns everything surrounding the earnings loss benefit. The ombudsman pointed out that 48% of veterans with a total and permanent incapacity are not receiving the benefit or the supplement, while those eligible for the benefit qualify for the minimum amount.
Therefore, nearly half of all veterans are not eligible for the earnings loss benefit. The few veterans who do qualify—less than half—fall in the third category, which pays the least. We definitely have to address this problem.
A huge number of problems were raised in committee. I will conclude by saying that the minister has known about these problems for a long time. He must act quickly and introduce in the House substantial improvements to the new veterans charter that will address all the problems raised by this committee.
Mr. Ted Opitz (Etobicoke Centre, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, as a veteran, I am delighted to be here to speak on behalf of veterans today, and I am delighted that the parliamentary committee produced the unanimous report we are discussing today. The report, “The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward”, charts a common path forward for veterans' programming in Canada. It represents an incredibly important and significant achievement, and I am proud to have been able to contribute my insights as a veteran, and I thank members of all three parties for producing such a thorough report. Unfortunately, what surprises me is that so much of it seems to be forgotten in what I have been listening to today. If I may, I would like to take a few moments to confirm some of the basic facts for the rest of this debate.
For example, Canadians should know that if any of our men and women in uniform are injured in the line of duty, they are eligible for an upfront disability award worth as much as $301,000, tax free. As well, these same individuals may receive ongoing disability benefits and other supports that can climb to as much as $10,000 per month. It is also important to note that under the new veterans charter, ill and injured veterans and still-serving members now have access to comprehensive rehabilitation programs. This includes full physical, psychosocial, and vocational rehabilitation services, as well as health care benefits and one-on-one case management services for those who require such help.
These are just some of the highlights of the new veterans charter that was implemented by our government in 2006 with the unanimous support of Canada's Parliament the year before. It is this comprehensive and modern nature of the new veterans charter that convinced the members of this House's Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs to clearly restate support for it. It is the right way to go with veterans' programming in Canada.
However, the care and support Canada provides to its veterans and their families goes well beyond the new veterans charter. For example, more than 100,000 veterans, survivors, and caregivers are receiving our help with everything from year-round housekeeping services to the shovelling of their driveways in the winter and the cutting of their grass in the summer. In fact, the list of services available to veterans and their families is astonishingly long. I have heard some call it cradle-to-grave care that extends from benefits and supports for young families to long-term care and funeral and burial programs. What is more, we have been consistently enhancing these programs. We have been improving the benefits, services, and programs that are so essential to the men and women and the families we serve. Simply put, I believe I can rightly claim that no other government in our modern history has done more to meet the needs of our veterans and their families.
In fact, since 2006, we have invested almost $4.7 billion in new funding to enhance our veterans programming. While this increased funding is significant by itself, it is even more remarkable when we consider the uncertain global economy we have been operating in for well over the last half-dozen years. We have been increasing our spending on veterans even as we have been engaged in some of the most difficult belt-tightening exercises.
Canadians saw that in our 2014 economic action plan. It included, for example, another $108 million over three years to ensure that modern-day veterans of modest means have access to a dignified funeral and burial. It also allocated $2.1 million to enhance our delivery of vital services through our online My VAC Account, so that veterans and their families can conduct a variety of transactions with Veterans Affairs when it is most convenient for them. Just this past spring, the Minister of Veterans Affairs also announced a $500,000 pilot project to study the use of psychiatric service dogs to assist in the treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Our list of accomplishments in support of veterans is not just lengthy but very wide ranging. Among other things, we currently have legislation before the House to give veterans greater access to good jobs in the federal public service. We want to move qualified veterans to the front of the hiring line when they are released from the Canadian Armed Forces due to service-related injury or illness. We are also working closely with other employers to do the same.
At the same time, we are continuing to recognize and honour all veterans and currently serving members for their service and sacrifice. That is why we held a National Day of Honour on May 9. It was so that all Canadians could express their pride and gratitude for the more than 40,000 men and women who served during the 12-year Afghanistan mission, and to pay tribute to the 158 brave Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice for our shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and balanced justice.
That is why we also helped approximately 100 Canadian veterans return to France this past June for international ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. It is why we launched the World Wars Commemoration period, with ceremonies and events on August 4 and September 10 to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of Canada's engagement in the Second World War respectively. Our veterans have contributed so much to our history, and we truly need to know where we have been to understand where we are going.
Between now and 2020, we will commemorate the many milestone anniversaries of Canada's extraordinary role in Allied victories of the First and Second World Wars. This includes a new national tribute we have unveiled for living veterans of the Second World War. Eligible veterans will receive a commemorative lapel pin and personalized certificate of recognition signed by the Prime Minister.
In short, we are striking an appropriate balance between commemoration and ensuring that veterans and their families receive the full support that they deserve.
As the Minister of Veterans Affairs has said, there is no better way to recognize and honour our veterans' service and sacrifice than to ensure that they are receiving the benefits and supports that they have earned. However, our government also readily recognizes that even the best programming needs to evolve if it is to keep pace with the constantly changing needs of those it was designed to serve. This is a message the committee heard many times in listening to the testimony of more than four dozen witnesses from all walks of life, including veterans and their various representatives, academics, and individual Canadians.
If there is one conclusion Canadians can take from the report, it should be our central finding on the effectiveness of the new veterans charter. I would like to read a paragraph from the report that expresses this point very well:
|| The Committee members unanimously agree that the principles of the NVC should be upheld and that these principles foster an approach that is well suited to today’s veterans. This does not mean that improvements cannot be made. However, the legitimate criticisms of various aspects of the NVC should not overshadow the fact that it is a solid foundation on which to help veterans transition to civilian life when a service-related medical condition prevents them from continuing their military career.
That is what all members of our committee concluded: that the new veterans charter is a solid foundation.
Canadians can be proud of the work that the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs did. Members of Parliament from all three federal parties rolled up their sleeves to work collaboratively. We invited Canadians from across the country to weigh in and, as the Minister of Veterans Affairs has said, our government supports the spirit and intent of the vast majority of the committee's 14 recommendations. He has promised that our government will leave no stone unturned as we find innovative ways to build upon the substantial new funding we have already invested in our veterans programming since 2006.
In the short term, we will immediately adopt a number of measures. This means, for example, that we will be improving family access to psychological counselling services and developing a new training program to better assist the caregivers of our injured and ill veterans. We are going to help families care for their loved ones with the kind of insight and support they need and deserve. We are also going to work with our key partners and stakeholders to find the right policies and programs to meet the more complex issues and challenges facing veterans and their families.
We value the ongoing input and advice of the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans' organizations and we want to make sure that Canada's brave men and women in uniform, past and present, can always count on the services and support they need. Our government's formal response to the committee's report delivers that today and beyond.
When I was on the defence committee, we had a study on the care of the ill and injured. Many of these issues came up at that time as well, and our obligation to support our veterans in every way we possibly can struck me profoundly as a member of that committee.
Times change, wars change, conditions change. This government is committed to being flexible in ensuring that the needs of our veterans today, tomorrow, and beyond are going to be met.
Mr. Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure to rise today to speak to an important issue, the veterans.
Like the previous speaker, I had the privilege and honour of serving as a member of the Canadian Forces prior to getting involved in politics. I have had the opportunity to attend many functions with today's veterans and with veterans who served in the past. I want to ensure that we are moving in the right direction.
In the last week or so, there has been a great deal of interest, love, and passion expressed to members of our forces by Canadians all across Canada, particularly because of a couple of incidents that occurred recently in Quebec and at the National War Memorial. It is important to put this in the context of our Canadian Forces.
I would like to repeat some of the things said yesterday in the House with regard to our veterans. My colleague from Guelph, the Liberal Party critic for veterans affairs, said it quite well. I would like to quote what he said:
|| In less than a week, thousands of Canadians will gather at the National War Memorial, just feet from where Corporal Nathan Cirillo stood when he was slain standing guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Hundreds of thousands more Canadians will join them at cenotaphs, Legion halls, and other memorials remembering his sacrifice and that of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. These two men were murdered just days apart by individuals who would have us be afraid.
There was a lot of response to what took place. I would like to quote the leader of the Liberal Party. This is what the leader of the Liberal party had to say with regard to the incident that occurred two weeks ago:
|| They want us to forget ourselves. Instead, we should remember. We should remember who we are. We are a proud democracy, a welcoming and peaceful nation, and a country of open arms and open hearts. We are a nation of fairness, justice and the rule of law.
What our leader said is what we are talking about.
It is worth noting the contributions our veterans have made since Confederation and prior to that. I am going again to quote the words of the member for Guelph from yesterday:
|| From its beginning a century ago, 625,825 Canadians fought in the First World War. A total of 61,082 never returned home, and 154,361 were wounded. In the Second World War, although the First World War was to be the war to end all wars, 1,086,343 served Canada; 42,042 died and 54,414 were wounded. In Korea, 27,751 Canadians served, and 516 gave the ultimate sacrifice, while 1,072 suffered injuries.
|| Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have served Canada as peacekeepers and have worn the blue beret, a lasting symbol of Canada's contribution to peace and order around the world. One hundred and twenty-one people have died for these values, and many more have been injured.
There is so much more one can make reference to, whether it is countries like Afghanistan, the Middle East, or other areas of the world where Canada has contributed by having members of the Canadian Forces participate.
It is important to recognize the essence of the report that has been provided and what it is actually attempting to do. It is somewhat dated in that the report talks about the importance of understanding the background of the new veterans charter today.
This is from the report:
|| The Veterans Affairs Canada—Canadian Forces Advisory Council was established by Veterans Affairs Canada in July 2000 to offer expert, arms-length advice, within the scope of that department's mandate, on how to address challenges facing members and veterans of the Canadian Forces and their families. The advisory council has been meeting twice yearly in pursuit of that objective. During its October 2002 meeting, the council concluded that, despite numerous improvements in a range of services and benefits now available to these very deserving Canadians, the time had come for comprehensive reform.
Again, this is something that was created back in 2000. Members can get more information on the timelines by going directly to the report I am quoting.
|| On May 4, 2004, in response to the Veterans Affairs Canada—Canadian Forces Advisory Council report, the Minister of Veterans Affairs [who now sits as the Liberal critic for citizenship and immigration] announced that the government was planning to “undertake the most fundamental reforms of Veterans' programs since the Second World War. This announcement also launched a wave of consultations on the five key components of this reform.
The advisory committee, established in 2000, when Jean Chrétien was our prime minister, followed up with recommendations. My colleague, who is now the immigration and citizenship critic, announced five key components.
One component was “disability awards and wellness programs to replace today's pension system for new applicants”.
We had a question today regarding someone in the workforce who fell from scaffolding and received significant benefits that were more than one would receive for an equal type of injury in a different situation. They would have more benefits, even though they might have been working for a short six-month stint. We need to do more regarding that particular point.
Another key component was “physical and psychological rehabilitation services, including vocational training and education”.
We asked our soldiers to go over to Afghanistan on behalf of all Canadians. They are coming back and quite often being put directly back into civilian life or onto a military base.
It is not as simple as retracting the deployment and life going on. There are many types of injury that occur when we have military personnel engaged. Many injuries that were sustained were of a psychological nature. There are some mental illness issues as a direct result of that deployment.
We need to seriously look at the physical and psychological rehabilitation services being provided today. How many psychologist positions within the forces are vacant today? I have heard, through questions and answers during question period, that the government is not filling the positions that are vacant. It is important that we do that.
“Earnings loss support for veterans undergoing rehabilitation, as well as longer-term support for veterans who can no longer work because of a service-related illness or injury” was another recommendation.
That is an area where we have seen improvements, but have we really gone far enough? Again, when I say that we have seen improvements, this is something that was actually stated back in 2004.
I would argue that there are more things we could and should be doing. I will provide some comment on that shortly.
“Job placement assistance” and “More extensive health benefits to meet the needs of veterans and their families” were the final components.
One of the things we often overlook is the impact on families. Many of the injuries sustained by members of our forces, both physically and mentally, have serious ramifications for families.
We have members who have returned who have committed suicide. Arguably, if there were adequate resources to meet some of those needs, maybe some of those suicides could have been prevented.
We have physical injuries that members are finding very hard to overcome. There have even been issues regarding their ability to collect pensions in time because of the time limits for qualifying for a pension. If they come back injured, that could lead to a discharge, which could potentially disqualify them from receiving a pension.
There are disturbances within families, whether it is a parent and a child or the breakdown of a marriage.
These are the realities when we have members of the Canadian Forces being engaged abroad and even on occasion here in Canada.
I think there is more that we could be doing. When we think of the veterans bill of rights and to whom it all applies, appendix E encapsulates it quite well. The bill of rights applies to all clients of Veterans Affairs and then it indicates who that is: veterans with war service, and veterans and serving members of the Canadian Forces.
A good number of people do not necessarily recognize the wonderful role that our reserves play in our modern-day force. Today our reserves are an absolutely critical element to any form of deployment or providing support. These are individuals who often have another life in terms of employment, and they take time away from that life in order to continue to contribute in our forces through our reserves. We need to ensure that we recognize those reservists and the efforts they put in. One only needs to look at Afghanistan to get a sense of the degree to which our reserves were involved.
When we think about who these clients are, it is not only veterans who are serving members of the Canadian Forces who are regular full-timers, but it also includes our reservists in many ways.
Members and former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police also have some affiliation as clients of Veterans Affairs. When I was in service during the eighties, I would often run into members of our RCMP, and there was a sense of bondage there. I have flown in the back of a few C-130s, which is a transport-type of aircraft, where there would be a member of the RCMP. There is a wonderful relationship there.
When we think about the clients of Veterans Affairs, we also need to recognize that spouses, both through marriage or common law, are eligible. Survivors and primary caregivers are also part of the stakeholders. There are eligible dependents and family members, and there are even more clients than that. We need to understand and appreciate what their rights are and what their expectations are. First and foremost, we need to recognize the importance of them being treated with respect, dignity, fairness and courtesy.
These are not just my thoughts and words, these come right from the report. I would encourage people to go over it.
There is so much more that could be said. I would highly recommend to members that they take the time to review the report that was brought forward. There are many aspects, virtually all of them, where I believe one could get good solid consensus. Support is there for our Canadian Forces.
I applaud and recognize the valuable contribution that our standing committees make when they meet and contribute to reports of this nature. I would suggest it was time well spent. I look forward to seeing a continuation of the dialogue on this and other reports.
Mr. Erin O'Toole (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I have the distinct honour to rise in the House, with regularity, on issues relating to the Canadian Forces and our veterans. This is an important part of the reason why I ran for Parliament.
The most formative part of my life to date, my 41 years, were the 12 years I spent in uniform for Canada. I joined the military at 18, after graduating from Bowmanville High School. I attended the Royal Military College of Canada and served with the RCAF. I then transitioned to the reserves when I went to law school.
I have previously said in the House that when I left my military family and hung up that uniform, that transition was a difficult time. The decisions that flow around this are extremely stressful. In most cases, our young men and women joined around the same age I did, at 18. I did not have to write another resume until I left law school. I never had to apply for other jobs.
However, the difference between us being 18 or in our 30s, or even later when we leave, is we now have family, children and we will often be in a province that is different from where we enrolled, so our life has changed radically. It has changed for the better because I think almost every person who leaves the military finds it to be a rewarding experience and something that he or she feels proud of for life.
The reason why the new veterans charter was created was to help our men and women with that transition.
I share the concern of my friend from Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon, that how in recent years the debate in this place has been lowered by using veterans and programs like the new veterans charter for political gain. In part, it is shameful because the entire House supported the new veterans charter, including my friend from Sackville—Eastern Shore, who is one of the few who has been here and worked on veterans issues all of those years. Several other members of the Liberal Party voted for it. It was a Liberal project. However, the parties came together because they saw the need to modernize the transition of our men and women out of uniform. The intention of the new veterans charter was to ensure there was access to skills training, education and faster health care so the transition to civilian life was smoother. That is why every sitting member of the House voted for it under the Martin Liberal government.
The new veterans charter has been implemented over the course of our government. The intention of that document was for it to be a living document to ensure it could be reviewed from time to time. Our government has already acted. We increased the permanent impairment allowance supplement for some of our most critically wounded soldiers from Afghanistan. Why? Because those who are most critically wounded have the most difficult time transitioning due to their injuries. They have a hard time finding permanent civilian employment after they leave the military. Our government has already moved swiftly to address that major issue.
I had the honour of sitting on the veterans affairs committee during my first year in Parliament. That committee was charged by the current Minister of Veterans Affairs with reviewing all aspects of the new veterans charter. I still meet World War II and Korean War veterans around the country who complain about the system that was in place before the new veterans charter and how records were lost, how they could not provide support for claims and how claims were rejected. We have been listening and the new veterans charter was an attempt by the previous government, and increasingly by our government, to improve that transition period.
We have also made good changes to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, such as putting more veterans on the VRAB to review these sorts of claims.
I will use a few moments of time in the House to speak again about veterans' issues. I urge some of my colleagues in here, who use it as a wedge, to learn about the issues a little more, because I have been profoundly disappointed by the low level of knowledge. People are quick to complain, but very slow to actually research.
I have one main quote from the report by the veterans affairs committee on the new veterans charter. Two parts of its report are critical for the House to consider, especially the New Democrats who have brought this concurrence debate to the floor today.
The all-party committee thankfully removed most of the politics from its operations. The members of the committee heard from over 50 witnesses: veterans, veterans' advocates, people with experience in mental health and in veterans care. They put together a series of 14 recommendations, about which I will talk a little. What is important is that they unanimously agreed that the principles of the new veterans charter should be upheld, but that improvements to the charter were critical.
Members from all parties recognized that the new veterans charter provided a “solid foundation” for transition from military life to civilian life. There are aspects of the new veterans charter that need to be improved and updated, but the members of the committee unanimously agreed that the principles behind it in assisting that transition were sound. It is just that their execution needed to be done better.
I said earlier that the origins of the new veterans charter were in submissions by many veterans, including some veterans' groups that are now providing input on how we improve it. However, a lot were asking for more upfront transition support for men and women of the forces, including for those with injuries. That is what the new veterans charter tried to do. It also tried to ensure that health care was part of the transition mix for people leaving uniform quickly, and it still what it does that.
I have heard a few members of the House ask about the $4.7 billion that has been discussed. I hope some of them are listening now. A good portion of those funds will go to benefits for soldiers injured in Afghanistan, having enhanced benefits through the changes we already made as a government with the permanent impairment allowance and permanent impairment allowance supplement. A good portion of it is for that. However, on a basic funding level, Veterans Affairs Canada has a budget that is about $800 million higher per year than it was when we formed government.
I hear it said that this government is cutting from veterans. However, it is actually one of the few areas, while we have been trying to get back to a balanced budget, a principle that is important to our government, that has been largely spared. What I like most as a veteran, having worked after leaving uniform on veterans' issues passionately for many years, is our government is not stuck in the 1950s on how we care for our veterans.
Some people still talk about the Veterans Affairs offices in the House. They clearly do not understand how veterans are served. Those offices were opened around the country at a time when there was no national health care in the country. The only offices the Government of Canada had around the country were the post offices. There was no network of services and there was no health care. Offices were needed to administer to the entire generation that served and that needed care, and in some cases needed direct relationships with physicians who were private operators.
Let us fast-forward to today and to our veterans who are in some cases leaving in their twenties and who have never had a bank book. They want to access not just their banking information, but their veteran's account on their smartphone or on their tablet. I have said in the House a few times that we have to provide services that support our veterans in their nineties and in their twenties. To do that, we cannot sit still. We have to provide a range of services.
What has changed from the 1950s to today is a network of almost 700 offices across Canada called “Service Canada” that were not there before. We now also have health care administered through the provinces, and care for veterans can be accomplished through transfers and relationships with the provinces, including some of the facilities that the federal government used to own but transferred to the provinces.
We all now know from the debates in the House that provinces administer the health care systems in their province or territory, so the federal government now has a partnering relationship. There is still some exceptional work going on at Camp Hill, Sunnybrook, some of the veterans hospitals, but they are part of the provincial health regimes and they work with Veterans Affairs for care for our veterans. That is what has changed.
It is critical to remind Canadians that Veterans Affairs offices, the brick and mortar offices, did not deliver any services. They were administrative centres. Now that same level of administrative support can be offered at the network of 700 Service Canada offices, which did not exist post World War II but do now.
My area of Durham and the region at large, with 500,000 people, never had a Veterans Affairs office. People would have to travel to Toronto. Now with Service Canada, that same level of administrative support can be obtained at five Service Canada offices in and around the edges of the Durham region. That is smart governance, and anyone who says it is not is playing games.
Some of the offices that were closed had less than 10 people in them a day. In most cases, there is a Service Canada office that can offer the same level of support in the same building or down the street. As a veteran, it disappoints me that we actually took the advice of one veteran who had been highly critical of this. He said that the person in the Sydney Service Canada office would not have experience with veterans. We listened to him last October. I went to the minister personally. We ensured that when the Veterans Affairs office closed in Sydney, an experienced veteran case worker was transferred to the Service Canada office. With a caseload of about 10 to 12 people a day, one is appropriate to provide the same level of administrative support and guidance.
At the same time, over 15,000 veterans have signed up for the My VAC account, to manage their own Veterans Affairs accounts online. Most of them are the younger cohorts who I have talked about, in their twenties and thirties. Serving veterans is not about standing still. It is about doing things better and ensuring we can serve more people. We are committed to that.
I am proud of the uniting feature of the Conservative Party and this government. I am proud to serve in Parliament alongside members who have served in the army, the navy, the air force. We ensure this is a priority. There are 30,000 more survivors now taking part in the veterans independence program under our changes than before we took office. I think all MPs know veterans in their constituencies who benefit from the VIP, an appropriately named program, to help them stay in their homes.
With changes, not only have we allowed more people to qualify for that, we have made it easier. Therefore, instead of the administrative burden that families were telling us about of constantly having to submit receipts, mainly the children of veterans, there is now a case where they can be approved for such service and it can be done in advance. I have heard directly from people who say how much easier that is.
We have supported great programs that have popped up in recent years, like the work Wounded Warriors has done with service dogs, like the work the group of physicians and scholars at the University of British Columbia have done with the veterans transition program and the Veterans Transition Network, dealing with veterans with OSIs or PTSD. This has been funded by our government to try to take that great work UBC has done for about 20 years, since the Medak Pocket of Yugoslavia, and take it nationally.
We have increased and modernized the Last Post Fund, increasing both the amounts covered by the fund and extending it to modern veterans, not to ensure every veteran has a funeral paid for by his or her country, because I know most do not want that, I certainly do not, but all veterans want to know that indigent veterans and those who have fallen through the cracks will have those services provided. The Last Post Fund has done that for 100 years. Now will do it for the post-Korean War generation of veterans.
We have the veterans hiring act, where we are putting veterans as the top priority in hiring in the civil service. We know this will not apply to every veteran, because they still have to be eligible for that post within the federal government, but it sends a message when Canada's Parliament has an act and puts veterans in top priority position. We are sending a message to employers across the country that hiring a veteran is not just the right thing to do; it is actually accretive to the bottom line. It would be hiring people with a track record of being able to work well on a team and take to training, and most people who join the military are inherently loyal; they want to affiliate with a uniform or a regiment. Therefore, in an age where companies are spending millions of dollars on retraining and recruiting in the fast turnover parts of our economy, hiring a loyal person can save money in the long term.
We created the veterans ombudsman position. I have the good fortune to speak to Mr. Parent regularly on these issues. He came from an amazing life as a search and rescue technician, one of our most dedicated and brave members of the Air Force who save Canadians. Now he is applying his passion to serving our veterans as the ombudsman. We take his reports very seriously as direct input that he is providing to the discussion on veterans care.
On top of our changes to the VIP, we have eliminated more than two million forms of red tape that were burdening our veterans, as a way of streamlining things. In some cases, our older veterans were having issues and falling behind on paperwork, or it was falling to their children to administer. We want to make it easier.
There are important commemorative things we have done. I still meet Korean War veterans who thank us for, a year ago, making it the Year of the Korean War Veteran to recognize the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of that war. That war has been described as the forgotten war because it came so close after World War II and was a UN-mandated mission. Our work on that and, frankly, the work of the Korean government recognizing our veterans as well, has been empowering for many of our veterans. I am sure next week members of the House will have the honour of providing 75th anniversary commemorative pins to veterans of World War II. These are important symbols that veterans like to have for Remembrance Week, to hand to their grandchildren, or as part of their family memory of service.
We also recognized Bomber Command with a bar for the decorations. It was posthumous as well, so families could complete the service medal set of their grandparent by adding the Bomber Command bar. That was important because Bomber Command actually had the highest casualty rates of World War II, and the young men who flew on those missions were courageous. After the war, because of the nature of those missions, Bomber Command was not talked about, and the men were not properly recognized. There was a lovely exhibit in London, England, that many of those veterans attended, and the Bomber Command bar is a way we can commemorate that as well.
As I said in my remarks before in the House, when I brought up the important role the Legion plays in the care of our veterans, on a political program, I was mocked for that position. The only thing that predates the post-World War II bricks and mortar offices, is the Legion. Its network of 1,300 veteran services officers since the 1930s has been helping our veterans directly, and its mandate comes from an act of Parliament in 1926.
There are 14 recommendations from the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs on modernizing and evolving the new veterans charter. We have already acted on four of those, the most important of which is to make sure veterans are stable medically before they are transitioned out of the Canadian Armed Forces and to make sure they are briefed on Veterans Affairs and their caseworker.
I think most MPs would find that is usually the gap where a problem to the service or benefits of a veteran happens, because they leave one institution, the Canadian Armed Forces, which some joined at age 18, and they transition to an entirely new department. We are now making it mandatory that they are stable and they have the Veterans Affairs training.
The other parts of the recommendations we are reviewing and will act upon, because we are passionately committed to our veterans.
Mr. John Rafferty (Thunder Bay—Rainy River, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be part of this debate today.
The previous speakers have all been correct, including speakers on our side, that this was a unanimous report to the Minister of Veterans Affairs. The response was disappointing but not disappointing in all aspects. There were 14 recommendations and the government has indicated that it is already working on the majority of them and that it will come to some resolution in the future, perhaps the near future for some of them. However, the minister is not prepared to act on some of the recommendations and they all have a commonality, which I will talk about in a second.
There are recommendations in our report, and I say our report because I am a member of the veterans affairs committee, that would require, in some cases, a substantial increase in financial and human resources. I do not believe the government is right when it says that it can do these changes and meet these challenges within the existing budgets of veterans affairs.
I am going to outline four recommendations that the government is not prepared to act on or at least it says it will have further study on. The thing that is the same among all of them is that they will cost money. That is the commonality. The other recommendations are simply ways to cut some red tape and ensure there is some smooth transition, all good recommendations. We are pleased that the minister thinks that these recommendations can be acted upon fairly quickly. It is interesting to note that the recommendations that are going to be further studied all involve money.
We heard this morning one member of the government say that there is $4.7 billion in extra spending. The member who just spoke talked about 800 million new dollars every year, which eventually comes to the $4.7 billion. That is how the government comes up with that figure. I do have real figures from the ministry and I will talk about those in a second, too.
I will read the recommendations. Members will see the ones that the government is not prepared to act upon right now and they will see that they all involve money.
First, recommendation 3 is that the most seriously disabled veterans receive financial benefits for life of which an appropriate portion should be transferrable to his or her spouse in the event of death. Witnesses at committee felt that this was critical. The government is going to further study this particular recommendation.
Second, recommendation 4 concerns the earnings lost benefit, that it be non-taxable. There is some confusion here and I hope it is going to be sorted out by the ministry.
Third, recommendation 5 is that all veterans with service-related disabilities and their families be entitled to the same benefits and support as part of their rehabilitation program whether they are former members of the reserve force or the regular force. This is an important recommendation that we put forward in committee and the minister is going to study it but will not act on it right away.
Fourth, recommendation 6 is that the Canadian Forces work with Veterans Affairs Canada to make military family resource centres available to veterans and their families in order to support them in their transition to civilian life. I am not sure why this one needs more study but I suppose there are some funding issues, so money will be spent again.
If we keep in mind the figures that were thrown around a bit earlier, $4.7 billion in new spending, and clarified further by the previous speaker as $800 million a year, which adds up to $4.7 billion. Here are the actual numbers, and I have two sets of numbers here.
Let me talk about the nine service branches that were closed. They were located in Charlottetown, Corner Brook, Sydney, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Kelowna, Prince George, Saskatoon and Brandon. I will not go through all the figures on how much those offices cost over the last number of years but it ranges for all of those offices altogether. Let me talk about Thunder Bay in particular and it will give members an idea.
The Thunder Bay branch comes in around the $650,000 range a year to run. Therefore, we are talking about a considerable amount of money for these offices if we extrapolate that amount with the others.
By the way, I do not have figures for Prince George, because those numbers were not specific and were sort of spread out over the province. However, I do have figures for the rest of them, which I will talk about. For example, in 2013, it took $156,000 to keep the Brandon office open. However, the most expensive one was just a little over $1 million, which was in Sydney.
There was considerable expense involved for these offices, but I was concerned when they were closed. Previous members mentioned that veterans now have 600 and some odd points of service instead, but I did have a question on training and I remain concerned about that.
We have a further list of allotments and expenditures for Veterans Affairs each year, from 2004 to the end of 2013. However, I had also asked what the amount and percentage of all lapsed spending was in the department, broken down over those years, which is very enlightening. While we are talking about these four recommendations that I outlined, which would all cost money to Veterans Affairs, it is interesting to see the money that was lapsed. I would like to go through the years, starting in 2006.
The total allotment in 2006 in Veterans Affairs was $3.2 billion. However, the actual expenditure in that fiscal year was $3 billion. In other words, 8.21% of the money allotted to Veterans Affairs was left unspent, which amounts to $270 million that was lapsed and given back to the government.
When we talk about closing offices and changing the way things are done in Veterans Affairs, I think it is curious to note how much money was lapsed and given back to the government in each of these years.
In 2007-08, the allotment was $3.4 billion for Veterans Affairs, and almost $3.2 billion was actually spent in that fiscal year. Therefore, $246 million lapsed in that year from Veterans Affairs. It was left unspent and ended up going back into the government kitty. In 2008-09, the allotment was $3.4 billion, and $3.3 billion was actually spent, of which $115 million was lapsed and given back to the government in that year.
In 2009-10, the allotment was $3.5 billion, and $3.4 billion was actually spent. There was a lapsed spending amount of $118 million in that fiscal year that was given back to the government. In 2010-11, the allotment was $3.5 billion. The expenditures were actually close to that amount and the lapsed spending amount in 2010-11 was $41 million, which was sent back to the government.
In 2011-12, the allotment was $3.6 billion. Almost $3.5 billion was actually spent with $171 million that was lapsed and given back to the government. In 2012-13, the allotment was $3.6 billion, and $3.48 billion was actually spent. In that year, which is the last year I have figures for as we do not have the new ones yet, the lapsed spending amount was $172 million.
If we extrapolate for this year, we can assume, particularly with the way the government has put lapsed money in all sorts of departments and put it back into the kitty to try to meet whatever its deadlines are to reduce the amount of money that Canadians owe, if we add these up, the lapsed spending since the government took power from Veterans Affairs is in excess of $1 billion.
Over that course of time there was a certain amount of money allotted each year to Veterans Affairs. Money was spent, and the money that was left over the course of the government's tenure so far is in excess of $1 billion given back to the government.
When we talk about closing offices and cutting corners in other areas, it seems pretty clear to me that the argument the government uses of trying to get down the deficit, and so on, is being done, in Veterans Affairs and perhaps in other departments, on the backs of some veterans and perhaps with money that needs to be spent on veterans.
The other thing I would point out is the allotments, and perhaps it is also important to talk about the expenditures for this year. The exact numbers, the actual allotment for 2006 and 2007 was $3,298,686,739. I would call that $3.3 billion, just as a round figure. There were some various increases each year, and these are the government figures, by the way. These figures are signed off by the parliamentary secretary and the minister. It is interesting that in 2013, the actual allotment was $3.6 billion to $3.7 billion.
We are looking at an increase, and we could be generous, if I do some quick calculating, of under $400 million, which has been the increase over these years. It is important to point out that there has been an increase over the years, but the increase is not nearly as much as the government members who have been speaking today seem to think it is. Therefore, we are looking at a little less than a $400 million increase from 2006-07 through 2012-13.
Let me remind the House and those who may be watching at home that today we have heard from government members that there is $4.7 billion in new funding. They will see that does not really make much sense, because the most that has ever been spent in the allotments was in 2011-12, when $3.5 billion was spent by Veterans Affairs. I fail to see where the $4.7 billion in new funding is. If the government is pretty clear on that number of $4.7 billion in new funding, we should be looking at this fiscal year of expenditures over the course of the years as somewhere in the neighbourhood of over $8 billion that Veterans Affairs has spent. The numbers do not bear that out.
The previous member who spoke talked about $800 million a year in extra funding. Let me just indicate what the ministry has sent me in terms of actual numbers. In 2006-07, $3.3 billion was the allotment. Less was spent. In 2007-08, $3.4 billion was allotted. Again, money was lapsed. In 2008-09, $3.4 billion was allotted. In 2009-10, $3.5 billion was the allotment. In 2010-11, $3.5 billion was the allotment. In 2011-12, $3.6 billion was the allotment, and 2012-13, it was $3.6 billion. Again, that was actually a little less than it was in the previous year of 2011-12.
There are two things in play here. One is that the numbers do not make any sense. In fact, there has never actually been, in any year, $4.7 billion in old funding, much less $4.7 billion in new funding in any given year. I stand to be corrected if the government can explain to this House and to Canadians where that $4.7 billion in new funding is.
I suppose that if I wanted to be generous, I could suggest that maybe it came from other departments and was not actually spent by Veterans Affairs. I think it would certainly be beneficial for all of us and for all Canadians to know exactly where that money came from if, in fact, that is the case when we talk about $4.7 billion.
I think it was important to stand to refute those numbers. Again I emphasize that the numbers I am using come directly from the Veterans Affairs ministry.
It is more important for the discussions here to be talking about recommendations put forward by the committee. Other speakers are absolutely right that it was a unanimous report, and all of us understand that the new veterans charter is a living document that we need to continue to improve. One of our mandates in Veterans Affairs will be to continue looking at the new veterans charter and ways to improve it.
However, when we look at those four recommendations that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, we see that they are all the ones that require financial commitments from the government. They are all recommendations that require the government to spend money.
I cannot emphasize this point enough. The lapsed spending in each of these years when the money went back into the government kitty from Veterans Affairs amounts to over $1 billion from 2006 to 2013. As I said, we do not know yet about 2014, but that will add to the total. I am sure that money has been lapsed again, unless the government thinks that it suddenly spent $4.7 billion in 2014. That remains to be seen. We shall see in due course whether that is correct.
Clearly it is unfair of the government to suggest that there is no money and that the recommendations that cost money require further study and another look before the money is spent. The reality is that money was left unspent every year in Veterans Affairs and went back into the general coffers.
I would urge the minister to look again at these recommendations in question. He perhaps could speak to his parliamentary secretary and others involved in the ministry and say, “Listen, it's pretty clear that we did give money back every year from Veterans Affairs and that it went into the general kitty. Surely we can work on these recommendations.”
These were unanimous recommendations, all-party recommendations, and when we are dealing with veterans and their families, it is obviously critical that these things not get delayed.
What we are left with is that the recommendations from the report will be looked at again and studied at a later date. We know that 2015 is just around the corner, so I have to ask when this will be done. When will decisions be made? Will it be before the next election?
We know the next election will be in October of 2015 and perhaps even sooner. Who knows? My fear is that these very valuable recommendations that we in the committee put forward and that all parties agreed upon unanimously will not be dealt with before the next election. I certainly hope they will be.
Mr. Parm Gill (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is always an honour to have an opportunity to stand in this House and deliver my remarks.
Before I deliver my remarks on this particular motion, I want to say that it is a very significant day today in the Sikh community. It is the birthday of one of our gurus, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. I want to take this opportunity to offer best wishes to every single Sikh around the world who is celebrating the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and some of his teachings. The first one is to always remember God throughout the day. The second one is to earn a livelihood through hard work and honest means, and the third one is to selflessly serve and share with others, especially the ones who are less fortunate than oneself.
Obviously, I belong to the Sikh religion. I am a proud Sikh, and once again, I want to offer best wishes to every single Sikh around the world who is celebrating the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
As I mentioned, I appreciate the opportunity to join in this important debate today. One of the great honours in my life, as I mentioned, is the opportunity to rise in this House and provide my input in the heart of this country's democracy. In so many ways, this place represents what generations of courageous Canadians have served to defend.
I am also extremely proud to be part of a government that has demonstrated, at every turn, its deepest and most profound commitment to the men and women and families who have served our country and who continue to do so today.
I am also proud to have served on the veterans affairs committee and to have played a role in this remarkable, unanimous committee report that was put forward by the committee. Members from all different parties played an important role. Few committees are able to arrive at a unanimous recommendation or unanimous report. The bipartisan nature of this committee is a remarkable demonstration of respect for our veterans. I encourage all members to check their politics at the door when dealing with this issue. Our veterans deserve far better. As our committee led the way in a bipartisan manner, I encourage everyone here to follow suit.
I have said this a number of times, but it is worth repeating. I have had the distinct honour and privilege of meeting and working alongside many remarkable Canadian veterans and serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Each time, I have been impressed by the passion and honour with which they have worn our nation's uniform.
I am proud of every opportunity I get to pay tribute to their extraordinary service and sacrifice, because I have seen for myself some of the things they have done for our country. I have seen how dedicated, professional, and courageous our Canadian men and women have been in defending our great country and the values we all hold dear.
Sadly, I have also seen the devastating impact their service can have on them and their loved ones. I am painfully aware of how their lives, and the lives of their families, can be forever changed in a heartbeat. In these tragic instances, I have been humbled and inspired by their commitment and determination to rise above the challenges they face. They are truly Canadian heroes.
Our government is equally committed to our mission to provide exemplary service to Canadian veterans and their families.
Our government believes that legislation related to veterans programming should be clear and consistent with respect to our commitment to these brave men and women and their families. We want to ensure that we provide the best support possible, the best care, and the best programs for those who have been injured in service to Canada. That is why we believe that the most seriously injured veterans, whether they are regular force members or reservists, should receive the monthly financial benefits they need to support them and their families. That is why we believe that injured veterans should only leave the military when rehabilitation professionals have been identified to support them in civilian life and when they have medically stabilized from their injuries.
We believe that families of veterans with operational stress injuries should receive caregiver training and that more psychological support should be provided. We believe that veterans and their families deserve less red tape as they are making the transition between National Defence and Veterans Affairs.
Those are just some of the fundamental principles that guide our government in everything we do to enhance the veterans benefits, services, and programs we provide.
As all members of the House know, one of the first decisions made by the Minister of Veterans Affairs last year was to ask for a comprehensive parliamentary review of the new veterans charter. The new veterans charter, which was passed unanimously by Parliament in 2005, is a modern approach to ensuring that veterans and their families have the support they need, when they need it.
As part of this comprehensive review, the minister specifically asked the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs to study, number one, how Canada cares for its most seriously injured veterans; number two, how it supports their families; and number three, how the department delivers its programs. The minister later asked the committee to expand its mandate and to recommend the best way for Canada, as a nation, to express its commitment to current and future veterans. The members of the parliamentary committee accepted their mission with great enthusiasm. One of the first conclusions they reached was that the new veterans charter is providing a sound foundation upon which to support those who have served our country, both at home and abroad.
For the record, I want to again read what was written in the introduction of the report entitled, “The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward”. It states:
|| The Committee members unanimously agree that the principles of the NVC should be upheld and that these principles foster an approach that is well suited to today’s veterans.
Our commitment echoed the findings of a similar report from the other chamber last year, when members of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs also concluded that the new veterans charter is serving the majority of Canadian Armed Forces personnel and veterans well.
Quite frankly, I believe that these two reports have laid to rest any debate about turning back the clock. The new veterans charter was and remains the right approach for serving and supporting Canada's veterans. That is not to say that it is perfect or that it cannot be improved. Of course it can.
As the Prime Minister said when we implemented the new veterans charter in April of 2006, and as previous ministers in this portfolio have also repeated over the years, we consider the new veterans charter a living document. It is meant to evolve with the complex and diverse needs of those who serve.
The Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs developed a series of unanimous recommendations on how we can continue to enhance the new veterans charter. The government's response was a sincere effort to move the yardstick forward. Our report offers a common path forward. As the House is aware, our government has tabled its formal response to that report. It was clear and unequivocal in its response, which I will repeat here. It stated:
|| We will indeed move forward immediately with several initiatives as we continue to improve veterans benefits and services while consultations are undertaken with the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans stakeholders on the more complex proposals.
Let there be no mistake. We are saying that we agree with the spirit and intent of the vast majority of the committee's recommendations.
Our formal response also outlines our plan to address those recommendations through a phased approach. Our government understands and accepts that we have no greater responsibility than to care for and support our injured Canadian veterans and serving members and their families. That is why we will leave no stone unturned as we continue to find innovative new ways to build upon the almost $4.7 billion in additional funding we have already invested in veterans programming since 2006. We will move forward immediately with improvements to help veterans and their families and to improve the continuum of care for those military members who are making the transition to civilian life.
The transition is tough for anyone. That is why we are going to make changes to make the transition smoother for injured veterans and their family members. We will also change our way of doing business to ensure that those who are medically released can be assigned a VAC case manager and assisted earlier in the process by someone from Veterans Affairs. We are determined to reduce the uncertainty in the transition process. In the first phase of our plan, we are determined to help veterans and their families focus on themselves, their well-being, and their quality of life.
The second part of our plan consists of closely examining the more complex recommendations of the committee that require further work and consultation. Throughout this phased approach, we will strive to update this House, veterans, and all Canadians on how the implementation is going.
We are building on a record and the investments we have made to date. Our government is committed to making the ongoing improvements that are needed. While we have made substantial investments in veterans programming since 2006, we agree that more can and must be done. Our government's formal response to the veterans affairs committee's report is by no means a final destination. It is the continuation of a steadfast and ongoing effort. That is why I expect that we will have more good news and more significant improvements to announce in the coming weeks and months. We will keep moving forward and taking positive steps to improve what we do for veterans and their families.
We are on the right track. We have taken further steps in the right direction. For this, I want to extend my heartfelt appreciation to all members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for their important and invaluable contributions. I also want to thank all those who participated in the parliamentary review: the many members of our veterans committee, their families, the ombudsman, the various veterans organizations and the individual Canadians who wanted to voice their gratitude and support for our men and women in uniform, both past and present.
Together we have moved the yardsticks forward. Together we will keep delivering for the men, women and families who have earned their place among our nation's truest heroes. They deserve our unending gratitude and our unwavering support, and they will always have it.
Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca.
As the House knows, we are debating a concurrence motion regarding the new veterans charter and the changes that are absolutely essential for veterans today. Veterans deserve far more than ceremonial recognition.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate concerning some very remarkable citizens of this country. They are indeed remarkable citizens, because collectively they took and take citizenship very seriously. They proved their commitment to Canada through their service in the Canadian Forces.
When our country was in danger during World War I and World War II; or when our country called upon Canadians to be peacekeepers in faraway places like Lebanon, Bosnia, Somalia, Cyprus, East Timor, Suez, and Afghanistan; or when they were sent to serve in NATO; or when our country asked them to stand on guard here at home or to help communities jeopardized by floods, earthquakes, ice storms, and forest fires, they did not hesitate.
As we have seen with Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, some paid with their lives. They did what they were asked to do. They did their duty in world wars, in Korea, at home, and in multiple deployments since.
In the course of duty, our country made a contract with them, a covenant. Canada made promises that the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces would not be forgotten or abandoned. Our governments made and continue to make promises assuring these men and women that they will be remembered and honoured by a grateful nation. That is a wonderful sentiment.
I know without a shadow of doubt that the people of Canada are grateful and that they do remember and truly honour our service men and women in the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. I see it every day from my constituents in London—Fanshawe.
Sadly, however, it has become painfully obvious that our government neither honours our veterans, peacekeepers, or those currently serving nor is it willing to provide the services, pensions, programs, and special care to which these veterans and members of the Armed Forces and RCMP and their families are entitled. That is what the report of the veterans committee is about.
The committee made 14 recommendations for important changes that are long overdue. As one veteran said:
|| ...there should be more presumptions in the system, and I don't mean that in a legalistic way. If I come to you as a double-leg amputee...I shouldn't have to do much more than that. I should just simply say, “Look, I'm a double-leg amputee. What have you got for me?”
The point is that the wounds in service are obvious. The obligation to provide care and support in a respectful manner should also be obvious.
The Conservative government likes to tout the “support our troops” line, but the minute those troops become veterans, they are all but forgotten.
A case in point is the government's lump sum payment plan for injured veterans. The lump sum plan, for the most part, has proven to be a failure. In some cases, injured vets get only 10% of what they would have received through the courts or workers' compensation. Imagine, after risking everything for one's country, having to fight the government in court to get a fair pension.
I asked the minister a year ago when the Conservatives planned to change the lump sum formula to ensure that veterans received the pensions they deserve. His answer did not address the issue. He did not seem to appreciate that some veterans receive less than what they would on workers' compensation.
Another glaring example of how veterans are abandoned is the government's phasing out of access to long-term care beds for modern veterans. These veterans are people with special needs and requirements for their care.
New Democrats are advocating that the federal government continue the veterans long-term care program. Currently, World War II and Korean vets are eligible for a dedicated departmental contract bed or priority beds in veteran hospital wings like Parkwood Hospital in London, Ontario; Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto; and Camp Hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia; or approved provincial community care facilities if they meet certain criteria.
This program will cease when the last World War II or Korean War vet passes away, and the Conservative government has no intention to open access up to CF and RCMP veterans.
This means that veterans will no longer have priority access to departmental contract beds and will compete with the civilian population for access to long-term care in provincial community care facilities.
Unlike the minister, New Democrats continue to advocate that the federal government has a responsibility for long-term care for our veterans, in recognition of those who accept the unlimited liability of service in the Armed Forces.
The NDP proposes that veterans have access to veterans' hospitals and wards throughout Canada, staffed with health care professionals experienced in the dedicated and exclusive treatment of injured veterans.
Obviously, the minister is not getting the message and people are suffering, people like retired veteran Air Force Colonel Neil Russell, who is confined to a wheelchair. He cannot return home and he was callously denied a long-term care bed at Parkwood Hospital, in London. It is ludicrous, because Neil would have been on the street because there was a two-year waiting list for a nursing home bed.
After many letters to the minister and media pressure, Colonel Russell was told he had a bed. Sadly, within a few days, the Colonel was then told he did not have a bed and was informed he had simply misunderstood and was given a provincial contract bed, for which he has to pay.
I would like to remind the minister that veterans are a federal responsibility, not a provincial responsibility. They served our country and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Ensuring that they have access to the long-term care they require is the very least we can do.
What we urgently need is an overhaul of the way Veterans Affairs Canada administers health and disability benefits for CF and RCMP veterans. Too many veterans spend years caught up in the system of bureaucratic red tape, trying to prove they have a disability related to their service years.
Veterans, and those who support them, want programs that evolve with their needs. Many veterans cannot access the veterans' independence program because their health condition in later years is not linked to a specific war- or service-related event. We absolutely must tailor these programs so that they evolve with the changing requirements of veterans. More help is also needed to support veterans and their families struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today, in Canada, we know that some veterans are turning to food banks and homeless shelters for assistance. It is unknown how many veterans access food banks across the country, because our veterans are proud; they do not talk about it. They have done their duty for this country, yet we know a recent report from the national association of food banks tells us that food bank services are now more than ever utilized by children, seniors, and veterans.
We also know that there are more and more homeless veterans seeking shelter, couch surfing, or even living rough outside of our communities—the very communities they served and protected.
This is a national shame and a direct failure of the federal government and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide immediate help to those who served our country.
I would like to remind the House that, when in opposition, the Conservatives promised they would make significant veterans reforms, but none of these have been implemented.
Just as the current government has ignored the veterans affairs committee report, so too has it forgotten our veterans and the contribution of modern-day Canadian Forces veterans and RCMP members who served in peacekeeping around the world. That is absolutely unacceptable. It is a travesty, and it is a crisis in this country.
Canadians are very passionate about their pride in and gratitude for veterans. During Remembrance Week and beyond, Canadians choose to honour the men and women who gave us a strong and free country. It is long past time for our federal government to likewise honour all veterans, both past and present, by serving their needs.
Monuments and parades are important, but they are cold comfort to the veterans and families who are neglected and suffering.
It is time to mean what we say when we repeat the promise to remember. Let us truly remember. Let us see the 14 recommendations of the veterans affairs committee implemented and implemented immediately.