Hon. Laurie Hawn (Edmonton Centre, CPC)
|| That, in the opinion of the House, the government should examine all possible options to ensure a fully unified “continuum of care” approach is in place to serve Canada's men and women in uniform and veterans, so as to: (a) eliminate all unnecessary bureaucratic processes, both within and between departments, related to service delivery; (b) eliminate duplication and overlap in the delivery of available services and supports; (c) further improve care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans; (d) provide continuous support for veterans' families during and after service; and (e) strengthen the connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada.
He said: Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise today to kick off debate on private member's Motion No. 532.
This motion will address issues of importance in the effective delivery of services to Canada's veterans. The measures proposed in Motion No. 532 are complementary to the 14 substantial recommendations deemed most important by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, which were tabled in June in a report entitled “The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward”.
That report was unanimous, a rare event here in Parliament. Everyone on all sides worked very hard to make it so, and everyone was prepared to put a little water in their wine to move the yardsticks ahead in a substantial way for our veterans.
I will address what Motion No. 532 says, describe how it relates to the committee report, and discuss the government response and the way ahead.
Serving our veterans has been a stated objective of every government of Canada, and our government is no exception. This objective has always been, and will always be, a work in progress. No matter what any government does, there will always be more that we would like to do and there will always be those who will find fault. That is because everyone loves veterans for what they have done and for who they are, and that is the way it should be.
Canada's development as an independent country with a unique identity stems in no small measure from its achievements in times of war and in other less dangerous but nonetheless important missions. The Department of Veterans Affairs exists to repay the nation's debt of gratitude toward those whose courageous efforts have given us this legacy and have contributed to our growth as a nation.
VAC's mandate stems from laws and regulations. The Minister of Veterans Affairs is charged with, inter alia, the following responsibilities:
||...the care, treatment or re-establishment in civil life of any person who served in the Canadian Forces or merchant navy or the naval, army or air forces or merchant navies of Her Majesty, of any person who has otherwise engaged in pursuits relating to war, and of any other person designated
||...the care of dependants or survivors of any person referred to...
The department meets its responsibilities through its various programs. These include programs for disability pensions, veterans allowances, pension advocacy, health care, and commemoration.
They provide compensation for hardships arising from disabilities and lost economic opportunities, innovative health and social services, professional legal assistance, and recognition of the achievements and sacrifices of Canadians during periods of war and conflict.
The mission of Veterans Affairs Canada is to provide exemplary client-centred services and benefits that honour the sacrifice and achievements of our veterans and clients and that respond to the needs of veterans, other clients, and their families.
I want to go back to what is a key phrase in the quote of the minister's responsibilities, and that is “re-establishment in civil life”.
This is the key concept in the overall philosophy of service to veterans by the department. The aim of veterans' programs is not lifelong financial dependence, unless that is the only option; the aim of the programs is to give veterans every support possible to help those who cannot or do not wish to continue to serve in the military the tools they need to succeed in carving out a good future on their own terms.
Motion No. 532 proposes five things. It says that in the opinion of the House, the government should examine all possible options to ensure a fully unified “continuum of care” approach is in place to serve Canada's men and women in uniform and veterans, so as to do five things: first, eliminate all unnecessary bureaucratic processes, both within and between departments, related to service delivery; second, eliminate duplication and overlap in the delivery of available services and supports; third, further improve care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans; fourth, provide continuous support for veterans' families during and after service; and fifth, strengthen the connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and Veterans Affairs Canada.
The veterans affairs committee identified three core themes in its recent study. First was the care and support of the most seriously disabled, the second was support for families, and the and third was improving how Veterans Affairs Canada delivers the programs, services, and benefits under the new veterans charter.
Committee members unanimously agreed that the principles of the new veterans charter 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 new veterans charter should not overshadow the fact that it is a solid foundation upon which to help veterans transition to civilian life when a service-related medical condition prevents them from continuing their military career.
While implementing the recommendations in this report would not solve everything, the committee believes that the recommendations represent a major step forward and express more fully Canadians' solemn commitment to veterans and their families.
The committee also hopes that this report will help to foster an improved relationship of trust that must exist among veterans, Canadians, the parliamentarians representing them, and the Government of Canada that must earn their confidence.
The story we heard over and over again at committee was that in too many cases when someone left the Canadian Armed Forces, he or she spent time in a no man's land before getting connected to the services of Veterans Affairs. This gap led to many difficulties of financial, physical, and psychological natures and made it much harder to transition to a stable and productive civilian life.
Private member's Motion No. 532 addresses some of those challenges directly and is in lockstep with the first recommendation of the committee report, which, in abbreviated form, says that military members seriously disabled as a result of service will not be medically released until the individual is in a stable medical condition, medical records have been given to the individual and transferred to Veterans Affairs Canada, applications for services and benefits have been adjudicated, the file has been assigned to a case manager who has already established contact, and supporting health care and rehabilitation professionals have been identified and their responsibilities defined in the area where the veteran is planning to live.
Recommendation 1 also states that an internal committee should be struck by Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces to develop an interchangeable and unified list of service conditions to ensure that the service-related condition identified by the Canadian Armed Forces that led to the veteran’s medical release will be recognized by Veterans Affairs Canada for adjudication purposes and that a follow-up protocol should be established for all military members who have been released for medical reasons.
I think members can see how this blends nicely with private member's Motion No. 532 in a continuum of service that this act would provide.
Overall, the philosophy of the report and of private member's Motion No. 532 is to ensure that the provisions of the various acts and the veterans bill of rights shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized solemn obligation of the people and Government of Canada to provide compensation to those members of the forces who have been disabled or have died as a result of military service, and to their dependants, may be fulfilled.
There are many other substantial recommendations in the report, and I will abbreviate them.
One is that the most seriously disabled veterans receive financial benefits for life, of which an appropriate portion should be transferable to their spouse in the event of death.
Another is that the earnings loss benefit be non-taxable and set at 85% of net income, up to a net income threshold of $70,000, and that it be adjusted annually to the consumer price index.
Another recommendation is that all veterans with service-related disabilities, and their families, be entitled to the same benefits and support whether they are regular force or reserve.
Another is that military family resource centres be available to veterans and their families to provide additional support in their transition to civilian life.
Another is that access to psychosocial and vocational rehabilitation services be given to spouses or common-law partners, that access to psychological counselling be also given to parents and children of veterans, and that financial support be provided to family members of seriously disabled veterans acting as primary caregivers.
Another recommendation is that VAC undertake a comprehensive review of the amount of the disability award to more adequately reflect awards in civil liability cases for personal injuries, and improve support for financial counselling throughout the process.
Another is that the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada together, as quickly as possible, eliminate overlap between the service income security insurance plan, or SISIP, programs and those provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
A further recommendation is that eligible vocational rehabilitation training programs be allowed greater flexibility.
Another is that VAC establish a more rigorous case manager training program, review the case manager-to-veteran ratio, and provide necessary resources for its adjustment.
Another is that VAC and DND build on existing collaborative efforts to provide adequate resources for research and understanding of known and emerging manifestations of operational stress injuries.
Another is that VAC consider moving towards a payment system with one comprehensive and clear monthly payment, while ensuring the net benefit to the veteran is not reduced.
Another is that VAC and DND table their official response within 120 days and also table a report outlining the progress made on implementing the recommendations by January 30, 2015.
The first milestone has been met, and I know that there is some very concentrated and intense effort going toward meeting the second milestone in a manner that will give veterans confidence that the government has listened and is acting, because we have and we are.
Contrary to some misleading and outright false comments by some hon. members and some people with axes that they just will not stop grinding, the government has not rejected any of the recommendations of the report. It is, in fact, quite the contrary. Building on these enhancements to the new veterans charter, the government is pleased to indicate that it agrees with the spirit and intent of the vast majority of the committee's recommendations. Many of these recommendations involve potentially complex changes to some veterans programming, and the implications of any potential changes must, therefore, be carefully assessed. Any government would have to do the same thing.
Therefore, the government plans to address the recommendations made in the report using a phased approach, and private member's Motion No. 532 will be helpful in guiding that process.
The first stage is to address those recommendations that can be quickly achieved within existing authorities and budgets of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence, and which will improve the continuum of service provided to veterans and their families when they leave the Canadian Armed Forces.
The more complex recommendations require further interdepartmental work, budgetary analysis, and coordination with a wide range of federal departments, as well as with the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans' groups. These recommendations will be considered in a second phase.
This is the only approach that makes common sense. There is no magic wand that any government could wave to bypass legislated requirements for ensuring that processes with taxpayers' money are followed. It just does not happen that way. Anyone with any grasp of the complexities of the financial and regulatory realities of government will understand that this is true.
I know and understand why people want everything fixed instantly, but that is just not realistically or practically possible. What we need is steady and measurable progress to achieve our objectives, and that is what we will see. I know that people want to play politics in this place and that's what this place is all about, but surely this is one area where we can all come together to make a great many of the changes for which people have been advocating.
There are many people and organizations dedicated to improving how we look after our veterans. I am one of those people and our government is one of those organizations. Everyone across the floor is that kind of person as well.
We are joined by members of the opposition parties and many stakeholder organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion, ANAVETS, True Patriot Love, Veterans Transition Network, Wounded Warriors, military unit foundations and many more. By working together to pursue progress, we will succeed at what I have already said will probably always be a work-in-progress. There will always be new circumstances and new challenges as Canada continues to play an important role in world affairs. That is no more apparent than in what is happening in the Middle East, in Iraq and Syria, and so on.
We should not let anyone's image of the perfect be the enemy of the very good.
I proudly served in a regular force uniform for over 30 years and in an honorary capacity for another five years. I am one of the almost 700,000 veterans in Canada, but I am not one of the approximately 200,000 clients of Veterans Affairs Canada because I currently have no issues that require assistance. At some point, I probably will have need of some service or benefit, and I have every confidence that I will be supported by the people whom I know are dedicated to providing the best service possible.
I would like to go further than Motion No. 532 in terms of the integration of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence. I would personally like to see an in-depth study of the possibility of merging the departments under one roof. I can understand why that may be a bridge too far for some right now, but I think that this could be an area for further study in a future Parliament.
Until that time, I firmly believe that private member's Motion No. 532 is a substantial step in the right direction in conjunction with other measures I have described, and I urge all honourable members to lend it their support.
Mr. Sylvain Chicoine (Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am clearly quite pleased to be speaking to the motion moved by the hon. member for Edmonton Centre. This motion calls on the government to ensure that a continuum of care is put in place to help our veterans.
Unfortunately, since they came to power, the Conservatives have not done very much to improve our veterans' quality of life. My colleague was very involved in the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs' study of the new charter. I want to thank him for his work. There was a unanimous report calling on the Minister of Veterans Affairs to make changes to improve life for our veterans. Certain concessions had to be made so that it would be unanimous.
During the study, which took place over the course of 14 meetings, 54 witnesses appeared. The vast majority of them said that they had had enough of all of the reports that kept piling up over the years but never amounted to anything. No improvements have been made to the new charter, which is supposed to be a living document. Since 2006, one single change—and a pretty minor one considering all of the problems that have cropped up—has been made. That is not good enough at all. Following the report, the minister waited as long as possible to respond, then said that he planned to study the issues again.
Veterans have had enough. They want us to take action now. They do not want to keep talking about all of these problems. People know what the problems are. They have been identified umpteen times already. We need a solution right now. Over the years, a budget shortfall developed and the government made many cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada to balance the budget. Now there is a budget surplus. It was unacceptable for the government to cut Veterans Affairs Canada's budget back then, and it is indecent to start accumulating a surplus at our veterans' expense now. People are calling on the minister to stop studying the issue and come up with real solutions to help these veterans, especially the seriously injured who are coping with all kinds of problems.
The minister responded favourably to the report's conclusions. Now it is time for him to take action and introduce legislation. We believe he is simply trying to stall for time. More time is being given to study this to see how this new charter can be appropriately improved. That is fine with me, but the problems have been well known for quite some time. We cannot wait any longer. Veterans can no longer wait for better care. The minister needs to come before the House with an action plan immediately. He must not wait until next year's budget before allocating new money to improve veterans' allowances. We are aware of the problems. They have been illustrated once again with this study, with all the situations the ombudsman has described and with the other reports. The minister needs to come up with a solution and with concrete improvements for this new charter, but now, not next year.
Anyone who paid attention to the news last week knows that we are heading into an election year. Is the minister waiting for the budget and then the election campaign? That appears to be the case. Will there be enough time for the budget to go through all the necessary stages and be implemented to improve the lives of our veterans? People should not have to wait any longer. The government cannot continue amassing surpluses on the backs of our veterans, as it has been doing for the past few days and weeks. We know what the problems are; now we need to come up with solutions.
I urge the minister to have a closer look at this issue and come up with a report to improve the new charter. That is my main message today.
Another thing I noted about the government response is that it proposes two phases.
This response suggests that the government is going to keep our veterans waiting for weeks, even months. If the election is called, the bill will not have gone through all the stages. We cannot let another day go by without helping our veterans, especially those who are seriously injured. They have to have better support from Veterans Affairs Canada, and simply adopting a motion is not going to cut it. I commend the hon. member for moving this motion, but if the minister implemented the recommendations that have been made, then we would have solutions that would help our veterans immensely. That would be preferable, since it is already too late in my books.
Here we are debating the motion by the hon. member for Edmonton Centre. I find it ironic, given the Conservative government's refusal to propose a solution to immediately address the most critical problems. It prefers to wait and stall for time. Worse yet, the government is going to vote in favour of this motion and will likely wait for weeks before doing anything with it. We do not need any more motions like this. We absolutely need a bill from the minister that will change the new veterans charter and implement the recommendations made in the report on the review of the charter.
I am pleased to say that we will support this motion because we think it is important to let the government know how important it is to improve care for veterans. After more than 20 years of Liberal and Conservative cuts to the budgets of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, the NDP is the only party left with any credibility and the will to live up to the sacred obligation to improve the quality of life of our veterans.
The motion talks about a continuum of care for our veterans. The fact that our veterans feel abandoned by the Canadian Armed Forces after they leave the military is a major problem. That is why a continuum of care approach is important. The member for Edmonton Centre is absolutely right about the fact that the transfer of responsibility for veterans from the Canadian Armed Forces to Veterans Affairs Canada must be as smooth as possible. Our veterans should not feel abandoned after having given so much in service to our country. That is why the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs recommended that veterans not be released from the Canadian Armed Forces until arrangements have been made to get them all the help and care they need.
The Veterans Review and Appeal Board can also be a hindrance to obtaining care. The board sometimes errs when determining whether a veteran has a service-related disability. Those veterans are then unable to receive care until the board recognizes that they have such a disability.
I would also like to address the issue of families, who seem to be ignored, particularly in the new veterans charter. This charter does not really provide for family-centred care. That is obviously a problem. Families need all kinds of support. They are not entitled to full access to Veterans Affairs Canada programs without going through the veteran. Veterans have to request psychological help for their family members. Otherwise, they cannot get it.
Families also do not have access to military family resource centres. Many families feel abandoned when veterans make the transition to civilian life. Most families are exhausted, do not sleep enough and do not have time for personal activities. Not surprisingly, most of them indicated during the study of this issue that their health has been significantly affected. This has a major impact on interpersonal relationships and on the family.
Furthermore, RCMP veterans seem to have been left out of this motion when they should also have access to this continuum of care.
The member mentioned that he was not really open to this possibility. I think that is completely disgraceful.
Mr. Frank Valeriote (Guelph, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Motion No. 532 put forward by the hon. member for Edmonton Centre. When it comes to this subject matter, the credentials of the sponsor of this motion are impeccable. It is truly an honour to serve with him on the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, and I genuinely mean that.
The motion, which calls on the government to examine all possible options to ensure that a fully unified continuum of care is available to our women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces and our veterans, is good. It is self-evident to me and to many other members of this House that the elimination of unnecessary or redundant inter-departmental and intra-departmental practices surrounding the delivery of services, assistance to families, and other programming, is necessary for us to deal fairly with the men and women who have sacrificed so much. In fact, I would go even further than it being necessary; I would say it is fundamental to fulfilling our sacred obligation.
It was another Conservative, our then prime minister Sir Robert Borden, who promised Canadians returning from the battlefields of the First World War that there existed a social covenant between the government and veterans. What former prime minister Borden understood, and what this motion underscores, is that the women and men serving in the Canadian Armed Forces serve with the knowledge that they are called upon to accept unlimited liability. There were hundreds of thousands who paid the full limit of that liability with their lives.
When they return from theatre, if they return, these men and women should expect their government to honour their side of the bargain and provide the necessary resources for physical or emotional rehabilitation, further education and skills translation, or adequate, sufficient, and accessible compensation for their disabilities.
While the current government has instructed its lawyers in British Columbia to argue that this covenant is merely a political promise to get votes rather than it being an inalienable right, Liberals believe not only that our sacred obligation is real, but that we must abide by it. In fact, Liberals from across the country gathered in February to pass a resolution to that effect.
We believe that where Canadians have served their country honourably as members of the Canadian Armed Forces, their service requires a personal commitment to put one's life on the line on behalf of their fellow Canadians. Moreover, this service is not only borne by members of the Canadian Armed Forces but also their families. We will live up to Canada's sacred obligation to our Armed Forces and veterans by allowing them and their loved ones to maintain a quality of life worthy of their sacrifice.
Unfortunately, the current Conservative government has wandered away from similar commitments.
To start, the Conservatives have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from Veterans Affairs Canada, tying the hands of the department when it comes to delivering the benefits and supports that veterans rely on. Even more egregiously, the current government has closed nine regional Veterans Affairs offices, making it more difficult for veterans to access these benefits and services in their communities. It is unconscionable that veterans, some of them seniors, might have to drive hours outside of their communities to receive face-to-face help. Conservatives have claimed that veterans can still attend nearby Service Canada centres for services, but front-line staff at Service Canada are not trained to specifically help veterans, and case workers are currently burdened with a four-to-one caseload ratio.
Take for instance the case of veterans in Glace Bay, in the riding of my colleague the honourable member for Cape Breton—Canso. Since the government shut down the Veterans Affairs Canada office in Sydney, volunteer service officers at the Royal Canadian Legion have been working tirelessly in an effort to fill the void created for veterans in the region. Whereas the VAC staff, formerly located in the Sydney office, knew the forms, the veterans, and the benefits to which these veterans might be entitled, the volunteers at the Legion, well intentioned though they are, simply do not have the expertise or training or resources to cope with the workload that the government should be doing.
None of this should take away from the motion before us. I believe that the honourable member, like so many Canadians, also sees gaps in the treatment and availability of resources, which is why he presented this inspired motion.
The motion calls specifically for five things to occur to ensure a fully unified continuum of care: (a) that all unnecessary bureaucratic practices, both within and between departments related to service delivery are eliminated; (b) that all duplication and overlap in the delivery of available services and supports are eliminated; (c) that care and support, in particular for seriously injured veterans be improved; (d) that continuous support is provided to veterans' families during and after their service; and, (e) that connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and Veterans Affairs Canada get stronger.
However, the fact this motion has been brought at all proves that the Conservative government is failing many of our veterans.
Many of these obstacles were highlighted clearly in the testimony before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs by Corporal Mark Fuchko, who when asked upon his return by the parliamentary secretary for Veterans Affairs to elaborate about his experience dealing with the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, answered the following:
|| When I first came home, I was not the first amputee from the war in Afghanistan and I constantly ran into hurdles that really affected my quality of life and my family's as well. Things like aids to daily living were almost impossible to obtain. Just to get my house accessible took over a year. That was a really long drawn-out nightmare. I'm not the only one who actually experienced that. There seemed to be kind of a battle with what was covered and what was not and who would cover what. That was quite a challenge, and it seems to me that there was a lot of overlap, but people weren't necessarily sure if Veterans Affairs or the military was going to cover it, and things like lead time, house modifications, and stuff like that were a real challenge for sure. I would say that probably the one common thing is housing, especially for the severely disabled.
|| The military originally took this on but there is a whole group of caveats that make it difficult for the delivery of this in a timely fashion. For example, some people find themselves severely disabled coming back to houses that they can't physically occupy just because their houses are not wheelchair friendly, wheelchair safe. They essentially require a whole new house to live in.
I ask the House for its indulgence for that lengthy quote because I believe it demonstrates the current experience of Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans so clearly.
Corporal Fuchko lost both legs in Afghanistan. He should not have to fight with individual departments so he can get the bare minimum of living accommodations suitable to his new reality. It is unconscionable, and from the testimony we heard at committee, not an experience that is exclusive to him.
We would support any measure to facilitate this system, instead of presenting veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members with a maze upon their return.
The family is another vital element, if not the cornerstone upon which many of these benefits should be built. In his testimony before committee, former senator, retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, highlighted the enhanced roles that families play in deployments and rehabilitation. He said:
||...by the time we come back from those missions, we see a family who has also lived the missions. The families are now living the missions with the members. It is not a separated exercise. It is a marriage.
As with Jenny Migneault, the wife of a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, her advocacy highlights that beyond the medical professionals and past the bureaucrats, there are wives, husbands, and children, among other loved ones, who are shouldering the burden of service in the Canadian Armed Forces but without any of the resources or support.
It is each of these people, and hundreds of thousands more, to whom we owe the obligation to break down the obstacles that currently exist. To them, we owe the passage of this motion. However, more than that, they deserve that this motion receives real and concerted consideration by the Conservative government. They do not deserve the same consideration that saw the Minister of Veterans Affairs respond to 14 unanimous recommendations from the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs that examined the new veterans charter by kicking them down the road to a yet to be determined date, with no concrete action. They deserve the consideration requisite to the severity and significance of the sacrifice made by our men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
I thank the hon. member for Edmonton Centre for raising this important motion and for his advocacy on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces and veterans. I hope we can all do the right thing by not only passing this motion but by acting on it now.
Mr. Erin O'Toole (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is my distinct honour to stand today to speak to this important motion, M-532, which really touches on a number of things our government has already been moving forward in terms of improving and removing unnecessary bureaucracy from veterans care.
My colleague's proposal really is to develop a continuum of care, something that recognizes that care will evolve and that there is an important handover for our veterans, which I will speak to in my remarks.
I thank my friend and colleague, the MP for Edmonton Centre. Often in dialogue across the country we hear, can a single MP get much done? Pierre Trudeau's famous quote about MPs being nobodies 30 metres from Parliament Hill is a fallacy. If people are members of this House and they care about an issue, they can advance it remarkably. One does not have to be the leader of a party. One does not have to be a minister. One just has to be a passionate advocate.
That is what we have in my friend, the MP from Edmonton Centre, a passionate advocate for the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces, and a passionate advocate with decades of experience working with veterans.
He noted in his remarks to this House that he is just one of the 600,000 to 700,000 veterans in Canada, but his is an important voice, because he is here in Parliament. I consider myself his understudy in many ways. We represent the Royal Canadian Air Force caucus here in the House of Commons. We are a pilot and a navigator who are aircrew who fly and tease each other relentlessly. We are here working on issues of mutual concern, namely our men and women who serve this country.
What has been discussed a little bit in this House but has never been thoroughly explored in the way it should be is how we can serve veterans within this continuum of care my friend from Edmonton Centre has suggested in a way that recognizes that those 600,000 to 700,000 Canadians are vastly different.
We heard my friend from Guelph talk about the offices and things like that again. Veterans are not a unified force who all access services the same way. We have in Canada right now war veterans in their 20s from the Afghanistan conflict. We also have veterans in their 90s. In fact, my colleague from Edmonton Centre and I met a 101-year-old veteran in Normandy who travelled with the Canadian contingent to recognize the anniversary in France. The 101-year-old veteran parked his walker and walked down to Juno Beach. It was remarkable. Does the 101-year-old veteran access services the same way the 25-year-old veteran does? No, he does not.
Veterans Affairs has tried to realize that, apart from some of the dialogue we hear in Ottawa from so-called advocates who do not even understand how veterans are served, there are 15,000 veterans in their 20s who have signed up for what is called the My VAC account. They can manage their own accounts online. They want to. People from that generation have never had banking chequebooks that they have taken into a branch. Veterans Affairs has worked on apps and on online accounts, because we have thousands of veterans who want to access and learn about their benefits that way.
We also still have veterans in their 80s and 90s who need assistance, and the vast majority of those do not go to stand-alone bricks and mortar Veterans Affairs offices. For decades they have been helped by veterans service officers at Legions, a fact that a Liberal critic did not even appear to know when we were talking about how veterans access services. The Legion was empowered by an act of Parliament in 1925 to help veterans access their services. That is part of its mandate.
My veterans service officer for Branch 178, which I belong to, has personally helped over 500 veterans or their partners access benefits. Service officers are not paid, but their training and expenses are paid for by the poppy fund. A lot of MPs in this House did not appear to know what the poppy fund went to. That is where it goes, directly.
In a few weeks, Canadians will start wearing their poppies with pride. They know that the vast majority of those funds go directly to veterans support.
Of the 600,000 to 700,000 veterans in Canada, 130,000 have case files of some sort at Veterans Affairs. Of that, only 7,500 have an assigned case manager. A case manager is assigned based on an assessment of a variety of needs, including the complexity of the case, the services or support the veteran has or does not have at home, and ongoing illnesses or addiction issues. All of these things are assessed, and a case manager is assigned.
Our most complex cases number in the 7,500 to 8,000 range. We are providing in-home support for some of these veterans. A case manager can visit these veterans in their homes. Thanks to our changes, veterans can now visit up to 700 Service Canada and related offices, including joint personnel support units and mental health centres, to access the same level of service they can also get from a veterans services officer. They can also use the phone and the My VAC online account. We need to serve our veterans in a variety of ways, and we do.
Too often there is discussion about money and it is said that we can never do enough for our veterans. I agree, but let us speak about those numbers for a moment. Today $4.7 billion more is being spent on veterans than when we came into office. The vast majority of that relates to direct benefits for soldiers who were injured in the Afghanistan conflict. We have made sure that they are constantly reviewed and improved. A supplement has been introduced for the permanent impairment class so that those veterans who will have a very difficult time transitioning out of uniform into civilian employment are being provided for with additional payments.
The veterans affairs committee, in a good show of solidarity and of removing politics, came up with 14 recommendations on how to improve the new veterans charter. Many of those recommendations have already been acted on. Most important of these is the fact that a veteran will first stabilize and be assigned a proper VAC file manager before being released from the Canadian Forces. That is an important improvement. Another improvement is that certain benefits, particularly related to mental health, will be extended to families. In the coming weeks and months, more of those 14 recommendations will be acted on. I hope that all members of the committee, including a couple who spoke in the House before me, try to keep the politics removed from this.
Interestingly, the new veterans charter was created by the last Liberal government but was implemented by the Conservative government. It needs to be a living document that is improved upon. It was improved a few years ago with the permanent impairment allowance supplement. Now it is being improved to address some of the shortcomings of the new veterans charter.
My friend from Edmonton Centre talked about the concept of a continuum of care. He would like to one day see all of these services housed under one administrative department. I agree wholeheartedly with him. This is not a partisan issue. Retired Senator Dallaire, the lieutenant-general my colleague from Guelph spoke about, supports this same approach, in principle.
I will tell the House why it makes sense, and hopefully it is not a bridge too far. I enrolled in the Canadian Forces at 18. I was recruited. There is a department in the forces for recruiting. When I left, I was transferred to a different department. I left the uniform, and suddenly I was no longer part of the DND or Canadian Forces bureaucracy. I was transferred to a new one. That is not how they do it in the United Kingdom, where veterans services are part of defence services under the Ministry of Defence.
In giving speeches across the country I have met veterans from the Devil's Brigade, World War II, and Korea who have complained about problems that were caused when they left the uniform and their records were transferred to Veterans Affairs. That gap needs to be closed. People should not fall through the cracks.
I hope that the motion today about a continuum of care, brought forward by my friend from Edmonton Centre, starts this dialogue so that we can reduce the number of people who may be falling through the cracks now. Hopefully, in the future, we will see all of this in one ministry so that from enrolment and recruitment to retirement and becoming a veteran it is all in one family.
Ms. Linda Duncan (Edmonton—Strathcona, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise to speak to Motion No. 532, from the member for Edmonton Centre, as I did on the motion by my colleague, the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, debated earlier this year. That motion called for immediate action to address the mental health crisis facing our soldiers and veterans due to the closing of veterans offices.
I am surprised by the comments by the MP for Durham. His comments appear to contradict the findings of the standing committee and the very motion by the member for Edmonton Centre calling for further action. I would certainly agree that this is not a partisan issue and that all members in this place are proud to stand and speak on behalf of our Canadian veterans.
Motion No. 532, tabled by the member for Edmonton Centre, calls on the government to examine all possible options for a fully unified continuum of care for the men and women in uniform and veterans. He calls for the elimination of all unnecessary bureaucratic processes; the elimination of duplication and overlap; further improvements in care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans; continued support for veterans' families; and strengthened connections between the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, and Veterans Affairs Canada.
This motion, in perhaps a less specific way, appears to mirror the official opposition calls, as stated unanimously in June 2004 by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, for specified enhancements to the veterans charter and repeated calls by injured veterans for more long-term supportive services.
While I commend the member for Edmonton Centre, a retired and honoured armed forces member, for tabling this motion and for calling for greater action in support of Canadian war veterans, it is unclear if he is now mirroring the opposition's calls for action by the government.
These questions arise: Is the member similarly decrying the wasted taxpayer dollars spent in forcing our veterans into a five-year court battle to end the clawback of the service income security insurance plan, or SISIP, benefits? Is he also now joining the opposition in supporting the RCMP call for the government to drop its court proceedings contesting the claim by the RCMP disabled veterans to end the clawback of their benefits? Third, is the member perhaps now regretting this past February having voted against the motion by the member for Châteauguay—Saint-Constant calling for more government support for veterans and military mental health services? That motion stated:
|| That, in the opinion of the House, the men and women who bravely serve Canada in the armed forces should be able to count on the government for support in their time of need, and that the government should demonstrate this support by (a) immediately addressing the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans...(b) reversing its decision to close veterans' offices; and (c) prioritizing and concluding the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides....
I was proud to stand in support of that motion by my colleague. It is clear that the member for Edmonton Centre is proud of his role in the armed forces. Can we hope that he is now publicly joining our call for the government to support the government's sacred and fiduciary duty to our veterans, contrary to the position presented on behalf of the government in the Equitas court case?
It is unclear if the intent of Motion No. 532 clause (c), which says, “further improve care and support, particularly for seriously injured veterans”, is intended to also include mental health conditions. We can hope so. If so, it is encouraging that the member is now speaking in support of calls for greater federal support for veterans suffering mental conditions as a result of their service and for suicide prevention interventions. It is also encouraging that the member has brought forward this motion seeking greater action on a continuum of care for our veterans. Action is needed, and it is needed now, to strengthen the veterans charter, as recommended by the standing committee.
I fully support and stand behind the member's call to eliminate any unnecessary bureaucratic processes put in the way of timely access to veterans' benefits and supports. For those already suffering physical or mental challenges, the support should be front and centre and readily available in the community to facilitate a timely response. Certainly toll-free phone service is neither sufficient nor appropriate.
I would remind the House that we, on this side of the House, have stood repeatedly to call on the government to invest more time on support and services for those who are suffering mental distress and to prevent any further suicides.
Increased financial support is needed and is needed now. The government response to look into this is not an acceptable response. On this side of the House, we appreciate that the member has brought forward this motion. However, I am troubled that the member's response to some of the questions posed to him are that it would have to happen in a phased manner. Yet, here we are with the government projecting that there will be a surplus. Surely, this matter should be front and centre and somewhere high on the list of priorities for increasing services.
The veterans charter is a step forward, but based on actual experience and the significant frustrations experienced by veterans, further actions are now required, as clarified by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The member for Edmonton Centre has called for phased improvements. We would say that the ball is in the government's court. It can bring forward changes and move forward bureaucratically both within the reassembling of the various agencies and between Veterans Affairs and the armed forces. It can also make services available in a more timely fashion in our veteran communities.
The New Democrat calls for improved health support to our veterans are not new. In 2006, we called for the immediate elimination of the unfair reduction of the veterans disability pension benefit from the SISIP benefits.
Sadly, the government opposed this action. Here we are almost a decade later and this action was finally only taken in response to a court order and the expenditure of resources by our proud veterans. We are asking for an immediate response to the critical needs of our injured veterans, not reform over time.
As per the standing committee, we must address the personal injuries of soldiers before they depart or are dismissed from the forces to civilian life. As many members have said, it is important to merge the veterans and military services and benefits as recommended by the committee but in an expeditious manner.
There is a clear covenant and undertaking that when Canadian men and women serve in our armed forces and are sent off to war, we will ensure their care on their return, whether for physical injuries or mental disabilities, including PTSD.
Canadians expect that the federal government will ensure that full benefits and services are provided in a timely manner as physical disability is often accompanied by emotional and mental health challenges.
I can share that a very close friend and neighbour of mine, not through war service, lost one leg below the knee and then a second. It was an extremely difficult time both with respect to the physical recovery as well as adjusting to life in a new and different way.
Our members of the armed forces tend to be the most physically fit, energetic and determined of Canadians. That is why they step forward to serve. When they suddenly face a mental or physical disability, it is incredibly challenging for them and the family then bears the brunt of that.
I am proud to say that the city of Edmonton has brought forward fantastic health and other services to assist those who are returning and facing physical disabilities. I am proud that we have the services available for veterans housing.
However, it is important that the government steps up to ensure that when members of the armed forces return from serving, they are given every care, consideration and support, so that they can move forward and adjust to society, not just at retirement when they go into a retirement home but at the height of their young lives.