Good Morning, Mr. Chair and Committee Members.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to address this most important review of the New Veterans Charter.
May I first introduce to you members of my team:
Mr Gary Walbourne, Executive Director of Operations and Deputy Ombudsman, and Colonel (retired) Denys Guérin, our lead on the New Veterans Charter Review.
As I mentioned in my address the House Committee last week, I would again like to thank the Honourable Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs, for having agreed to my recommendation for a comprehensive review of the New Veterans Charter, with special focus placed on the most seriously disabled, support for families and the delivery of programs by Veterans Affairs Canada.
In one week much has happened that shows the necessity of completing this comprehensive review and implementing meaningful solutions as quickly as possible.
The men and women who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces willingly accept the risks to their health and life that are inherent to military service. If they are injured or become ill and can no longer serve in uniform, the Government of Canada has a recognized obligation to help them rebuild their lives and restore, to the greatest extent possible, their health, financial independence, and quality of personal and family life.
What Canadian Armed Forces members and Veterans struggle with is why when they are giving their all, the Government’s obligation falls short of meeting their needs. Recent events have tragically shown that for some the uncertainty of their futures was such that they perceived there was no hope.
We need to ensure that each member of the Canadian Armed Forces is fully aware that no matter what type of injury or illness they sustain in service of Canada, they will be financially secure throughout the remainder of their lives.
We also need to strengthen the transition process so that we create more opportunities and better opportunities through world class vocational training and partnerships with industry.
This will create hope and focus Canadian Armed Forces members and Veterans on their future, rather than clinging to the past.
Finally, we need to fortify families so they are better informed and compensated for the critical behind the scenes support they provide to our men and women in uniform. Not only is this essential to the individual, it is also a matter of national security as it affects the success of Canada to recruit and retain members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
This obligation, on the part of the Government of Canada to its Veterans, is stated clearly in the preamble to such legislation as the Pension Act, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act, and the War Veterans Allowance Act. Each states that the acts shall be liberally construed and interpreted so that the recognized obligation to those who have served their country so well and to their dependants may be fulfilled. I fully support the recent calls from Veterans’ advocates and organizations to include this recognized obligation in the New Veterans Charter, as in past Veterans’ legislation.
Since April of this year, I have published a series of reviews and reports to serve as a common factual reference to guide discussion, but more importantly, to channel action on specific New Veterans Charter program areas that need improvement. I have put forward evidence-based facts, analysis and recommendations on how to address shortcomings in the three program areas that are of most concern to Veterans.
- First, financial instability and decreased standard of living;
- Second, a vocational rehabilitation program that is overly rigid in its focus on existing education, skills and experience, which constrains education upgrade and employment options; and
- Third, difficult family environment situations due to insufficient family support.
My office has analyzed the more than 200 recommendations for improvements to the New Veterans Charter proposed by various expert advisory, House of Commons and Senate committees since 2006, including many of the 160 recommendations mentioned by Minister Fantino. We also held exhaustive stakeholder consultations.
Many recommendations that deal with the three key transition areas – financial support, vocational rehabilitation and family support – have not been implemented and are continuing to affect Veterans and their families, as can be seen with the spate of lawsuits against the government and the growing unrest in the Veterans community.
Mr Chair, I respectfully submit that most of the analysis and review of New Veterans Charter deficiencies has been done. The path to improving the New Veterans Charter is clear. However, impeding that path is a worrisome trend. If we focus on issues on the periphery rather than on more critical core issues, we will only treat the symptoms and not address the root causes, which have far more significance in the day-to-day lives of our Veterans.
My report on improving the New Veterans Charter, and the actuarial analysis that supports it, can serve as a baseline for how this living charter is reviewed by the Committee. The report’s analysis of benefits and programs pinpoint exactly where the current suite of New Veterans Charter benefits are failing some Veterans today, and will continue to fail more tomorrow unless changes are made quickly.
Let me be blunt. All of us know where the gaps are in the programs. We don’t need to study this to death. If we focus on fixing the fundamental gaps in the New Veterans Charter, many of the other complaints will disappear as we will have dealt with the root cause and not with the symptoms.
If we only fixed the following five items, think how different our conversation would be in a year from now:
- First, the insufficiency of the economic financial support provided after the age of 65 to totally and permanently incapacitated Veterans;
- Second, the drop in income for Veterans who are transitioning from a military to a civilian career because the Earnings Loss Benefit only pays 75 percent of pre-release salary;
- Third, access to the Permanent Impairment Allowance and the Permanent Impairment Allowance Supplement continues to be a problem for many severely impaired Veterans;
- Fourth, the unfair practice of providing a reduced Earnings Loss Benefit to part-time reservists who suffer an injury or illness related to service;
- And the fifth financial shortcoming is the non-economic benefit designed to compensate for pain and suffering – the disability award. This benefit is supposed to have kept pace with civilian court awards for pain and suffering, but it has not.
Too often the debate that swirls around Veterans’ issues centres on the question: “Am I better off under the Pension Act or under the New Veterans Charter?”
The reality is that we have two very different benefit schemes operating in parallel.
My view is that we need to accept the fact that Veterans are supported under two different benefit schemes and that we are not going to rewrite the past.
Mr Chair, I believe that we must focus on addressing the challenges faced by Veterans and their families today and tomorrow.
So much of the rhetoric is on what has been done. Let’s focus on what needs to be done.
If we do not deal with these challenges now, we will have to deal with the human cost later. And if we study history, we know that more improvements will be required in the future because as the nature of conflict changes, so too do the needs of men and women in uniform.
This is why I am recommending that a regular two-year review of the New Veterans Charter be enshrined in the legislation so that it continues to adapt to the evolving needs of serving men and women, Veterans and their families and that it continues also to live up to the Government’s affirmation that it is a living charter.
Let me remind you as I reminded the House committee last week. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. When Canada entered that war, it was not well prepared to deal with the thousands of returning casualties and with the ensuing demobilization.
Today, Canada is much better prepared to care for and support its ill and injured Veterans and their families.
However, as recent events have shown, better is not synonymous with sufficient and there is still work to do to ensure that this generation and future generations of Veterans receive the care and support they need.
The year that we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and the year that we end operations in Afghanistan, should also be heralded as the year that we fix the problems with Veterans benefits and built a solid foundation of care and support for years to come. We need to visibly show our commitment to our men and women in uniform now so that they can have hope for a better future.
Mr. Chair and Committee Members, we built on the past to get to the present. Let us now build on the present to get to the future. All the tools are in place to do it now without undue delay. Our Veterans and their families deserve no less.