Halifax – June 4, 2011
Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen.
First of all, I would like to thank Mayor Diodati, for his very kind introduction and for his support of the upcoming 1st Canadian Veterans National Rendezvous. This is shaping up to be a great event and Mayor Diodati and the City of Niagara Falls are helping to make it possible.
In addition, I would like to thank Mayor Peter Kelly and the Regional Municipality of Halifax for hosting this year’s FCM Annual Conference in this beautiful part of Nova Scotia, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (Opens in new window) for inviting me to address you today.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Jack Layton is a hard act to follow, but I will do my best! And, I think that I am speaking on a topic that is of great interest to you and is very close to all of our hearts – our Veterans.
It is an honour for me to be in Halifax today to address you – Canada’s municipal leaders.
This conference is the largest annual gathering of elected officials in Canada, so I thought this is where I want to be to say thank-you to municipal leaders and municipalities across the country for your unwavering support of our Veterans, their families, and their organizations.
There are almost 800,000 Veterans in Canada today – and they all live in your communities. Approximately 5,000 more join them every year as they retire from the Canadian Forces or the RCMP.
They are men and women who have served this country proudly in the First and Second World Wars, in the Korean War, in over 50 missions around the world, in Kuwait, in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan.
Here at home, they have conducted high-risk search and rescue missions off our coasts, protected our sovereignty across the North, and helped communities deal with natural disasters, such as the recent flood-relief missions in Manitoba and Quebec.
Our Veterans include former members of the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who also participate in missions abroad to protect the weak and vulnerable.
Some Veterans are in their 20s, others are in their 90s.
Despite their age and service differences, they all have two things in common: First, when they enlisted, every single one of them wrote a blank check payable to “the People of Canada” for an amount up to, and including, their lives.
That blank check is often called the ‘unlimited liability clause’ because soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen, and federal police officers are obliged to carry out their duties anywhere in the world without regard to fear or danger, and to be ready to give up their lives for their country. In return, our country has the moral and legal obligation to ensure that they and their families are well cared for.
Second, once they take off their uniforms, they continue to serve their country and their communities as civilian members of society, and their commitment to Canadian values remains strong. Municipalities prize these highly trained Veterans and their leadership skills, as demonstrated by the hiring practices of many fire, police and ambulance departments. They also serve in your communities as teachers, business men and women, and volunteers.
In fact, there is not one community in Canada that is not stronger and more enriched in spirit because of this ongoing commitment on the part of its Veterans.
They come home to your cities, towns, villages and hamlets when their service is over and put down roots and help you build and grow, just as your Conference theme states: Strong Cities, Strong Communities, and a Strong Canada.
You commemorate and recognize their contributions through your cenotaphs and war monuments, as well as Veterans’ cemeteries, such as Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is home to the largest and oldest municipal military Field of Honour in Canada where more than 12,000 Veterans, servicemen, servicewomen and their families have been interred since 1915.
From coast-to-coast-to-coast, you commemorate and honour the contributions of Veterans by way of your memorial parks, memorial gardens and Veterans’ memorial parkways. You help Veterans also through your recognition of Veterans’ licence plates, parking permits and transit passes.
Here in Halifax, for example, Mayor Peter Kelly initiated a project to recognize the significant contribution that volunteers within the military family make to the Halifax Regional Municipality. The Mayor’s Canadian Naval Centennial Volunteer Pin was awarded to individuals who have given a minimum of 100 hours of volunteer time to their community.
And, you do other very special things. For example, the Township of Assiginack in Ontario has created a Veterans online Gallery of Honour to pay homage to all Veterans affiliated with its area who have served and continue to serve to keep our country, ideals and people free. Also, in April of this year, Quebec City opened an exhibition running to December, entitled Nos soldats canadiens, de Normandie à Kandahar. Through photographs, testimonials and archival documents, the exhibition reflects the lives of soldiers, their hobbies, their recruitment, assignments in which they participated, and what this commitment cost many of them.
There is no question that the support from municipal leaders for Veterans and their families has been there from the beginning.
Long before there was a Department of Veterans Affairs, community leaders and citizens not only stepped up to the plate to help a young nation meet its war commitments, but were also there ready to receive and help wounded Veterans when they came home, and their families.
At the time of the First World War, there was no national health care, few hospitals and a federal government overwhelmed with the volume of casualties. Yet municipalities stepped into the breach to help. And, although today that responsibility has shifted to the federal government and, more specifically, to Veterans Affairs Canada, the strong connection and support honed by generations of municipal leaders for their Veterans is more vibrant today than ever. And for that I say: Thank you.
I especially say thank you because as Veterans Ombudsman, I know how important that community connection is to the well-being of Veterans and their families, and I am here today to acknowledge that vital connection and share with you some ideas that I think might help us improve upon it.
While the majority of Veterans left their Service healthy and make an easy transition to civilian life, some with physical and psychological injuries have a more challenging and difficult road ahead of them.
The Government of Canada has the responsibility to ensure that ill or injured Veterans get the support and services that they need. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the true first line of support for Veterans is their families, with municipalities often being called upon as the first line of service provider.
When a Veteran or their family is in need of help and support, they often go to their municipality for direction on where they can get the services required. Because Veterans are proud and are trained to be self-sufficient, they do not always find it easy to ask for help, and often do not self-identify, and tell you that they are Veterans.
So my first suggestion to you is to educate your municipal frontline workers to ask: Do you have military or RCMP service?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then please refer them to Veterans Affairs Canada, once any immediate needs that you, the municipality, can address are looked after. This is a critical connection to make for the Veteran, and municipalities are in a unique position to make it happen. Once this is done, the Department is in a position to determine if the Veteran is eligible for its programs and services.
Secondly, I would ask you to look for ways to celebrate the contribution of your Veterans not just on Remembrance Day, but throughout the year, such as the online Gallery of Honour that the Township of Assiginack has created to pay homage to all of its Veterans. If every time one of your citizens visited your website, they were reminded of who your Veterans are and what they have done to serve and protect our Canadian values and way of life, that would be a tremendous honour and tribute to the men and women of your communities who were ready to give up their lives for you.
Thirdly, please continue to support the Veterans organizations in your communities. They are not there just to support Veterans; they give back to your communities every day.
Today, we are not in a period of ‘business as usual’ in relation to Veterans’ issues in Canada; rather, we are in a time of great change and forward movement. Veterans’ issues matter to Canadians as never before in recent memory, and many of those issues make regular daily headlines in the news. Canadians are watching and they expect only the best for their Veterans and their families.
Importantly, parliamentarians are increasing their attention on Veterans’ issues and the recent passage of Bill C-55, the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act, on March 24th, 2011, began the important process of making improvements to the New Veterans Charter adopted in 2006. As well, there are important changes taking place within Veterans Affairs Canada to improve the Department’s ability to serve Veterans.
As the Veterans Ombudsman, my role as an impartial and independent officer is to ensure Veterans Affairs Canada and parliamentarians do right by Veterans. I want to make sure that their needs and those of their families are met, and that the benefits and services for ill or injured Veterans are provided with maximum efficiency, fairness and respect.
In addition, as Special Advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, I make it my business to point out policies, procedures and bureaucratic processes that create hardship or difficulties for Veterans and to make recommendations for improvements. At the end of the day, I want to make sure that our Veterans and their families are treated fairly, with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
I am not alone in this work. I rely on a team of 40 people located in Ottawa and Charlottetown. They address Veterans’ complaints, and conduct research and investigations on issues of importance to the Veterans community.
But, we also need you – the municipal leaders of Canada – and your municipalities to take that extra step with us and increase awareness amongst your municipal frontline workers of how best to serve Veterans and how best to direct them to the services and programs available to them at Veterans Affairs Canada.
I also encourage you to increase involvement of Veterans and their families and their organizations in the fabric of your community life. By involving them, you honour them. They have served Canada well, and their service to your communities never ends. Neither should our steadfast dedication to them.