Mr. Chair, Committee Members, Fellow Panellists, Ladies and Gentleman.
Thank you for inviting me to share with you my thoughts on “balancing the federal budget to ensure fiscal sustainability and economic growth”.
As Veterans Ombudsman and Special Advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, most of my previous parliamentary appearances have been before Veterans Affairs or National Defence Committees of the House of Commons or Senate. Each time, I have presented an evidence-based position on current deficiencies in federal support to Veterans, especially those who are the most severely impaired.
Some of the recommended improvements will require an increase in federal expenditure. Other changes, such as collapsing current approaches to Veterans’ transition from military to civilian life and reducing red tape, particularly in relation to service delivery, may well be sufficient to improve effectiveness and provide better service to Veterans. Either way, the immediate unmet needs of these Veterans and their families must be addressed in the 2015 Budget by implementing the recommendations in the June 2014 report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward. Veterans’ expectations are very high that long standing program deficiencies will be addressed in this Budget, and I have been working closely with the Office of the Minister of Veterans Affairs, the Honourable Julian Fantino, and with officials in the Department of Veterans Canada to try to bring about meaningful improvements to the New Veterans Charter.
Most of us recognize intuitively that there is a direct link between how a nation treats its Veterans and its ability to recruit and retain citizens for its military. It is not rocket science. If injured or ill Veterans’ needs are not being met, then why would anyone join the military or stay in it for any length of time? For this reason, we not only need to address deficiencies in our support to Veterans because it is a debt that we owe them for their service to Canada; it is also a matter of national security.
Let me put this in perspective. There are approximately 700,000 Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police Veterans in Canada today. About 15 percent are clients of Veterans Affairs Canada. The majority of these clients are assessed with a minor disability, with the most seriously impaired representing only one percent of the total population of Veterans.
However, when one mentions Veterans today, what tends to come to mind first is an injured or ill person requiring government support. In a sense, this is as it should be. However, while we must never forget those who have sacrificed so much for their country; I believe that it is time that we also start paying more attention to our healthy Veterans, who transition into their local community with minimal support.
While serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, these Veterans have benefitted from millions of dollars in educational, technical, and professional development training. They have also gained leadership experience that can be acquired nowhere else. As a result, they are recognized as being skilled, experienced, and dependable, with a strong work ethic. Are these not the attributes that Canadian employers are seeking?
Yet, today as a nation we are not capitalizing enough on the effort in time and expense that Canada has put into developing the skill sets of these men and women. When they finish their service, for the most part, we thank them and then they drop off our radar screen.
Although Veterans are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives as first responders, coaches, volunteers, and service club members, for the most part, we are not even aware that many of these citizens are Veterans. I believe that with the challenges of the 21st Century world economy before us, It is time that we really start to leverage their skills when they transition from military to civilian life.
Veterans can help advance our country’s fiscal sustainability and economic growth; they can help Canada strengthen its leadership role in the 21st Century global economy. It is a matter of looking at Veterans through a new lens. It is a matter of starting to treat Veterans as an investment again.
Why again? Because history shows us that when a million men and women returned from World War II, the Government of Canada had a strategic plan to ensure that these Veterans learned the skills necessary to successfully transition to civilian life. Injecting Veterans into all corners of the country became a catalyst for the economic boom of the 1950’s and 60’s. Not only did we hone their skills for civilian life but we also provided loans, grants, insurance and other incentives to enable their success. In the United States, the post-World War II GI Bill is estimated to have returned seven dollars for every dollar paid.
Canada’s post-World War II investment in Veterans not only positively affected our economy; it also changed the social fabric of Canadian society. The creation of our national health care system was influenced by the federal system of Veterans Hospitals. The socio-economic barriers to attending colleges and universities were broken by the expansion of post-secondary education institutions to meet the needs of returning World War II Veterans. Owning a house today for most Canadians is made possible by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which started as a program for Veterans.
So, I believe that it is time to stop looking at Veterans as a financial liability and start looking at them again as an important investment that we can make to our economy and our national security. It makes sense today to start paying more attention to that investment and to keep growing it when Veterans transition from military to civilian life. For the most part, it would be more of a matter of coordinating the effort of existing programs than creating new ones.
For example, recently, the Nova Scotia government released the Ivany report, which documents the decline of rural communities and the need for economic renewal. The report states that this will require much more effective policy alignment and enhanced collaboration among federal, provincial and municipal governments to build a stronger and more resilient place within the Canadian economy for rural communities. Considering that Nova Scotia is one of numerous areas in Canada with a high Veterans population, would this not be a good initiative for aligning Veterans programming and skill sets with federal, provincial and municipal needs? In other economic sectors, could we not start working with post-secondary educators to capitalize on the strengths of Veterans and tailor programs to fit specific occupations that are in short demand?
There are many more ideas that could be considered in this regard, but the limited time allotted only allows me to give you a flavour for what is in the art of the possible – if we have the will.
From a sustainability perspective, one only has to remember that every year the Canadian Armed Forces releases more than 5,000 highly skilled and experienced personnel. It is time that we fix the deficiencies of the New Veterans Charter in the upcoming Budget and start to consider the long game. We have an opportunity to help ensure the fiscal sustainability and economic growth of our country by changing the way we look at Veterans. Canada can profit from that change. I say, let’s get the wheels turning and seize this opportunity to recognize the full potential of our Veterans. We owe them that much.