Speaking Notes: Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, to the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Senate Standing Committee of National Security and Defence.
Chair, Committee Members,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you as you begin your study on the requirement for a defined, professional and effective transition process.
As many of you know, I am a Veteran with 37 years of Canadian Armed Forces’ service. I know the challenges of transition on both a personal and a professional level: from my own experience; from that of my son who served in the Canadian Armed Forces in Bosnia and Afghanistan; and, from the experiences of the thousands of Veterans who I have met and worked with across Canada since appointed Veterans Ombudsman in 2010. I don’t just talk the talk about transition; I have walked the walk from military to civilian life and it is from that perspective that I appear before you today.
There are almost 700,000 Veterans in Canada, and more than 100,000 serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces, plus all their family members. Not all will need assistance from Veterans Affairs Canada, but for those who do, they should receive the benefits and services they need, when and where they need them.
I am an independent and impartial voice for all those served by Veterans Affairs Canada, both serving and released. I am also Special Advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs. In that capacity, I am a direct line to the Minister from the Veterans’ community and brief him regularly on matters of importance to Veterans’ and their families.
There are over 10,000 releases per year from the Regular and Reserve Force, of which there are approximately 1,600 medical releases per year. That’s a lot of people transitioning.
In August 2014, I launched a project with the DND/CF Ombudsman to review the entire transition process. Our key findings threw a spotlight on why transition is often such a confusing and frustrating experience for Veterans and their families.
For example, there are multiple players from separate organizations – in fact, at least 15 – involved in the transition process. Each has its own accountability framework, mandate and processes. The result? Duplication of effort, gaps and inconsistencies across groups and geographic regions.
Specific barriers to successful transition that we identified include:
- The system is characterized by “multiple stop shopping” because an integrated transition process with a single point of contact for all releasing Regular and Reserve force members has not been established by the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada.
- Available services are not consistent across the country, and service partners are not co-located under one-roof to provide truly member centric “one stop support”.
- Each Department has a different case management system, multiple consent forms and a lack of consistent service across the country.
- Integrated Personnel Support Centres are a great construct for complex medical releases, but this represents only 10 percent of medical releases.
- There remains a duplication of vocational rehabilitation, education and long-term disability programs creating complexity and confusion.
Recently, my team completed a small, qualitative study to better understand what contributes to a successful transition, based on the lived experiences of medically-released Veterans who self-identified as having a successful transition. We will be publishing our results in coming months but, in the interim, I want to share some initial findings with you.
The major challenge that we’re hearing about is the complexity of dealing with the bureaucracy of the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada. Getting information and services related to their entitlements and accessing the care to address their needs is no small feat.
Participants described broken lines of communication between different offices handling their files; poor, incorrect or incomplete information provided to them; and a feeling of information overload. In other words, it’s often like trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together when you have no idea of what the picture is supposed to look like in the end.
When asked about the role that finding purpose outside of the military played in their transition, participants stated that it represented a significant challenge because they had spent most of their adult lives in the military. This is an important finding because it highlights the significance of integrating the shaping of self-worth and identifying a new life purpose – post military service – into the transition process.
One Veteran said:
“The military was my life, my family, my every-thing.”
“I realized that I didn’t know who I was, if not in the military. What is my identity? What does the future hold for me?”
General Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff, has stated that the transition process needs to be professionalized, like the recruiting process. What does the recruiting process look like?
- Recruiting centers and detachments are located across the country.
- There is a single online portal for both regular and reserve force members. It’s easy to use and comprehensive.
- The process is highly structured, clearly sequenced and provides personalized attention.
- There is a single point of contact (online or face-to-face). Someone who answers your questions, arranges your interviews, gives you a sequenced list of steps to follow and provides help at any-time.
- There is an interview and testing to determine individual strengths and interests, and ultimately, a career path – individualized for each member.
- Once a decision is made, you sign a contract which clearly defines your terms of service and you are not enrolled until all the approvals are in place.
- Once enrolled you receive an ID card which you carry on your person, your entire career. It’s your new identity.
- Then you begin basic and occupational training, which shapes you for “service before self” and prepares you for your chosen career path, your new life. You are excited about what the future holds.
- As part of this onboarding process, you develop social networks that remain in place during and after your career. This network provides support, encouragement and comradery.
From the member’s perspective, at the end of the recruitment process, you truly feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself, and that you have a future. A civilian is transformed into a Canadian Armed Forces member. And, all is accomplished under one governance accountability model.
So, just as with the recruiting process into the Canadian Armed Forces, the transition process needs to be defined, professional and effective. This would be truly transformational. It would also mean that we are living up to our obligation to ensure that the men and women who dedicated their lives to serving our country have the programs and services they need to transition to a new life.
One veteran we interviewed said:
“I joined the army at age 19. Before that, I was in high school. I was never really a civilian adult. I don’t feel that I am transitioning ‘back’ to civilian life, but becoming a civilian for the first time.”
I envision a transition process for all releasing Canadian Armed Forces members, regular and reserve, that would have similar elements to the recruiting process, such as:
- Release centres accessible across the country:
- a single on-line portal
- under one single authority;
- All benefits in place at release;
- A single point of contact assigned to both Regular and Reserve Force members – a Navigator – who would:
- help fill out forms and submit a single application for benefits;
- help plan the member’s release and set up required appointments;
- provide advice in relation to possible third-party organizations that may offer support; and
- follow-up after release at pre-determined intervals to ensure evolving needs are met;
- Dedicated support to help injured members back to work. If they can’t return to work and their case is too complex, the IPSC would help to coordinate their release in conjunction with the release centres;
- There would be only one program for vocational rehabilitation and long term disability to reduce complexity and confusion;
- A professional counsellor to help determine the education, training or employment needs of the member, as well as assisting them find their new purpose in life, tailored to their attributes and desires; and
- A Veterans ID Card issued to every releasing member that not only recognizes their service, but also allows Veterans Affairs Canada to proactively follow-up with them after release.
In this defined, professional and effective transition process, the releasing member and their family would begin a new life with purpose – a life tailored to their needs and offering the best future possible whether they are retired, employed, in school or a community volunteer.
I believe that this is possible and we can move towards this end-state easily and quickly.
Wholesale change is now required to accomplish this. It’s going to take reengineering rather than tweaking. After decades of layering regulations and policies, one on top of the other, the process that we have today is too complex, too confusing and too difficult to follow for our releasing Veterans. The system needs an overhaul.
I commend this Committee for taking up this challenge. You have an historic opportunity to action change for the men and women who have served this country so well.
I also acknowledge the Government of Canada’s Budget 2017 commitment to undertake a transformation of both DND and VAC programs to ensure our women and men in uniform have a better transition from the Canadian Armed Forces to VAC, and I look forward to the details.
Veterans need hope for their future. They deserve no less.