Has Canada left its wounded veterans in the lurch?

Protest against closure of Veterans Affairs offices, Sydney, January 31, 2014 (PSAC)

Protest against closure of Veterans Affairs offices, Sydney, January 31, 2014 (PSAC)

From National Association of Federal Retirees Magazine 

Long before Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino went missing in action in January at a scheduled meeting with veterans who were hoping to save a crucial element of their benefits, a controversy had been raging in the courts over what Canada owes the wounded men and women who have served in its military.

Strangely enough, it pits Canadian veterans against a federal government that has made the military a centrepiece of its political message. Former partners now look at each other across a divide of anger and suspicion – and a sense of betrayal.

Veterans.SAGE-FSNA-Summer2014Veterans argue that there is a social covenant, or contract, that Ottawa is breaking with the New Veterans Charter (NVC) that came into force in 2006. Under the NVC, veterans are awarded a lump sum payment for non-economic losses, such as the loss of limbs. The maximum payout is $301,000.

As of September 2013, only 148 people have received the maximum since 2006. The average award is $45,000. Under the old system, disabled soldiers were eligible for a tax-free pension for life of roughly $31,000.

On the other side of the debate is a government insisting there is no social covenant or contract with veterans that obliges Ottawa to follow the policies of earlier governments. Focused on balancing the budget before the next federal election, the Harper government has made deep cuts to every department. There was no special dispensation for veterans.

Conservative MPs voted unanimously to not exempt Veterans Affairs (VA) from those cuts, targeting the department for $226 million in cuts between 2011 and 2014. Those cuts represented a 30 per cent reduction in VA administrative funding – one of the deepest cuts to the operations of any department. For implementing the cuts, senior VA bureaucrats received bonuses totaling roughly $700,000 in 2011.

The Royal Canadian Legion, and veterans advocates like former lieutenant-general and newly-retired senator Romeo Dallaire, Senator Wilfred Moore and Sean Bruyea, say that Ottawa bears a historic obligation to make sure no veteran is left in financial difficulty or mustered out of the military because of a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“In civilian workplace compensation,” says Bruyea, “government is obligated to care for and compensate the disability for life. Why should the standard be any less for the military?”

Senator Moore agrees: “This is a national disgrace. A lot of us have people buried over there, and I absolutely think that there is a social contract to look after our veterans. After all, they looked after us.”

Sign at veteran’s action in Sydney, Cape Breton, January 31, 2014.

Sign at veteran’s action in Sydney, Cape Breton, January 31, 2014.

This is no mere academic debate. Roughly 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan, Canada’s largest deployment since the Second World War. Although the final count won’t be in for some time, 2,179 of them came back with serious physical or mental injuries. Before the budget cuts, they received treatment at Veterans Affairs offices spread across the country. The VA offices are staffed by trained professionals who deal with the most common operational stress injuries: PTSD and depression. In the most difficult cases, the services are delivered in home visits.

Veterans suffering from PTSD are constantly on edge, sleepless, anxious and depressed. There is no pill to dispel the ravages of the condition. Soldiers afflicted with PTSD often use drugs or alcohol to fight off the demons. While cognitive behavioural therapy helps, the road back is long and difficult. There are no shortcuts and you can’t put the process on a clock.

The suicide rate in the Canadian forces is more than twice as high as in the British armed forces, which is three times larger. Thirteen Canadian soldiers killed themselves in 2013 and, as of April, there have been eight suspected suicides in the Canadian Forces since the beginning of 2014. These grim statistics only apply to military personnel on active duty, not veterans, so the real number is likely higher.

That was why the veterans set up their meeting with Fantino. They wanted him to reverse the decision to close what they consider to be part of an essential service to disabled veterans – their VA offices. When the minister finally appeared – 70 minutes late – he walked into a hornet’s nest.

The veterans weren’t buying his claim that he had been delayed by an important cabinet meeting, and they were furious when he told them that their services would improve – even though Ottawa was closing nine VA offices across Canada and the decision was final.

How, the veterans wondered, could service get better when $3.8 million had been cut from VA funding? How does forcing a veteran in Thunder Bay to drive to Winnipeg to find his nearest VA office constitute ‘better service’?

A delegation of veterans from across Canada arrives on Parliament Hill to meet with Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino, January 28, 2014, only to be treated with utmost disrespect. (Click to enlarge)

A delegation of veterans from across Canada arrives on Parliament Hill to meet with Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino, January 28, 2014, only to be treated with utmost disrespect. (Click to enlarge)

The meeting ended badly; one media report said the minister left the meeting “in a huff” after one of the veterans described his explanation of the office closures as “hogwash.” The next day Fantino apologized – and then promptly got into hot water a second time by accusing the veterans of being dupes of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. PSAC members staff the VA offices and 70 of them were going to lose their jobs. Speaking from a shuttered VA office in Cape Breton, Alfie Burt, formerly of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, captured the mood of many veterans: “What the frig is wrong with that guy?”

In the opinion of Dallaire, there’s a lot wrong. He believes that Ottawa is contemplating getting the gum of veterans’ expenditures off its shoe. Canada spends $3.5 billion annually on services for veterans, including administration costs – roughly 1.7 per cent of the federal budget.

Shortly before testifying in front of the House of Commons Veterans Committee on April 3, 2013, Dallaire told the Canadian Press’s Murray Brewster about a number of recent encounters with “politicians who are second-guessing the cost of veterans. This has been sniffing its way around the Conservative hallways and it’s pissing me off.”

Dallaire’s comments sparked a sharp rebuke from Fantino spokesman Nicholas Bergamini: “It is not appropriate to spread rumours without any kind of attribution.” Dallaire was undeterred and called for a legislated social covenant with soldiers that would guarantee long-term care for the wounded. The Harper government wasn’t interested in such a formal compact – as its arguments against veterans who had taken it to court over the NVC clearly showed.

Equitas

In October 2012, six veterans of the Afghanistan War filed suit in B.C. Supreme Court to challenge the lump sum provisions of the New Veterans Charter. They call themselves the Equitas Society.

Starting in the reign of Elizabeth I, British legislation required each parish to care for sick and wounded soldiers and mariners. Canada has always been in the vanguard of caring for its war veterans. It gave soldiers returning from the First World War rehabilitation and preferential hiring consideration. The Military Hospitals Commission was set up in 1915 as part of the plan to deal with the return of disabled soldiers.

The Pension Act of 1919 compensated 69,000 returned disabled vets, and the survivors of the 60,661 killed in the war.

The War Veterans Allowance Act of 1930 allowed disabled veterans to collect their pensions at sixty, ten years earlier than the rest of Canada.

As the Canadian War Museum puts it, “… Ottawa, by war’s end, administered a large medical system, long-term care facilities, soldier insurance, a land settlement program and many other benefits and types of aid … in 1920, veterans’ pensions would consume more than 20 per cent of federal revenues; in 1914, it had been 0.5 per cent.”

The Equitas court case, in effect, has called history as its witness against the NVC. In particular, the Afghanistan veterans cited a speech given by Prime Minister Robert Borden to Canadian troops on the eve of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Ten thousand Canadian soldiers would be dead or wounded in a matter of days. Borden wanted the troops to know that the country was grateful for their service, and that they would be taken care of when the war was over.

“You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance, that you need have no fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country in what you are about to do and what you have done already,” Borden said.

To the veterans engaged in the Equitas court case, Borden’s words amounted to a sacred promise – a promise that was largely kept back in the day. Does the Liberal party’s Veterans Affairs critic, Frank Valeriote, agree that Stephen Harper should follow Borden’s lead?

“In a word, yes. The social covenant that exists now between members of the Canadian Forces, veterans and their government is the same that Sir Robert Borden sought to create … in the wake of the First World War. It’s not just political language as the federal government’s lawyers are arguing …”

One of the people who passionately agrees with the veterans’ historical claim is famed Canadian war artist Allan Harding MacKay. On May 10, 2012, MacKay destroyed four original pieces of his war art on the expansive lawns of Parliament. “I absolutely feel vets have been abused. They are given a one-time paycheque to deal with a lifetime of injury.”

Faced with the Equitas lawsuit, the Harper government tried to have the case thrown out without a hearing. But in the fall of 2013, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gordon Weatherill rejected their motion and allowed the case to proceed.

Next, the federal Department of Justice expressly denied in a written submission to the court that there was any social contract or covenant with war veterans vested “in any statute, regulation, or as a constitutional principle, written or unwritten.”

Further, federal lawyers argued that, “Parliament, within the bounds of constitutional limits, has the unfettered discretion to change or reverse any policy set by a previous government.”

Sydney, NS, November 9, 2013 | Photo by Miles Howe

Sydney, NS, November 9, 2013 | Photo by Miles Howe

The argument in the federal government’s 37-page filing came down to this: Borden’s speech was nothing more than words, a mere political speech reflecting the policy positions of the government of the day. Federal lawyers have now appealed Justice Weatherill’s ruling allowing the case to proceed. According to Ottawa’s argument, there was one big problem with veterans claiming any kind of social contract: They didn’t get it in writing.

And that is something that the dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion intends to fix: “The RCL will continue to advocate to the government of the day until the covenant is in black and white in the New Veterans Charter,” says Gordon Moore.

As the Harper government argues legal niceties – over which it may ultimately prevail – even the ombudsman for Veterans Affairs, a position the PM created, says the NVC is seriously flawed. In June 2013, after a two-year parliamentary review of the NVC, Ombudsman Guy Parent reported that changes were necessary.

“It is simply unacceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country – those who are totally and permanently incapacitated – live their lives with unmet financial needs,” said his report.

What’s next? In June, the Commons veterans affairs committee made 14 recommendations to update the Veterans Charter and improve benefits; Fantino has promised to respond in the fall. Some veterans advocates say the proposed changes still fall short. The court will decide whether the Harper government has the legal obligation to honour the Borden Doctrine. But the court of public opinion will decide another question: Despite the $850,000 fly-overs, the $50 million monuments and a $28 million ad campaign for the War of 1812, has Ottawa cut and run on today’s veterans in need?

(Sage, Summer 2014. Photos/graphics: Sage, TML, PSAC, M. Howe/Mediacoop)

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Filed under Canada, No Harbour for War (Halifax)

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