The New Veterans Charter: Severely reducing veterans benefits through 'improvements' and 'enhancements'
by Matt Luloff
Canada has a long and storied history with a reputation for punching above our collective weight in the international community. From Banting's discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes to Lester B. Pearson's brilliant peace brokering in his handling of the Suez Crisis, Canada asserts her relevance by demonstrating an ability to innovate, adapt and overcome despite the bleakest of odds. This is especially true of our military history.
Two hundred years ago, fifty-five years before Confederation, a rag-tag militia of British and French colonists assisted by Indigenous and Metis warriors fought off a coordinated and significantly larger American invading force maintaining the Canadian-American border. One hundred and thirty nine years later, at the Battle of Kapyong in Korea, Canada demonstrated unrelenting resolve while holding off a Chinese and Korean brigade for three days; an amazing feat considering the Canadian contingent was demonstrably smaller and suffered seemingly endless casualties. To this day, the Canadian Forces are highly regarded as amongst the best-trained and effective organizations in the world. However, when the mission is over and the soldier returns to civilian life, a new mission lays before the returning soldier, that of re-integrating into the society he or she fought to serve while making sense of their experiences in order to wield them to their advantage in the often difficult task of establishing an existence beyond the total institution of military service. The recently restored civilian, "for whom everything (was) provided by the state, (has lost), to a certain extent, his sense of personal responsibility" (McKelvey Bell, 1919). If it is the Government who is responsible for this transformation from civilian to soldier, should it not then be responsible for the transition in reverse? Most would agree, however the chasm between what the government is mandated to provide and what provisions are available to veterans is long, and wide, and growing longer and wider still.
Despite the contemporary and extensive media coverage regarding benefits available to veterans of the Canadian Forces, caring for our injured veterans through disability pensions coupled with vocational training is certainly not a pioneering or novel idea. During the First World War, the Tory-led Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden passed the War Measures Act creating the Department of Soldier's Civil Re-establishment. Borden's government proclaimed it as and indication of Canada's strong commitment to those who had sacrificed life and limb for the Commonwealth:
"The men by whose sacrifice and endurance the free institutions of Canada will be preserved must be re-educated where necessary and re-established on the land or in such pursuits or vocations as they may desire to follow. The maimed and the broken will be protected, the widow and the orphan will be helped and cherished. Duty and decency demand that those who are saving democracy shall not find democracy a house of privilege, or a school of poverty and hardship" (Veterans Affairs Canada – Canadian Forces Advisory Council, 2004)
The newly minted Department developed and delivered comprehensive programmes designed to support the injured financially, foster professional and personal development through education and vocational rehabilitation, with the end goal of returning them to some semblance of self-sufficiency. The programmes were, by most measures, heralded as a complete success. At the time, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported:
"as soon as the returned soldier who is crippled or rendered partially disabled by disease or injury can be made to realize that life still holds interests for him in the manufacturing, the educational, or the commercial world, and that there is a department which is ready to do everything necessary to help him overcome his handicap, so soon will a step forward have been made in connection with his rehabilitation and his return to useful civilian life. The knowledge that he can still be self-supporting in spite of the handicap of the loss of limbs or of other serious defects, assists him to regain pride in his own personal effort and encourages him to make a strong endeavour to become self-supporting" (McKelvey Bell, 1919)
Certainly many things have changed since 1919, and the Government of Canada's unfettered commitment to the injured soldier as demonstrated above is, quite regrettably, one of them.
Canada's decision to support the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission to Afghanistan was an undertaking the likes of which the Canadian Forces had not seen since the Korean War, both in the size and scope of the operation, and in the amount of casualties incurred in combat. From the time the first Canadian boots hit the hot sands of Kandahar to the declaration of the end of combat operations, 158 flag-draped coffins have returned to Canada to be received by grieving families. The impact on those who fought selflessly and tirelessly alongside international allies and survived the horrors of war is without a doubt immeasurable.
In addition, many Canadian forces members returned home with injuries including some who returned home with gruesome physical injuries, and others who returned haunted by the intensity and vicious violence of the conflict; both types of injuries afflicted some soldiers. The brave men and women who stood face-to-face with the Taliban and other armed factions across southern Kandahar were prepared to give everything, up to and including their lives, for their country. On their return, their country has an obligation to them as mandated by the contemporary incarnation of veteran's legislation, the Department of Veteran's Affairs Act, which charges the Minister with "the care, treatment or re-establishment in civil life of any person who served in the Canadian Forces" (The Governnment of Canada, 1984).
With an average of two thousand eight hundred troops deployed at any given time, Canada's mission in Afghanistan was producing a constant flow of new clients for the Department. In 2005, while Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Stephen Harper proclaimed to an audience of Legionnaires,
"all too often we hear stories of veterans who are ignored or disrespected by government. What a shameful way to treat men and women who risked their lives to defend Canada. This shame will end with the election of a new (Conservative) government" (CTV News, 2005)
But the shame did not end when Mr Harper became Prime Minister in February 2006. The first Tory government in over a decade, seemingly delivering on its promise with fervour and without delay, produced the New Veteran's Charter (NVC) exactly two months after forming government, created an office for a veteran's ombudsman, and introduced major changes to the financial assistance available to injured clients of the department. At the time, Harper hailed the legislation as a sign his government was "begin (ning) to do the right thing for Canada's servicemen and women" (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2006). The Minister of Veterans Affairs, The Honourable Greg Thompson proclaimed,
"The New Veterans Charter is the most profound transformation of Veterans' services and benefits since the end of the Second World War. It provides all the fundamental programs and services that CF Veterans and their families have told us they need as they transition from military to civilian life" (Ibid).
Even the officially non-partisan chief of the Canadian Forces, General Rick Hillier touted the NVC as "Canada's promise to invest in (veterans) futures" (Ibid). However it was the Minister of Veterans Affairs who was closest to the results in declaring the piece of legislation a transformation.
The government was presenting the NVC as an improvement to the antiquated Pension Act, however, the major changes represented a significant decrease in the amount of financial assistance available to injured veterans at a time when hundreds of soldiers were returning home afflicted with either or both physical injuries and Occupational Stress Injuries (OSI) (Aiken & Buithenhuis, 2011). In response, Michael Blais, CD, founded the Canadian Veterans Advocacy and organized an Annual Canadian Veterans National Day of Protest, attracting thousands of angry veterans to federal riding offices and to Parliament Hill in 2010 (Canadian Veterans Advocacy, 2012). The chief complaint regarding the new legislation was the decision to remove the Life-time Disability Pension mandated by the now-defunct Pension Act and replace it with a Lump Sum Disability Award. The common argument advocating for this change is that lump sum awards provide substantial and immediate support to the veteran. The trouble is the lump sum payment does not provide the guaranteed income security needed for veterans to re-establish themselves without financial strain. If the veteran is well-versed in investment banking and has access to the best advice possible, perhaps this option would be viable, however this scenario is highly unlikely considering the social circumstances of the modern veteran.
In response, the government introduced the Enhanced New Veteran's Charter Act, addressing some of the issues raised by concerned veterans and modifying the Lump Sum Disability Award. Rather than reverting to monthly pensions as demanded by Canadian Veterans Advocacy and many individual veterans, the government opted to change payment options for the Award to include a monthly instalment option, with the reasoning that veterans had difficulty managing a large sum of money (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2010). Still, the total amount awarded to the recipient would mirror the amount of the lump sum, giving very little incentive to prolong the pay out. In fact, the Government of Canada was scaling back the fiscal benefits to injured veterans, describing the changes as 'enhancements' and 'improvements,' purporting to be addressing the concerns regarding the NVC while only making token changes to the Act in order to give the impression of understanding and to placate the affected veterans. Additional cuts to the Veteran's Affairs budget were announced in the 2012 Federal Budget while the government maintains its unbridled "support" for those who fought for Canada. While these changes are presented by the government as a means to speed up the process by making large cuts to the "rampant bureaucracy" within the Department of Veterans Affairs, indeed having less direct support for veterans by closing District Offices and slashing staff would tend to provoke the opposite result (The Canadian Press , 2012). Yvan Thauvette, president of the Union for Veterans Affairs Employees has countered "People are overwhelmed in a lot of district offices. Service delivery, they want to cut positions and most of those positions are frontline staff people. Do you believe that the service will be the same? No it won't" (CBC News , 2012). The EQUITAS Society, a Veterans Advocacy group currently engaged in a class-action lawsuit against the government in response to the Enhanced New Veterans Charter has identified the services currently available to veterans as "woefully inadequate" (Equitas Society, 2012). Can cutting resources and funding while lowering the financial support to Canadian Forces veterans truly be an enhancement to the services available to them? How can recent changes represent both a reduction and an improvement to these services?
In May 2012, the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs released its latest report, piously titled Improving Services to Improve Quality of Life for Veterans and Their Families. The Report contains seventeen (17) recommendations, most of which contain weak language including "assess the potential benefits… examine… maintaining current practices… review… continue to work," and so on (Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, 41st Parliament, 2012). In the Supplementary Opinion of the Official Opposition, New Democratic Party of Canada members of the committee expressed "very serious concerns with its content" (Ibid, p. 71). Not surprisingly, the NDP, in chorus with the Union for Veterans Affairs Employees, stated,
"New Democrats are very concerned that the cuts to staff (approximately 804 VAC staff), the elimination of nine regional offices across the country, and proposals for private sector/alternate service… will seriously impact the quality of service to veterans and their families. The Official Opposition does not believe that the Department of Veterans Affairs can maintain the same standard of care or programs and services with fewer staff and resources" (Ibid)
In its Minority Report, the Liberal Party of Canada was scathing in its criticism of the process of the committee and the content of its Report. The Party's only sitting member of the Committee, Sean Casey (MP Charlottown) pointed out that many of the recommendations lacked substantial or sufficient action, opting only for "further study" (Ibid, p. 75). Casey states,
"The Liberal Party is disappointed with the calibre and generality of this Report. Such an extensive study provided an opportunity for the Committee to make impactful recommendations to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The recommendations however, as well as the report in general, display that the majority of the Committee is far more interested in congratulating the government, than in providing advice and constructive criticism to improve services to the veterans of Canada" (Ibid)
With such vehement criticism from stakeholders, employee representatives and committee members, how does the government continue to mask deep cuts as improvements?
Research in this policy area is incredibly important. Reducing Veterans benefits is shirking Canada's responsibility to care for those who signed a contract of unlimited liability and have incurred injuries while conducting combat operations in defence of the Crown. At a time when the Government of Canada has demanded so much of its Canadian Forces with the decade-long war in Afghanistan, humanitarian efforts in Haiti, increased military presence in the Arctic, security efforts for the Olympic Games, response to domestic emergencies including flooding in Manitoba, peacekeeping operations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, it is not fulfilling its responsibilities as outlined in the Department of Veterans Affairs Act.
(I know some of you will not like this but I have to refer to the actual link as its impossible to transfer all here, but we need to archive this information in the CVA Information Repository):
To unsubscribe from these announcements, login to the forum and uncheck "Receive forum announcements and important notifications by email." in your profile.
You can view the full announcement by following this link:
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.