OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Dec. 04 2014, 9:12 PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Dec. 04 2014, 9:18 PM EST
Veterans say the real financial problems facing injured military men and women – and the government's failure to address them – have been lost amid current calls for Julian Fantino's resignation.
The beleaguered Veterans Affairs Minister is fending off opposition demands that he step down after the government said last week it was making a six-year, $200-million investment in veterans' mental health, then admitted the money will flow over decades.
But Donald Leonardo, a former soldier and the founder of Veterans Canada, an online network for vets, says the minister's unwillingness or inability to change to the New Veterans Charter is the reason Mr. Fantino must be replaced. "I don't think this is fixable with this minister because of his attitude," Mr. Leonardo said Thursday from his home in Airdrie, Alta.
Last June, MPs on the all-party Commons veterans affairs committee, which is chaired by Conservative MP Greg Kerr, unanimously recommended 14 changes to the much-maligned charter. It was implemented in 2006 and replaced an old system of lifetime pensions for injured vets with one that relies heavily on lump-sum payments.
New veterans say it leaves them inadequately compensated for their sacrifice, and this week the federal government was in court in British Columbia to try to stop a class-action lawsuit launched by soldiers disabled in Afghanistan who say the New Veterans Charter is unconstitutional.
Mr. Fantino responded in October to the veterans affairs committee's report with some positive words, but no definitive promises for when or how most of the recommendations would be implemented. That was a particularly irritating to veterans, Mr. Leonardo said, because some of the proposed changes are contained in multiple previous studies.
Three are particularly critical, he said. They include increasing the monthly payments available to veterans undergoing rehabilitation, treating reservists the same as regular forces when it comes to benefits and support, and making the lump-sum payment for pain and suffering equivalent to the amounts being awarded by the courts in civil liability cases.
"Fire Fantino," Mr. Leonardo said. "Replace him with Kerr. Let's get on with the recommendations."
Even as veterans complain they are not being given the benefits they need, the Veterans Affairs department returned $1.13-billion to the federal treasury that it did not spend in the years since the Conservatives took power in 2006.
It was recently revealed that the department shed nearly a quarter of its work force over the past five years. And the Auditor-General released a report last week saying many vets are waiting months or years to access mental-health disability benefits.
All of which has made Mr. Fantino, who has refused repeated requests for interviews, an easy target for opposition criticism. But it is the New Veterans Charter that has been the ongoing source of frustration for veterans.
Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent issued a statement Thursday saying it is essential that federal decision makers understand the urgency of targeting money to address the charter's deficiencies. "Support to veterans is not a theoretical exercise," he said. "There are real veterans out there, with real needs that need action now."
Brian Forbes, chair of the National Council of Veterans Associations in Canada, which represents 61 member organizations, agrees that lack of action on the New Veterans Charter is a major irritant. "The government doesn't seem to react in any meaningful way to things that are truly significant to the veterans community," he said.
Frank Valeriote, the Liberal who sits on the veterans affairs committee, said, "We were all expecting for there to be some meat in their response" to the recommended changes to the charter. But the word veterans does not appear in the Conservative government's fall economic update, Mr. Valeriote said.
And Peter Stoffer, the New Democrat on the committee, said many of the recommendations could be put into effect immediately. The government is simply promising more study, he said. "That's why so many veterans are [ticked] off with these guys."
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