Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Larry Gollner.
The following occurred at a VRAB hearing and was reported by an experienced Legion and CPVA service officer. While we have no doubt that the conduct of this hearing was an anomaly, it was unacceptable and needs public airing. The veteran and his companions asked that we not disclose their personal information, and we have complied.
The opening line of the Veterans Bill of Rights is that veterans “be treated with respect, dignity, fairness and courtesy”. It also used to say “in a timely manner”, but that line seems to have been shortened of late.
In this case, the Veterans Affairs client, as was his right, was accompanied to the hearing on his PTSD condition by his doctor, a psychiatrist, and a service officer. You can judge whether he was treated with respect, dignity, fairness, and courtesy.
Here is what the veteran said about his hearing for a PTSD condition. I quote directly, and when I do so, I will say so. In other cases, I've paraphrased to keep the veteran's message but without his, shall I say, earthy language:
Throughout the hearing I was grilled—not spoken to, but grilled—by the board. I went to get up three times to leave, but my doctor and service officer pulled me back into the chair and told me to be quiet.
The board chair stated, “Well, you could have a medical condition, not PTSD”, and began questioning me and making comments about my medical reports, at which point my doctor spoke up, stating that the chair was completely wrong in her conclusions on what type of medical condition I have and her understanding of my condition was not correct. Then he asked her about her medical background, and she answered, “None”, just what she had read up on, so she was trying to act like a medical doctor based on her own medical knowledge, and my application was going to be based on her not having any real medical training.
She questioned me again and again about the death of my infant son, who died from a childhood ailment, but there was some discussion between the doctors on the cause. She said, “Well, what was it?” Did it ever happen, and just how many kids did I have die? Then she decided and said that it was the death of my son that caused my condition, if it even happened, or my imagination. Again my doctor spoke to her about the connections and events, correcting her on her conclusions reached on the medical conditions and detailed reports.
I was treated like a criminal, shown no respect at all, nor did I have a fair chance to explain myself to the hearing. She had made up her mind.
He said that If his doctor and service officer hadn't been there, he would have either attacked them or told them where to go and left.
As I said, in fairness to the VRAB, this hearing was likely an anomaly, but this case is but one example that lives forever on the Internet. These cases have a serious impact on the VRAB's credibility in the veterans community writ large, because they take prominence over much of the good work that is done.
Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to appear in front of your committee. I am pleased to be able to speak to you this afternoon on behalf of our dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, Mr. Gordon Moore, and our over 330,000 members and their families. The Royal Canadian Legion is well situated to provide advice regarding recommendations that could improve the current Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
The Legion is the only veteran service organization that assists veterans and their families with representation to the board. We have been assisting veterans since 1926 through our legislative mandate in both the Pension Act and the new Veterans Charter. Our 22 professional service officers located across the country provide free representation for veterans who are not satisfied with the decisions about their claims for disability benefits from Veterans Affairs. Please note that you do not have to be a Legion member to avail yourself of our services. Our national service officer network provides representation at all three levels of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board: the review, the appeal, and the request for reconsideration. Through the legislation, the Legion has access to service health records and departmental files to provide a comprehensive, yet independent, representation at no cost. Last year, our service officers presented 265 reviews, 85 appeals, and 15 requests for reconsideration. As director of the service bureau, I have sat on about 150 cases before the board.
The Legion believes that the Veterans Review and Appeal Board does have a critical role to play in ensuring that all veterans and their families receive the benefits they are entitled to as related to their injuries attributable to their service to Canada. However, the government does have an obligation to ensure that veterans have access to a fair and transparent adjudication process. Our veterans have been injured in service to our country; they deserve to be treated fairly and with respect, and they must trust the process.
The VRAB provides an independent avenue of appeal for disability benefit decisions made by Veterans Affairs. The fact that half of the cases reviewed at the board's review level and a further one-third at the appeal level are varied in favour of applicants attests to the need for an independent administrative tribunal that the veterans can turn to when they are dissatisfied with decisions. Specifically, in the 2010-11 period, the VRAB issued approximately 3,500 review decisions, about 50% of which were varied, and 974 appeal decisions, about 33% of which were varied. This high ratio of decisions that are varied by the VRAB cannot be looked at in isolation of the department or the first application.
Why is the variance ratio so high? The application process is not complex, but it is not as simple as saying that I was injured during my service. It's an evidence-based system that requires proof that the injury or disability arose out of, or was directly connected to, service, and the onus is on the veteran to show how that the injury or disability is related to their service and the performance of their duties.
The burden of proof is very high. There may be an incomplete diagnosis or an incorrect diagnosis. Medical information such as X-ray reports, CT scans, pulmonary function tests, physical fitness tests, your unit employment record, accident reports, boards of inquiry, witness statements, etc., are all required, especially in complex cases that go before the board. The Legion is concerned that more and more veterans are being encouraged to submit applications online or at Service Canada outlets. I'm not sure that this is going to improve the situation.
How will they be counselled or assisted with ensuring a complete application package? This is not a passport application package in which an error or a piece of missed information simply results in the package being returned. An unfavourable or incomplete decision creates a negative atmosphere and an untrusting environment. The approach or culture that “if you are injured, we will look after you” seems to have disappeared. The burden of proof is too high.
The most misunderstood part of the process is the application of the concept "benefit of the doubt". Section 39 of the VRAB Act regarding rules of evidence granted very liberal rules; however, over time this has become a very legal interpretation. The spirit of the legislation has evolved to a workers' compensation insurance approach rather than a social safety net approach.
The legislation states:
(a) draw from all the circumstances of the case and all the evidence presented to it every reasonable inference in favour of the applicant or appellant; (b) accept any uncontradicted evidence presented to it by the applicant or appellant that it considers to be credible in the circumstances; (c) resolve in favour of the applicant or appellant any doubt, in the weighing of evidence, as to whether the applicant or appellant has established a case.
What was the intended spirit of this legislation? Is it liberally interpreted by the VRAB? What are the evidence requirements? What is meant by “every reasonable inference in favour of the applicant”? What does "uncontradicted" mean? Who determines what credible evidence is? The board's own adjudicative guidelines describe in detail the requirement for medical evidence to be considered credible, relevant, and reasonable. It's very instructive and restrictive. Not only is the burden of proof on the veteran, but the evidence requirements are so complex and so restrictive that many veterans can't obtain the type of evidence that is required. They don't have access to the medical professionals and specialists or can't afford to obtain the necessary reports and, therefore, will decline to proceed to appeal when advised of the evidence requirements. The benefit of the doubt clause needs to be reviewed in the context of its original intent and liberal spirit.
The Legion has advocated for several years the importance of the composition of board members with relevant military and operational experience. It's important that members understand the exigencies of service. There are currently 24 members on the board, and according to section 4 of the VRAB Act, there could be no more than 29 members. There are six with military or RCMP experience.
While the board should be balanced, the composition of the VRAB should accurately represent the experience of our veterans. Should the majority of the VRAB members be non-veterans? Do they have the experiential knowledge to review the evidence of complex cases and render a fair and compassionate decision?
The selection process for the board creates an artificial barrier and limits the selection of board members with the necessary and relevant operational experience. The use of the Simulation for the Selection of Executives screening process or tool, or SELEX, which was designed to assess candidates for entry-level executive positions in the federal public service, is a barrier to many Canadian Forces members and veterans who may not be familiar with the leadership competencies of the federal public service; may not have worked at a strategic level and, therefore, not have the competencies, skills, and knowledge to function at the director level; and may not be able to perform well in a simulated environment.
While it is understood that the board members' pay scale and classification are at the executive level, the duties of the board members are not consistent with those of other executives in the public service. The duties of the board members are unique and distinct. The selection criteria should more accurately assess the relevant experience, skills, knowledge, and competencies necessary to fulfill their duties and responsibilities as a board member.
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman's March 2012 report, entitled "Veterans' Right to Fair Adjudication", recommended that decision letters must provide sufficient reasons in support of a decision and provide access to all of the relevant evidence considered by the board in making its decision. The report further recommends that the publishing of all decisions would increase the board's transparency and enable veterans who are preparing appeals to be aware of the evidence requirements similar to their own. Posting all decisions is full transparency.
Lastly, the Legion is concerned about moving towards the use of video conferencing technology for VRAB review hearings. At a board review hearing, veterans have the right to bring forward new evidence, tell their story, and be represented by lawyers from the Bureau of Pensions Advocates or Legion service officers. This is the only time that veterans can present their case to the board. The board can look directly into the eyes of the veteran and the veteran can look directly into the eyes of board members. These members are making a decision that will have a lifelong impact on the quality of life of our veterans and that is at the heart of the social contract between the government and the sacrifice our veterans make to this country.
Yes, there is a cost for hearings in person and time delays with scheduling. However, if these hearings reinforce the trust and transparency in the adjudication process, then let's ensure that the board has the necessary resources to continue hearings across the country. This is the only opportunity for a veteran to be face to face with the adjudicator to tell his or her story, and this is important.
In summary, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board does have a critical role to play to ensure that all veterans and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled. However, the government has an obligation to ensure that veterans have access to a fair and transparent adjudication process. Our veterans have been injured in service to our country. They deserve to be treated fairly and with respect, and they must trust the process.
I also thank you for coming today and for your service to our nation. It was very nice to see you this morning at the launch of the benefits browser, so thank you very much for that.
The Veterans Review and Appeal Board is a board at arm's length from the government, but of course our Conservative government, and I would imagine every Canadian, expects that members of the board would treat veterans with the utmost respect, the highest level of respect, for their dignity and to ensure that every opportunity be fair and to extend the benefit of the doubt is extended to them. That is certainly our expectation, and that is really why we're looking at VRAB through these committee hearings: to understand how we might better serve the veterans, which is our government's number one focus.
You saw some of that through the transformation agenda. The initiative right now has done certain things, such as the plain language initiative. We did the benefits browser today and the My VAC Account last week, but in particular, the plain language initiative is something that I think, Andrea, you're getting at. The plain language initiative was announced a couple of days after the ombudsman came out, and I know that is one of the issues that you've raised in the document you just circulated. Let me just find the page.
It is on page 5 and “recommends that decision letters must provide sufficient reasons in support for a decision and provide access to all of the evidence”. You further recommend that publishing all decisions would be helpful, but you're asking, though, for very plain language to ensure that veterans understand exactly why they have been turned down and what information is still required, and that's exactly what the plain language initiative offers.
Our letters now go out in very simple, straightforward language when a decision is rendered. They enumerate for the veteran why they were approved or why they were turned down or what information is missing. That is already being done as part of the transformation initiative, so thank you very much for highlighting that again.
You both mentioned that you would like VRAB to continue, which is different from what the NDP has brought forward. They have called for VRAB to be completely dismantled.
Could you tell me, in your experience, what types of members the government should look for? What type of experience should they look for when making appointments to VRAB?
My name is Ron Griffis. I am the national president of the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping.
I would like to thank the committee for inviting our organization here today to speak to the committee's interest with respect to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. I have discussed these issues with our organization members, and we have arrived at a consensus, which is what I will be stating.
My background is military—initially infantry, and then military police, civilian police, and 22 years with the judiciary.
The Veterans Review and Appeal Board is a quasi-judicial organization that deals with issues pertaining to Canada's military and RCMP veterans and their requests for benefits. I understand the board has an entitlement of 29 hearing officers, and, in a letter dated September 2011 from Mr. Larlee, the chair of the VRAB, I'm informed there are 24 members. Half of them are based in cities across Canada, where they conduct hearings. I further understand one of the board members is on leave because of illness, and I respectfully suggest that he will not be reappointed when his contract expires.
An organization such as the VRAB must have the ongoing respect of all the participants. As in the military and the RCMP, respect for an organization is paramount. Lack of respect promotes disdain for an organization. I respectfully suggest that for an organization such as the VRAB and their officers to receive respect, they must be considered a truly independent board.
The appointment process for new members of the board may be considered reasonable under the circumstances. Their contract is for a set period. The reappointment process is another matter. I respectfully suggest that to secure reappointment to the board, a member must toe the line.
Part of the reappointment process is the satisfactory assessment of the board member by the chair of the board on the completion of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board member’s professional performance assessment. By any stretch of anyone's imagination, the member quasi-judicial officers who hear cases are not independent.
An understanding of the word “quasi-judicial” denotes or is related to powers and functions similar to those of a judge, such as those exercised by an arbitrator or administrative tribunal. How can an officer of the board be independent when their livelihood depends on the renewal of a contract that is dependent on a report that, in essence, reflects how the quasi-judicial officer performs his or her job?
Administrative tribunals must be free from an appearance of bias; that is, a reasonable person must conclude that an administrative decision-maker is sufficiently free of factors that could interfere with his or her ability to make impartial judgments, commonly known as a “reasonable apprehension of bias” test. This is derived from the natural justice principle, or the right to be judged impartially.
Independence is one important indicator of whether there is an appearance of bias in an administrative body. Although administrative independence is not required to be as strict as judicial independence, there are certain minimum requirements, such as security of tenure and an independent administrative control. However, administrative independence is not guaranteed under the Constitution and can be ousted by statutory language. Once a court has determined that there has been a reasonable apprehension of bias, the decision in question must be void, as there is no remedy for the damage created by the appearance of bias.
It is unheard of that a judicial officer or a quasi-judicial officer is rated as to the quantity and quality of his or her work. It is reasonable to assume that applications to the VRAB will be those of persons who have had life experiences and may have retired from their careers. At this stage of their lives and careers, it is not too much for successful applicants to expect a situation in which they will be comfortable in their employment and not have to be concerned about the reappointment process that may occur every two years or so. The reappointment process can, and will be, a distraction to the VRAB member.
It is respectfully suggested that members of the VRAB be appointed on a permanent basis, with retirement at 75 years of age. As a result of a permanent appointment, there would be a loyal and dedicated appointee who would do their best at all times to enhance the reputation of the VRAB and, by extension, of the ministry of Veterans Affairs. This type of appointment would also satisfy the veterans, as they would observe a quasi-judicial officer who is truly independent in his or her function.
Section 39 of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act deals with the rules of evidence. If I may, I will read section 39:
In all proceedings under this Act, the Board shall (a) draw from all the circumstances of the case and all the evidence presented to it every reasonable inference in favour of the applicant or appellant; (b) accept any uncontradicted evidence presented to it by the applicant or appellant that it considers to be credible in the circumstances; and (c) resolve in favour of the applicant or appellant any doubt, in the weighing of evidence, as to whether the applicant or appellant has established a case.
I make reference to the rules of evidence, taking into consideration the accountability aspect of the VRAB. There is an accountability aspect to the VRAB that presently appears to be non-existent. For example, the hearing rooms are supposed to be open to the public. If I may, I will use in my example the hearing room located in Charlottetown, at Veterans Affairs headquarters. The public does not have access to this room, as per access to other hearing rooms located across Canada. People wishing to attend must identify themselves to the security official in the lobby, sign an entrance form, receive a visitor's badge, and then wait in the lobby until an escort arrives to be escorted to the hearing room that is under lock and key. If the person attending wishes to leave the hearing room for any purpose whatsoever, generally speaking they will not again gain access to the hearing room.
In the reach of procedural fairness rights chapter, chapter 8 of Mullan, Diana Morris indicates that:
—or hearing rooms, my words—
force the decision maker to be more careful and reflective in the ways they act and in the conclusions they reach because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.
At this time I again refer to a letter I received from Mr. Larlee, dated September 2011. He again states:
While our members are trained in assessing all kinds of evidence, they also have access to independent medical advice under the legislation.
I respectfully suggest that this statement tells me that the hearing officer had access to what might be called a “secret witness” who I cannot, as an appellant or applicant, examine or question. Because it is legislated doesn't make it fair and it doesn't make it just. It is just an affront to the veteran applicant and undermines the basic fundamentals of justice. It appears their decision is based on the hearsay evidence of a nameless and faceless person. How can a secret witness determine one man's fate? How would you like that?
To further quote Diana Morris:
Also, affected parties would be more likely to accept the outcome when they participate in hearings versus a decision being made in secret by a faceless and nameless person. Their participation in the decision-making process would involve being able to confront the actual decision-maker. This also contributes to the belief in participation in the democratic process.
How can we have an act, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act, that is not only unfair but grossly unfair to our most vulnerable and damaged citizens as a result of serving their country with pride and honour? How can this be allowed in 2012 in a country called Canada?
The mission statement of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board is flawed. It is, “To ensure fairness in Canada's programs for disability pensions and awards and War Veterans Allowances by providing fair and timely appeals for traditional Veterans, Canadian Forces members and Veterans, Royal Canadian Mounted Police applicants, qualified civilians and their families.”
The current process creates anger, distrust, frustration, and all of that is completely avoidable.
Would you want a nameless and faceless person to determine your fate? Neither would we. We are not asking for a handout; we are asking for fairness in the form of a fair and transparent process. Here is a golden opportunity to make that right.
It is suggested that on a regular basis, the hearing officers fail to apply the doctrine of giving the benefit of the doubt to the veteran. In failing to apply the benefit of the doubt to the veteran, the hearing officer suggests that various notes from medical practitioners, as well as verbal statements from the applicant, are not sufficient to satisfy the board, and therefore they conclude that a case has not been made out.
Going back to section 39, the act states categorically that the board shall—not “may”, but “shall”—accept any uncontradicted evidence presented to it by the applicant. In short, this is a must-do. For the board to state that they do not find the evidence credible in the circumstances is just plain not fair.
The appeal portion of the board must be addressed. When one seeks out the definition of the word “appeal” in the context of the VRAB, various dictionaries refer to a higher authority than the one that a decision is being appealed from. VRAB appeals are decided by people equal in status to those who made the original decision. Taking into consideration that there are only 24 members—and also one on sick leave—it is reasonable that they are friends and colleagues. The question that surfaces at this time is this: on what authority does my colleague of equal status have the right to overturn my decision? What gives him the right to say that I was wrong and he is right? Will friendship play a part in the decision? Will the pending completion of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board members' professional performance assessment play a part in the ultimate decision?
By the same token, if my assessment was poor and my re-engagement hangs in the balance, will this affect my judgment? If my assessment was perfect, will that affect my judgment? Who really knows the answers to such questions?
It is respectfully suggested that an appeal section be created within the board. The board should be staffed by senior long-term members who, by reason of their new appointment to this section, are a step above the regular members, with the appropriate remuneration increase. Their appointment documentation would give them the authority to conduct appeal hearings.
In conclusion, I would be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, veterans, good afternoon. My name is Jerry Kovacs.
Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you for inviting the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans association to this meeting this afternoon to discuss the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Our position, shared by others, is that systemic and decision-making problems at this administrative tribunal are having negative emotional, physical, and financial impacts on veterans and their families.
I represent Mr. George Beaulieu, our president, and I speak on behalf of the executive and members of ANAVETS. I am substituting for Mr. Lorne McCartney, our Dominion Command secretary-treasurer.
ANAVETS was formed in 1840, 172 years ago. Our organization is older than Canada. A royal proclamation signed by Queen Victoria created our first unit in Montreal. The original members of ANAVETS served in the War of 1812, in Wellington’s army, and in the royal navy of the Napoleonic Wars. ANAVETS was incorporated by a special act of Parliament in 1917.
Our 20th century members served in South Africa, World Wars I and II, Korea, and in NATO campaigns, such as that in the former Yugoslavia. In the 21st century, our members have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and peacekeeping missions worldwide.
Presently, although we're smaller than the Royal Canadian Legion, at 15,000 members we are located across the country in seven provinces under seven commands in 68 units.
ANAVETS is a non-partisan organization. Our motto is “Shoulder to Shoulder”. Our members stand shoulder to shoulder in serving their communities, promoting camaraderie, and advancing advocacy issues on behalf of veterans across Canada. Safeguarding and promoting the rights and benefits that veterans have earned and deserve working for Canadians at home and overseas is an important part of our job.
That’s the big picture.
Now permit me to address today’s subject. Why are we here? Our focus today is on the role, responsibilities, and performance of VRAB with respect to serving veterans.
One of our major concerns is the treatment of military personnel who, while on duty, have suffered physical, psychological, and emotional injuries. We believe that the Canadian government has a duty and an obligation to provide the best possible care and support for those injured in the line of duty. VRAB plays an important role in ensuring that injured veterans are treated fairly with regard to their appeals for benefits that have been reduced or denied by Veterans Affairs Canada.
What are the issues? They are numerous.
One is the performance of VRAB. Another concerns appeals of VRAB decisions where not enough information is provided to appellants, where appellants need to know but do not know why their applications have failed, and where appellants should know where adjudicators erred in decision-making.
Third is a review of Federal Court decisions.
Number four is the length and cost of the process to veterans. Anybody who appeals a decision in court has to go through a lengthy process that costs them money and that is sometimes very emotional. It takes up to a year for VRAB decisions and up to three years for appeals to the Federal Court. Veterans can pay as much as $40,000 out of their pocket to appeal their case, because they have to hire a lawyer.
Number five deals with the reasons for the process. Adjudicators should adhere to the legislation, as has already been mentioned by our comrades from the Royal Canadian Legion here. The process should involve a liberal interpretation of the legislation that favours veterans and ensures that the benefit of the doubt is always in favour of veterans.
Number six is the publication of VRAB decisions, which encourages transparency.
Number seven is a review of processes and service standards. That has been discussed.
Number eight involves retroactively compensating veterans at the end of a lengthy appeal process.
Number nine has already been mentioned: veterans representation on VRAB.
Where have these issues been discussed? It is right here, in the Veterans Ombudsman's report dated March 2012: “Veterans' Right to Fair Adjudication”. The work has been done for you, ladies and gentlemen.
What are the recommendations? Quite simply, they're found on page 20. There are seven of them. I'm sure that our good friend Mr. Guy Parent has sent your offices a copy of them. It's a comprehensive report. He even hired lawyers from Ottawa to conduct an objective review of VRAB decisions that have been appealed to the Federal Court.
I'm going to take 10 minutes to say something very simple here. I feel embarrassed.
ANAVETS agrees entirely with these recommendations, which you undoubtedly have had a chance to read during the past six months. We wish to make a number of additional recommendations that reiterate and support those contained in the Veterans Ombudsman's report.
With all due respect to our colleague Mr. Stoffer, we do not believe that VRAB should be abolished. It is a higher quasi-judicial authority that, if it functions properly and effectively, ensures that veterans receive a fair shake.
The same as in the courts, the same as in a civil or criminal court, when judges make good decisions at the lower level, there is less chance of an appeal to a higher level. The same thing applies at the departmental level: good decisions in the Department of Veterans Affairs should result in fewer appeals to VRAB.
VRAB must focus on its purpose and objectives and adhere to its legislative mandate. You've heard numerous references made to the sections of the act that apply; VRAB needs to meet its mandate and meet the same legal requirements as other quasi-judicial administrative tribunals that serve Canadians.
We also believe that a veteran should be on every VRAB panel. I conducted my assessment from the VRAB website, and I looked at the 24 members. Oh, my gosh, what a surprise; quelle surprise. There are seven lawyers, two nurses, two teachers, and no psychologists or psychiatrists, no social workers, no court case workers, no paralegals, no law professors, and no families of veterans. There are lawyers, civil servants, former Conservative politicians, tribunal members, a couple of teachers, and some political advisers and assistants, although it doesn't say for whom they were advisers.
VRAB decisions should be available online to the general public for increased transparency. We do this in our court system. Anybody can walk into a courtroom on Elgin Street or into the Supreme Court of Canada or the Federal Court and observe. Increasing transparency and accessibility should result in better decisions, as was already mentioned.
Appellants must know the reasons for the decisions. They must know how to prepare their cases, what documents are required, and how others are treated in similar situations.
We've heard a little bit about this next point already. We've been pushing VRAB to publish its decisions on its website, and there are some very good reasons that it doesn't want to. VRAB has published 19 decisions on its website this year, because they say that the cost of publishing decisions would be $2 million to $3 million.
Okay. There is an alternative called the Canadian Legal Information Institute, which is funded by the law societies across Canada. They publish legal decisions on their website for free, or my favourite word en français, gratuit. To date, CanLII, for free, has published 189 VRAB decisions on their website.
Therefore any concerns that VRAB has about the cost of publishing decisions are mitigated by the fact that there are some law societies across Canada, CanLII, who are willing to publish all of them—all of them—for free. What a sweet deal. For any of you who are in business, if somebody came to you and offered to do something for you for free to enhance the nature or quality of your business, would you say no?
Our opinion is this: your job is very easy here. Monsieur Guy Parent, the Veterans Ombudsman, has done the work. He's made seven recommendations and conducted an in-depth study of appeals to the Federal Court. All you have to do is say, “Monsieur Parent, thank you very much for all the work you've done on behalf of veterans” and accept his recommendations.
In closing, I'd like to ask a few rhetorical questions.
In 1998, almost 15 years ago, the Auditor General of Canada brought to the attention of the Government of Canada systemic problems at Veterans Affairs. Since then there have been ombudsmans' reports, stakeholder meetings, Veterans Affairs committee meetings, a veterans bill of rights, a new Veterans Charter, and numerous lawsuits, and appeals started by veterans who were denied rights and benefits entitled to them by law.
Why do you need to invite representatives from veterans organizations to your committee meetings to tell you what you already know? Why do you need to invite bureaucrats from the department to fly here from Charlottetown, at taxpayers' expense, to tell you there are problems that you already know about? Why do you need to invite VRAB management to come to Ottawa, when they know what needs to be done but cannot provide you with the information or statistics to prove they are solving problems when you asked them two weeks ago today? Why do individuals such as the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans groups such as ours, who are continually sending email messages and letters and making phone calls to VRAB, need to bring to their attention, and now to yours, systemic problems that everyone is aware of? Why do veterans need to engage in long—years' long—expensive, protracted lawsuits against the Government of Canada to obtain financial awards and benefits to which they are entitled by law? Why, why, why do we need to push and pressure civil servants, who are supposedly working for Canadians and who know their job descriptions and what is going on in their department or tribunal, who are paid to do the right thing—why do we need to tell them? Why is it so hard to do the right thing for veterans and their families?
We are all here, I hope, to serve the best interests of veterans, people who have made significant contributions to Canada and Canadians. Our response should not be to engage in administrative appeals and litigation that involves winning or losing. This is not about winning or losing. Our response should be supporting veterans—all of them, all of the time.
Sometimes I tell people that for many veterans the real war starts when they return to Canada and have to fight their government for disability benefits they are legally entitled to receive. Serving Canada by fighting enemy forces and insurgents overseas in the defence of the freedoms and values we cherish is honourable; coming home and being forced by your government to fight Canadian government lawyers is disgraceful.
In conclusion, we want to know why. You should be asking the same questions: Why has VRAB not been implementing all of the Veterans Ombudsman's recommendations? What does it take for Canadians working at Veterans Affairs Canada and VRAB to get things done and do things for veterans every day?
During an era of federal budget cuts that negatively affect veterans, why is it necessary to force veterans into a position in which they must hire expensive lawyers at the appellate level to fight their government for services and benefits that they are legally entitled to receive?
We are all sitting here around this table, shoulder to shoulder, as Canadians who care about our country and about how veterans are treated. Let’s all work together to ensure that the legal obligations to deliver services and benefits to veterans become a reality.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you both very much for coming.
Ron, thank you very much for your eloquent example of what is going on. You are right; I don't believe that other gentleman will be reappointed when he applies again.
Mr. Kovacs, thank you very much.
You will notice that the veterans bill of rights does not include an article that says you have a right to have your decisions made in a timely manner. I remember that when the bill of rights came forward I suggested this to the government of the day, but I wasn't successful in getting it in there.
Mr. Kovacs, you're right, and Ron and the previous presenter are right, that it could take years for a process to get through to the VRAB. Let me give you an example.
John Doe calls up 1-866-522-2122. He is a veteran. He calls in and says, “I have a problem.” Why can't the person on the phone—hopefully they are not Service Canada or Quantum, a private agency handling calls for DVA now—send someone to that individual's home to say, “Sir, if you are making an application for a benefit, here's what you have to have in order to possibly be successful” and describe all the medical files, all the documented papers, and all of that right from the very beginning.
That doesn't happen. That person has to go through a string of assistants, either through their veterans' organization or BPA or some other group. As you know, many of them don't even pursue it; they just give it up. If they are denied the first time, they just stop.
Is there not a way we can make it much simpler, when the veteran makes the initial call to 1-866-522-2122, to ensure that the person on the phone then says, long before the initial application, “We're going to sit down with you. We're going to help you right from the very beginning to access all the programs and services you need, and we believe that you should have this and this document and that document when you make your initial application”?
Is it not possible to do that, to make it much faster for the veteran, RCMP member, or family member when it comes to applying for a benefit? The status quo just seems to take far too long.