That, in the opinion of the House, a standalone covenant of moral, social, legal, and fiduciary obligation exists between the Canadian people and the government to provide equitable financial compensation and support services to past and active members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been injured, disabled or have died as a result of military service, and to their dependants, which the government is obligated to fulfil.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for .
I am pleased to rise in the House to address today's NDP motion calling on the government to formally recognize the existence of a stand-alone covenant of moral, social, legal and fiduciary obligation between the Canadian people and the Government of Canada to provide equitable financial compensation and support services to past and active members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been injured or disabled or have died as a result of military service and to their dependants.
Canada's New Democrats recognize this social covenant as the foundation of a respectful relationship between our government and our veterans. When the Conservatives deny this sacred obligation, they undermine the relationship with those who have fought for all of us. We call on all parliamentarians to stand up for veterans by supporting this motion.
To begin, I would like to thank my hon. colleague from for the tremendous work he has done, and continues to do, on behalf of Canada's veterans and their families. His tireless efforts championing the needs of our brave men and women are unrivalled and deserve the recognition of all members of the House.
Our country has a long history of standing up for the rights and freedoms that Canadians hold dear. The men and women who join the Canadian Armed Forces know they may be called upon to risk their lives on behalf of Canada to uphold peace, security or human rights here at home and around the world. For those who answer the call, we honour their service and are grateful for their personal sacrifices, including those sacrifices made by their families.
The social covenant with veterans was first openly recognized in our country by Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917. He said:
The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.
This historic covenant acknowledges that our nation and its government and citizens will support our men and women in their missions, honour their service and look after them and their families when they are injured, they are disabled or they die in the service of our country.
New Democrats recognize the covenant between the Canadian people and the government to provide equitable financial compensation and support services to past and active members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been disabled or have died as a result of military service and to their dependants, which in turn the government is obligated to fulfill. Yet rather than recognizing the covenant, the Conservative government continues to do damage control rather than live up to its obligation to veterans. It has made piecemeal funding announcements that only apply to a limited number of permanently injured veterans while so many more remain unserved.
While all parties voted for the new veterans charter in 2005, the Conservatives have implemented it in a way that denies essential pension and support services that veterans deserve.
In response, the veteran's group Equitas is suing the government, claiming this change in benefits violates the covenant that exists between the government and veterans. Shockingly, the government's own lawyers claim no such covenant exists despite modern legislative and constitutional legal precedent otherwise.
Let me quote directly from Equitas' statement of claim against the government, as I believe it lays out the foundation for why formal recognition of this sacred covenant is so important. It says:
When members of the Canadian Forces put on the uniform of their country they make an extraordinary personal commitment to place the welfare of others ahead of their personal interests, to serve Canada before self and to put themselves at risk, as required, in the interests of the nation. A veteran, whether regular or reserve, active or retired, is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank cheque made payable to “the Government of Canada,” for an amount of “up to and including their life.”
Military experts and veterans' advocates agree with New Democrats that the government must honour its moral, social, legal, and fiduciary obligation to Canada's veterans and their families.
For instance, the Royal Canadian Legion, representing more than 300,000 members, “...firmly believes this country has a solemn obligation owed to our military members” and states that:
...the Veterans Bill of Rights must be included in the New Veterans Charter and in the Pension Act, and that a modified version of the section 2 of the Pension Act be incorporated into the New Veterans Charter, and read as follows:
The provisions of this Act shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized solemn obligation of the people and Government of Canada to provide compensation to those members of the forces who have been disabled or have died as a result of military service, and to their dependants, may be fulfilled.
Further, when asked at the veterans affairs committee whether she believes the government has an obligation to honour this sacred social covenant, Dr. Stéphanie Bélanger, of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, testified:
There is a social covenant and this is what started the research institute. ... There is lots of evidence of that social covenant existing in every country where the government will task people with a clause of unlimited liability, and because of this clause there is an obligation to serve back.
Tragically, in spite of the compelling case made by veterans' advocates, after nine years of Conservative government, too many veterans and their families still cannot access adequate health care, pensions, and vital supports.
In Veterans Affairs budgets, $1.13 billion has been returned to the federal treasury since 2006—over $1 billion. That is shocking. This money should have gone toward improved benefits and services for veterans and their families. Veterans and their families are dealing with the closure of nine front-line Veterans Affairs offices and a reduction of more than 900 jobs from Veterans Affairs since 2009, amounting to 23% of the department's workforce. That is unacceptable.
Canadian Forces veterans and their families deserve our deepest gratitude and deserve to be taken care of. Injured and disabled veterans should not have to fight the government in court for the compensation and care they rightly deserve. Canadians expect parliamentarians to ensure that our veterans and their families are well cared for from the moment they sign up to the moment they pay the ultimate sacrifice. That care includes a dignified funeral and burial.
If the Conservatives are serious about improving veterans' care, they will stop fighting veterans in court and recognize this historic social covenant to provide comprehensive and compassionate care for the brave men and women who have served on our behalf. They would also not have hastily included the entirety of Bill in their latest budget implementation act in a cynical move to force the opposition to vote against legislation it would support if it were presented as a stand-alone bill. As well, we would have attempted to improve it on behalf of veterans and their families.
This move underscores the political games the Conservatives are playing with veterans' issues, and it is exactly why today's motion is so important.
It is Canada's New Democrats who have led the way on proposals to improve the programs and services available for veterans and their families. An NDP government would end service pension clawbacks. We would reopen shuttered Veterans Affairs offices. We would widen access to quality home care, long-term care, and mental health care services.
Today we repeat the call for the government to repair our country's relationship with our veterans to one that is based on respect, rather than neglect, by supporting our motion to recognize this sacred social covenant and taking immediate action to enshrine it.
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from for moving this motion in the House and giving us an opportunity to talk about veterans and the fate the government has in store for them.
That fate is not always an enviable one . As several reports over a period of more than a decade have consistently shown, the new veterans charter contains elements that are unjust. The House adopted the new charter in 2006, but it is very flawed.
Even at that time in the House, we were talking about how the charter had to be adopted so that the government could look after modern veterans properly. The pension system was designed mainly to help veterans of long-ago wars. When the House adopted the new charter, we said that it had to be a living document that would evolve. At the time, we already knew it had some problems and would have to be improved as problems arose.
Unfortunately, the government did not do a very good job because only one measure has been adopted in the House since. The new announced a few measures recently, but they are essentially half measures that were introduced in Bill . I will come back to that a little later.
Two or three years ago, when the House was doing nothing to improve this new charter, veterans in British Columbia had to go to court in order to defend their rights, as other groups have had to do as well. They had to turn to the courts to show Canadians that when soldiers are injured while serving Canada, Canada does not do enough to take care of them. It is scandalous.
In a case backed by Equitas Society, they went to court because the veterans said that the pension system used to be more generous and took better care of injured veterans. They used reports to clearly illustrate that when veterans are injured, they get lump sums and pensions that are not big enough. What is more, if a soldier is injured in combat and does not have a pension, at age 65 he or she ends up with nothing. A number of troubling things like that have come up over the years. Equitas Society ended up going to court to call on the government to take better care of veterans and give them better compensation.
To block this class action suit, the government's lawyers had the audacity to tell the court that the government had no moral, sacred, fiduciary or legal obligation to take care of veterans. That was nonsense. This is the fist time since World War I and the days of Sir Robert Borden that anyone has dared to say that the government has no obligation to take care of our injured veterans. Obviously our veterans were outraged.
Two years ago, when the minister and the government were asked repeatedly to refute the arguments of the lawyers in charge of this case, there was radio silence. The minister let the case move forward with that argument, which raised the ire of a number of opposition members and, obviously, of the veterans themselves, because it makes no sense. No government is so indecent that it would deny its sacred obligation to look after veterans.
When soldiers undertake to serve Canada, they also agree to put the nation's interests before their own. They agree to risk their lives. They agree to go into battle without the certainty that the country and Canadians will look after them and their families. That is completely absurd. We strongly condemn this situation, and that is why my colleague moved this motion.
Instead of fighting it out in the courts and opposing this class action suit, the government should have made appropriate improvements to the new veterans charter and at least responded to all the recommendations made by the committee nearly one year ago. These recommendations are not new as they have been raised many times before.
The new minister is only announcing half measures. One of the committee's recommendations was to include the sacred, moral, fiduciary and legal obligation to properly care for veterans. This was ignored by the government, which did not agree to this recommendation even though it said it would accept it.
Recently, my colleague from asked the minister several times whether the government recognized this obligation. Once again, there was nothing but radio silence. The government refuses to recognize the sacred obligation to properly care for veterans. It is mind-boggling that the government continues to behave this way. We had to move this motion today to force the government to commit to fulfilling this moral obligation. I would like to once again thank my colleague from for moving this important motion because it will allow us to see where the government stands on this issue. Will it once again simply pay lip service to this issue and attack the opposition?
Because of the many questions we have asked in the House, the government accused us of voting against the $5 billion it claimed to have invested since taking office. The Conservatives said it again not so long ago before they were caught red-handed. They did not invest $5 billion, since over $1 billion was returned to the public treasury. What is more, they are firing nearly one-quarter of the front-line staff who take care of our veterans, they are closing regional offices, and they are not consistently using the whole budget even though, as I mentioned, our veterans are not receiving sufficient compensation for injuries. Veterans receive less compensation than other people working in the public and private sectors. It is an ongoing battle for many of them to have their rights recognized, and now they have to deal with a shortage of staff.
The minister acknowledges that the budgets were cut too much in recent years, since the case managers were overburdened and the government is now having to backtrack and hire 100 new people to process veterans' files. There was a ratio of 40 veterans to one case manager, which was far too high. These case managers were not able to provide proper assistance to the veterans, follow up and fill out paperwork. There is often a large number of forms to fill out. The paperwork is never-ending, even if the veteran is an amputee, as we recently saw. An amputee was asked the following year to confirm that he was still an amputee. Veterans are swamped with forms to fill out, and the unspoken objective is to discourage veterans so they will stop filling them out. That makes no sense, when there are not enough case managers to pick up the slack.
The government needs to stop playing politics and stop accusing the opposition of playing politics when the government is the one doing it. The government must support this motion to improve the new veterans charter. We can put an end to the Equitas case by supporting our veterans and giving them appropriate compensation. That is what the government needs to do in this case.
Mr. Speaker, it is always a distinct honour to rise in the House to speak on any issue for the riding of Durham, which I represent. Since the beginning of this year, January, it has also been my profound honour to rise in the House as Canada's Minister of Veterans Affairs. It is a huge responsibility for anyone to serve those who have served us, veterans and their families. It is a responsibility I take very seriously and I appreciate the 's confidence in me.
It is very special to me as well because I joined the Canadian Armed Forces at 18 and spent 12 years serving Canada, the highest form of public service, in a place full of public servants. Like so many veterans I meet, shortly after hanging up my uniform, I tried to help my comrades and support veteran families the best I could, including here in Parliament. Therefore, I want to thank the member for for bringing the broader issue of our obligation to veterans to the floor of the House of Commons today. It is not spoken about enough in this place. It is also good to see that the member is passionate on public policy items beyond shark fin soup. This is a very substantive piece that I am glad he brought forward.
It is always important to discuss the needs of our veterans in the House. I have spoken many times about our men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces and our veterans in the three years that I have been here as a member. All of us, as members, must work to make sure we are meeting the needs of our veterans, today and in the future. That is our duty.
Almost seven weeks ago, if I recall correctly, I was very proud to bring Bill to the House for consideration, which has a profound set of modernizations to the new veterans charter. This appears to be the first formal response from the New Democratic Party to this substantive bill. I am a little surprised it has taken it so long to comment substantively on this, but I am glad it is before us, nonetheless.
Our government inherited the new veterans charter, introduced and brought forward by the last Liberal government and then implemented by our government since 2006. Like any substantive change to the delivery of benefits and programs, it needed updating and there needed to be some gaps fixed. In 2011, our government proceeded to fix one of the larger gaps by creating the permanent impairment allowance supplement to support, in an additional capacity, the most seriously injured; and Bill , the support for veterans and their families act, recognizes that there were also a number of key measures that needed to be addressed.
While all members of the House at that time, in 2005, voted for the new veterans charter—it is a very good approach to wellness, transition, and support for veterans and their families—it did emerge that there were critical gaps noted by several groups, the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, and others, as well as Ombudsman Guy Parent. Bill is meant to address those gaps.
However, there is a lot of work that remains to be done and some gaps that need to be filled, as identified by the Veterans Ombudsman and many other veterans groups, as well as the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Many people weighed in on some of the gaps that had arisen and been recognized in the new veterans charter. Therefore, Bill is our attempt to get the balance right. I publicly thanked the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. As my friend from recently said, it is rare for an all-party committee of Parliament to agree on some recommendations. I want to thank it for that. It was a brief glimmer of taking the politics out of this file, of which I think we need to do more. I am hoping that, over the course of this debate today, we can go back to that brief glimmer moment and try to address substantively what is in Bill beyond just the motion about a covenant that the member brought today.
I am going to go through the substantive additions to getting the new veterans charter correct.
First, the most critical item the ombudsman, Guy Parent, identified, not impacting veterans now but was a real issue for the future, was post-65 income for moderately to severely injured service members. About 1,200 members, men and women, are released each year from the Canadian Armed Forces because of a medical issue.
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the job the translators do. I have been trying to improve my French. I appreciate them being patient with me in that progress.
The RISB, the retirement income security benefit, is a benefit on which we worked. Groups, including the standing committee, identified there was a gap at age 65 for a moderately to severely injured veteran. When the earnings loss benefit ended, an income supplement for veterans while they are transitioning or retraining, for many people who were on that to age 65, there would be a sharp decrease in their income. That was an unintended gap, as I have described it, because the earnings loss benefit was meant as an income replacement while someone was doing job training or re-education. Post-65, it is more of a retirement issue. For those, particularly those injured, who did not have pension time from their time serving with the Canadian Armed Forces, something needed to be done so they did not have a steep drop in income.
Therefore, we introduced the retirement income security benefit, which would mean veterans post-65 would be guaranteed a 70% level of income compared to the year previous, at age 64, from Veterans Affairs. That would provide certainty for veterans and their families in their future, in their retirement years. It would give them that security and peace of mind.
Another is that it will have survivability to the spouse beyond 65. The old pension act does not. The exceptional incapacitation allowance did not have such survivability to a surviving spouse beyond age 65. Therefore, it is enhanced and better addresses the gap identified by the ombudsman a couple of years ago and again last year in the standing committee report.
We also introduced the critical injury benefit, which is still mischaracterized radically by people in the House. I urge the hon. members to actually look into the details. This was not meant to be a benefit that applied to all 700,000 veterans in Canada. It was another benefit earmarked for seriously injured veterans. In particular, it would address circumstances where a veteran was critically hurt, in Afghanistan for instance. I know the NDP members know of a case that is similar to this, where someone went through traumatic injury, hospitalizations and major surgeries, but because the disability award, the so-called lump sum, which is not the only thing seriously injured veterans get, by the way, as our friends still like to imply, was assessed once the individual recovered, the disability award was very low.
The critical injury benefit recognizes and compensates pain and suffering related to that trauma and the period of recovery. It is another gap that we have closed.
We also introduced the family caregiver relief benefit. I worked very closely with military veterans families since I left the military, long before I became a member of Parliament. We all know the incredible strain on the family that a serious injury causes. We need to do more, and our government has done more in recent years by expanding counselling for family members affected by post-traumatic stress or operational stress in the home. More recent, we doubled that. We have allowed families to continue to access the important military family resource centres after their family members leave the military.
The caregiver relief benefit helps the most seriously injured members, who in many cases will have contract care in their home for which Veterans Affairs pay. However, we all know that for the spouse, partner or the adult child, it is a 24/7 job. This allows some respite, with almost $8,000 a year, tax free, to be used to get additional support. It might be to fly in family members so they can recharge their batteries or help with family life.
Over time, I see us doing even more because the new veterans charter actually has programming for families, unlike the old pension act, which did not really have programming and did not anticipate the wellness needs.
Also, beyond Bill , we have expanded the eligibility for hundreds more veterans in the permanent impairment allowance category. PIA is a lifetime benefit. I have also said that I want to wrap the permanent impairment allowance, its supplement and the retirement income security benefit into a lifetime pension for our most seriously injured. We are moving that way. After years of howling, I do not hear anything from opposition. We are making progress, and I do not hear substantive questions on that front.
I have also ensured that we show the respect our reserves deserve, to ensure that class A and class B reserves have the same access to earnings loss benefit as class C and regular force members do. If they are serving their country, they will get that income replacement and vocational rehabilitation up to $75,000 per person, if they are injured.
I have also announced in recent weeks that over 100 case managers will be targeted to specific areas of need, with flexibility built into the system, and a combination of at least 100 more benefit adjudicators to get through the backlog, and we do have a backlog. The Auditor General recognized that, and we are acting on this.
Critically, what is in Bill , which the hon. member who brought forward this motion seems to ignore, is a purpose clause. His motion today about an obligation is in many ways a purpose clause. We have a far superior and advanced clause in , which he apparently either does not know or glossed over. In fact, it reads:
The purpose of this Act is to recognize and fulfill the obligation of the people and Government of Canada to show just and due appreciation to members and veterans for their service to Canada. This obligation includes providing services, assistance and compensation to members and veterans who have been injured or have died as a result of military service and extends to their spouses or common-law partners or survivors and orphans. This Act shall be liberally interpreted so that the recognized obligation may be fulfilled.
Many of my colleagues, and I do consider my colleagues friends on this, talk about sacred obligation, solemn obligation. The obligation is clearly written in Bill . In fact, this motion does not even suggest that it should be liberally construed. In fact, the members have not even followed the guidance the standing committee offered last June. Recommendation 2 from the standing committee said that the provisions of this act should be liberally construed and interpreted to recognize solemn obligation.
I am glad my friend brought this motion today, even though it is flawed and would not go as far as Bill . I am happy to say I will be supporting my friend's motion today. However, I and the government urge him to dig a little deeper to see that the purpose statement, the obligation spelled out in Bill , would go much further and would accord with what the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs recommended last June. His motion would not.
This purpose clause came as a result of looking at what the standing committee produced. It came as a result of talking to veterans groups and veterans organizations. That is what led to the support for veterans and their families act.
At the outset I referred to this. My first day in the House as minister I quoted Sir Robert Borden and the obligation we owed, since Borden's time in 1917, when he first articulated it to our veterans. He termed the line “just and due appreciation that we owe our veterans“. In fact, we have used his language to show the connection from 1917 to today of this obligation. I have termed the obligation “a tremendous obligation”. Whether we call it “solemn”, “sacred”, “tremendous”, it will be enshrined in Bill , which I hope the hon. member looks into further, and gets behind and supports.
I will support what the NDP has brought to the floor today, but I would ask that it go further and join with us and pass Bill quickly through the House. I included it in the budget implementation act in case the political gamesmanship continued on this file, because I made a solemn, sacred pledge to our veterans to ensure that these reforms and new benefits would pass before July, and they will.
Important to note is that from Borden's time to today we have an obligation that is living in the new veterans charter. The veterans charter is intended to be living, and Bill breathes new life and new reforms into the new veterans charter brought forward by the Liberals in 2005, implemented and updated in 2011, and updated again before the House now.
The care and benefits of veterans are not frozen in time to 1917. In fact, the Pension Act that emerged after World War I then led to the creation of Veterans Affairs Canada after World War II. Therefore, Borden's obligation predates my department. That is how historic it is. However, in Borden's time there was very little done. In fact, Sam Sharpe, the MP for Ontario North, who was a member of Borden's caucus, died as a result of PTSD in World War I. He was the only sitting MP re-elected to the House in World War I. Mental injuries from service were not even recognized back then.
We have come a long way. The money we are committing and the programs we are delivering in mental health care shows that we have an evolving commitment to meet our needs for our veterans now and in the future. We are doing more for families, for mental health, for alternate therapies such as equine therapy, assistance dogs and service dogs. Those programs were not delivered in the 1950s. We also have the my VAC account. We are doing home visits. Those were not conducted in Borden's time.
This is a positive obligation on the government to constantly ensure we look to the future to meet the needs, the medical programming and the benefits that veterans, their families and their children need. However, we need to recognize that it is an obligation, but not to be frozen in the way it was delivered in 1917 or 1950. I think all members of the House know what progress we have made in many areas of physical and mental rehabilitation for our veterans and their families. We owe it to them to use the new veterans charter as a living document, to use the obligation that we are talking about today, the obligation enshrined in Bill , which we have specifically said should be liberally construed, owing back to the recommendation of George Hees, a minister in the 1980s, to give veterans the benefit of the doubt.
I want to make that even easier. Let us make it easier to get to yes for the veterans. Let us look at new programming that would get them well, back to work and able to support their family members. That is what is in Bill . Therefore, I truly hope the opposition members, by raising the purpose provision of the bill, the obligation, which is very important, it is a principle, dig a little deeper and look at the benefits, programs and reforms we are rolling out to ensure we meet that obligation. Otherwise, it is just talk and posturing.
I will constantly remind the opposition critic for the NDP, who I met when I was a young officer at a base in his riding, that he is the only member of the standing committee who voted for the new veterans charter. He has had since 2006 to bring something like this to the House, but it is here six weeks after we introduced, Bill , the most substantive veterans' legislation in a generation. Let us move past the politics, let us get behind Bill , and pass it.
Mr. Speaker, today's motion should not be one that has to be brought forward by the opposition. It is a travesty that the current Conservative government has ignored veterans for the length of its nine years in government to the extent that we are here still, in the dying days of a Parliament, asking the Conservatives to finally give our Canadian Forces veterans their due for accepting unlimited liability in the face of various conflicts and wars. In the shadow of the First World War, Sir Robert Borden made a covenant with those Canadians who fought, that their government would support them. On the eve of Vimy Ridge, he told Canadians:
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 not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done.
The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.
Those soldiers accepted unlimited liability on behalf of their country, and the government assured them with the words made true by Colonel John McCrae that their sacrifice would not be in vain. Yet, our current seems to believe that appreciation of service to Canada ends once his camera crew is done with the necessary shots for this week's 24 Seven.
From its beginning a century ago, 625,825 Canadians fought in the First World War, a total of 61,082 never returned home, and 154,361 were wounded. In the Second World War, more than one million served, 42,042 died, and 54,414 were wounded. In Korea, 27,751 Canadians served, 516 giving the ultimate sacrifice, while 1,072 suffered injuries. Thousands have served as peacekeepers, and more than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan.
Most of us watched as each of the 158 Canadians who died returned home. The thousands who were injured with wounds both visible and invisible are our neighbours, co-workers, friends, and family. These men and women and their families did incredible things that many of us here will never understand, because we have not had to face the rigours of combat or the terror that we or someone we love might not come home.
I have been fortunate, since being asked to take on the role of Liberal veterans critic, to meet with and speak to many men and women who have served this country, and the men, women and children behind them here in Ottawa and across the country. Last week I returned from the Netherlands with the , where I was fortunate to speak with many of the veterans who were there at the liberation 70 years ago.
These Canadians received a warm reception from the Dutch, not just those who had been there during the Second World War but their children and their grandchildren. In Groesbeek, we marched for over an hour side by side. I was at the front with a number of others from the Canadian delegation, the , and the mayor. As we approached the cemetery, I turned around, and there were 3,000 others still behind us, Dutch and Canadian alike, who were in lockstep as we moved in memory of those who had sacrificed to accomplish the liberation of the Netherlands and those throughout Europe and the Pacific who had brought about the end of the war.
I was struck by something when we arrived at a monument as we were walking. There was an inscription on it, which roughly translated from Latin, stated: “We live in the hearts of friends for whom we died”. Truly, we who live on are stewards for these brave souls. When another Canadian is willing to lay down his or her life for us, we are stewards for what comes next.
It is not enough that their memory lives on. We are responsible to make sure that not only the legacy of these brave women and men is preserved, but also their standard of living and that their families.
Gathering at these monuments is one thing. Reading the words and being moved by them is one thing. However, acting is a whole other thing.
There is another side of this coin. There are those whose battles with the enemy are done but whose battles with the Conservative Government of Canada are just beginning. Take Jennie Migneault, for instance, another person with whom I have been so fortunate to speak since taking on this role. We were more than prepared to send her husband off to fight on our behalf, but when he came back and his PTSD made life difficult for him and their family, the current government did not provide the necessary resources for them to confront their new reality. In fact, she famously had to pursue the ' predecessor down a hall, and she still could not get a hearing. A government that has figuratively turned its back on the very veterans who served it quite literally rushed past the families left in the wake of its disastrous inaction.
Over the course of the current government, Veterans Affairs Canada has frankly been in crisis. Information published by the department clearly demonstrated that it lacked adequate staffing to deliver the services necessary to meet the needs of veterans and their families. In his message introducing last year's Veterans Affairs Canada report on plans and priorities, the ' predecessor himself wrote of the complex and changing needs of our veterans and said that the department's processes must change for veterans so that they can better access benefits and services. That very same report highlighted that the first risk to the department is that “[t]he modernization of [Veteran's Affairs Canada's] service delivery model will not be achieved as expected, and will not meet the needs of Veterans, Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families”.
Worryingly, despite this advice, Treasury Board of Canada data on the population of the federal public service showed, as of last year, that 949 full-time equivalents had been cut since 2008, approximately 25% of the Veterans Affairs Canada workforce. All that is to say that last fall, Veterans Affairs Canada was at its lowest staffing level since 2000. The Conservatives may have recently tried to replace 100 positions, but that is only a tiny fraction of the 900 front-line staff they cut, and even then, many of them are just part-time. The Conservatives try to say that they are putting resources into new services, but there is nothing the current government has done to back that up. Closing the gap is beyond them.
On April 23 of this year, the Veterans Ombudsman observed at committee that while these announcements might contribute to closing the gap, “The announced changes do not encompass all that is needed for veterans”.
It is programs like disability and death compensation and the health-care program that have suffered the most significant cuts under the current government. It is the current government that has squandered $1.13 billion in funding for the department since 2006. It is the current government that could not find a dime for veterans, because those billions of dollars it let lapse, that it clawed back, went to falsely balancing its books in this election year. There are veterans coming forward and applying for programs that are understaffed and underfunded, while the Conservatives seem a little too busy getting the camera angle right.
A benefit delayed is a benefit denied, and as long as the Conservative government continues, it appears that the government is in the business of denying benefits.
In his report this fall, the Auditor General illustrated that one veteran in five is forced to wait up to eight months for mental health assistance, and Veterans Affairs Canada is largely unconcerned with “...how well veterans are being served and whether programs are making a difference in their lives”. The inability to provide adequate mental health services to these veterans is a greater threat to past and present Canadian Forces members than any enemies we have faced recently in the theatre of battle. In the same period of time we were engaged in Afghanistan, 160 died by suicide. That is just the ones we know about. As long as the current government continues to blindly accept incomplete data, which is skewed by leaving so many people out of the count, we will never know the true impact.
The faces at the helm of Veterans Affairs Canada may have recently changed, but the song remains the same. These men and women deserve more than a PR campaign to convince them that everything is going to change.
We owe a great deal to the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces who are willing to accept unlimited liability and to sacrifice everything, including their lives. We owe a great deal to their families who are left behind to pick up the pieces and continue their lives without a father, mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter.
The government is not delivering, and it is in large part because it does not believe it has more than a political duty to pay lip service to those very serious words of prime minister Sir Robert Borden, whom I quoted earlier. Until it is truly willing to fully embrace that duty to veterans, that sacred covenant, nothing it does can be taken in good faith.
For our part, the Liberal Party of Canada has clearly indicated its support for a social covenant with Canadian veterans. At our last policy convention, Liberal members passed a resolution confirming its commitment to the successive generations of Canadians who have served their country honourably as members of the Canadian Armed Forces. They know that service in the Canadian Armed Forces requires those men and women to make a personal and grave commitment to put their lives on the line on behalf of their fellow citizens and that they may be called upon to risk their lives anywhere in the world that we in Canada deem it appropriate they do so.
Liberals know that military service is a burden borne not only by the service member but by their families, as evidenced by the countless sacrifices made to ensure the success of Canadian Armed Forces missions. The only sacrifice the Conservative government seems to know when it comes to service missions is having to take down its propaganda videos once they have endangered the safety and security of our special operators, as we saw in the past weeks.
The Conservative government's approach to veterans' policy demonstrates an utter lack of regard for our country's obligation to those who serve on our behalf in the military. Liberals have resolved that a future Liberal government would uphold the principle of this social covenant in its defence of veterans policies and would present a government that would finally live up to Canada's sacred obligation to care for veterans and their families throughout their lives.
A little over a year ago, I travelled to France and Belgium with a delegation to commemorate the 97th anniversary of the battle at Vimy Ridge. As I stood before the monument on Vimy Ridge, overpowered by its immensity as a testament to Canada's sacrifice in the First World War, the enormity of the impact of war was made so clear. Before us stood a memorial to a conflict colossal in its overwhelming effect on the lives of all those who fought and died or who returned and lived and tried to carry on in its wake. The contrast of something so beautiful serving as a reminder of the horror and cost of war was stark.
I have told this story before, but I feel it is important. It is foundational for me and should be for all of us. Early one morning, as the trip drew to a close, I stood alone at Essex Farm Cemetery, on the outskirts of Ypres, where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Guelph native, performed his work as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery. It was here that McCrae's friend and student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, died from wounds sustained in battle. It was here that he composed In Flanders Fields, a poem we all know, a poem that just celebrated its 100th anniversary. I had heard the words hundreds of times, worn the poppy every Remembrance Day, and now stood between those crosses.
Suddenly I was aware of a small group of Canadian high school students on a similar pilgrimage on the remembrance trails of the First World War. They sat quietly pondering the carnage upon the surrounding fields 100 years earlier and the transformation of those events into words written by McCrae. I listened as they recited the poem, each of three stanzas recited one by one. It was as if I was hearing it for the very first time. Everything was still as the last student recited:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In that single moment, I understood the fundamental truth of our sacred covenant to our veterans. Our solemn obligation cries out that we must not break faith with those who died. Therein lies our sacred obligation: that our commitment to their well-being, their families, and all who return home to tell their stories is bound forever by the sacrifice of those who lived and died on those fields and elsewhere.
We just celebrated the centenary of that poem, yet we seem no further ahead over the last decade than we were when it started. We have had another war to end all wars, cold wars, and other very hot conflicts around the world.
Canada has taken on terrorism, yet somehow it is beyond the current Conservative government's grasp to finally and formally recognize that there exists a stand-alone covenant, including, as the motion says, our moral, social, legal, and fiduciary obligation to the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families.
The current Conservative government could start right now. It could start by adjusting the new veterans charter disability benefits to encompass post-traumatic stress disorder. It could ensure that the amount of money received is fair and not leave veterans feeling that they could have been compensated better if they had been hurt on a job site or injured in a car accident in Canada rather than off somewhere else serving and protecting Canada and Canadians' freedom.
It could start by no longer spending millions of taxpayer dollars fighting veterans seeking benefits in court and instead spend some of those millions bolstering programs that veterans are literally begging for.
It could use some of those millions to rehire any of the full-time front-line personnel it has let go or to reopen the Veterans Affairs centres in communities like Brandon, Manitoba, and Sydney, in Cape Breton.
It could start by acknowledging that the social covenant is, in fact, a sacred obligation and not just political rhetoric.
Every year in November, we see the incredible outpouring of love Canadians have for our friends and families who have served this country. Remembrance Day across the country is observed at schools, at cenotaphs, and in halls. We stand and pause and promise “never again” and say “Lest we forget”.
However, it is not enough anymore. So long as veterans have to fight their government for benefits, we are forgetting. So long as veterans have to convince officials that their legs, which they lost fighting for Canada, have not grown back, we are forgetting. So long as the wife of a veteran has to chase the minister responsible for her husband's care down the hall in Parliament, we are forgetting. We are forgetting so long as we do not finally enshrine our social covenant with veterans and pay it more than lip service.
It is our duty to do more than support the motion. We need to implement it. I know that a Liberal government will but certainly hope we do not have to wait until the fall, for our veterans' sakes.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for .
Today we are debating a very important opposition motion on our obligation to our veterans and soldiers. It is a matter of resolving this issue once and for all. We are giving every member of this House the opportunity to say loud and clear during the vote that they believe that the government, Canada, and the people they represent have an obligation to soldiers and veterans, not only a legal obligation, but a moral, social and fiduciary one as well.
Certain people have been trying to avoid this issue for far too long. It is now time to give everyone the chance to take a clear stand on this issue. Taking care of our veterans should not be a partisan issue. It should be national issue. It involves our commitment as a nation to the people who agreed to risk their health and their lives to serve their country and stand up for Canadian values.
When soldiers agree to go to war, their decision involves a lot more than just lacing up their boots and picking up their guns. By going to war, they are giving the government carte blanche without knowing what is going to happen them. They have an idea of what the mission entails and what the dangers will be, but they never really know what will actually happen. They may never come back. They may lose a piece of themselves that they can never get back. They may be imprisoned, mistreated or tortured. They could lose limbs.
When soldiers agree to go to war, they also accept that they will be missing out on part of their lives here. They may be leaving behind a two-year old child. When they come back six months later, they will have missed out on events in that child's life. There are new technologies today that make communication easier, but these soldiers are still away for a certain period of time and they feel bad about it.
Those who agree to serve their country and defend its flag make enormous sacrifices. That is why, in return, Canadians, and particularly members of Parliament, need to recognize our obligation to them.
Furthermore, soldiers are not paid a millionaire's salary to go to war. They do this work even though they do not earn a fortune because they sincerely believe that it is more important to defend our country's values and freedom. They believe that the government is capable of making good decisions for them with regard to the commitments we make.
I would like to quote Karl Marlantes, ex-U.S. marine, who said:
When the peace treaty is signed, the war isn't over for the veterans, or the family. It's just starting.
Even though this marine is from the U.S., many Canadian veterans have expressed that feeling to me in the past.
In Canada, we train our soldiers to fight and to be the best soldiers. We have excellent soldiers who have a very good reputation and who can handle themselves in extreme situations. They are taught to use their bodies and weapons. However, they are not taught to fight endless battles with red tape, officials and the courts.
This makes no sense. We have people who were taught all their lives to fight, to keep trying and to never give up. However, we try to discourage them and drive them crazy with red tape, legal challenges and endless files. It is just incredible and mind-boggling that over the years a veteran can accumulate a file consisting of three binders that are two inches thick each. People get tired of fighting the system. In combat, an action has an immediate reaction and things happen simultaneously. In contrast, this situation just drags on. It often takes years before a case is settled. Our country has to be able to recognize that we have a moral obligation towards these people, the obligation to not treat them in this way and the obligation to ensure that their case is promptly and properly dealt with. It is unacceptable that peoples' lives are put on hold for many years while a decision is made about whether or not injuries will be recognized, when everyone knows full well that the injuries were sustained in combat. That is not an acceptable way to treat people.
When a soldier goes into combat, he relies on his brothers in arms and has full trust in them. He knows that if something happens they will be there to pick him up, to rescue him and to get him out of there. Unfortunately, many of them have the same perception of their country when they are in combat. They see Canada as a brother in arms that will be there for them if something serious happens and that it will take care of them and their families. They see Canada as an ally and a brother in arms. However, when they return they realize that that is not at all the case and that the country they trusted is abandoning them and making them wait. When someone needs help, a real friend or a real brother in arms is there right away to help. They are there within a few hours to help when things are not going well and when you need someone to talk to. There is an immediate response. Unfortunately, in the cases we are talking about, people wait far too long with no response. They are left on their own and they are bounced back and forth. This is not an acceptable way to treat people.
We also cannot forget the sacrifice made by the spouses, partners and children of members of our military. Behind every soldier is someone who stays at home, takes care of the children, makes sacrifices and experiences unbelievable amounts of stress. They live in fear of not knowing what is going on and have to accept, for example, when their spouse says he has to leave for a period of time, that he cannot really say where or what will happen, but that he loves them very much and hopes he will come back. Imagine the stress. Behind these men there are also women. We also have some form of social obligation to these women and these men who stay at home while their military spouses go on mission. We also have a moral obligation to these families who make sacrifices every day to support people who choose to serve their country. We can never forget that.
In closing, I would remind the House that men and women in uniform often hear ministers, MPs and others giving speeches on military bases. I doubt that any soldier has ever refused to listen to a speech that an MP or minister has given to soldiers. Maybe things should go both ways. When families and military personnel try to talk to politicians, they should not react by fleeing, like the former veterans affairs minister, the member for . On the contrary, by accepting this moral obligation, we also agree to be ready to listen to what they have to say about how we can do a better job of helping them. That is the best way to do things. It is now up to all members of the House to honour that moral obligation.
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to join this important debate today and to stand up for the veterans of our country who were there for Canada when we needed them and deserve our being there for them once they have finished serving.
I want to congratulate my colleague, the member for , for bringing this motion to the House today, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the vast body of work undertaken by the member for , who has been relentless with his work on behalf of the veterans of this country.
Surely most Canadians would agree with New Democrats when we say that we value the work and sacrifice of all Canadians Forces and RCMP veterans, along with those currently serving, in every aspect of the difficult jobs they have undertaken on our behalf. Whether they serve at home or in war or in peacekeeping missions, these individuals distinguish themselves with professionalism and honour at every turn. Sadly, their professionalism and honour have not been reflected in the actions of the government, which has set out to nickel-and-dime veterans while somehow convincing itself that it is being nothing but supportive.
The truth is that under the Conservatives' watch, we have witnessed injured and disabled veterans having to fight their own government in court for the compensation and care they deserve. It has become so bad that during the last few weeks that Parliament will sit, the Conservatives are playing politics with veterans in an attempt to woo back some voters in October. To do this, they have cynically included provisions to assist veterans in the latest omnibus budget bill. It is nothing but an attempt to force opposition parties who support those measures to vote against them when they oppose the larger reckless measures in this massive bill.
I want to make it clear right now that if the Conservatives truly stood behind veterans, they would hive off that section of the budget and bring it for debate as a stand-alone item. I am convinced that if they were to do that, our veterans would be able to witness members of the entire House working together on their behalf. However, the Conservatives do not care about anything more than their political fortunes and are therefore planning to use veterans as a wedge in the October election. In that respect, they are showing even more contempt for our veterans than they have so far, which is really and truly saying something.
In reality, the Conservatives are not serious about making the circumstances of veterans any better. If they were serious about improving the care that our veterans actually receive, they would stop fighting veterans in court and recognize the historic covenant that is the veterans charter.
What our veterans deserve is a government that is willing to work with them and respect them, a government that wants to hear their stories and find ways to repair the damage that has been done. Instead, veterans are getting some last-minute attention from a government that up until now has made it seem as if the country they served so proudly has abandoned them.
What has to change is the way the Conservatives view the Department of Veterans Affairs. They need to understand that Veterans Affairs should be run in such a way that veterans and their families are well cared for from the moment members sign up until to the moment they pass away, including being given a dignified funeral and burial. It may sound inconceivable to some Canadians that we have to stand in this place and fight for these things, but that is the sad state of affairs that defines the relationship between our veterans and our government.
In fact, it is so bad that after nine years of Conservative rule, too many veterans and their families still cannot access adequate health care, pensions, and other vital supports. Despite those challenges, the Conservatives have gone ahead and closed nine front-line veterans affairs offices. I am sure most people understand that Canadian Forces veterans and their families deserve our deepest gratitude and deserve to be taken care of. Closing the front-line offices these people worked with and relied on is no way to do that.
We knew that Veterans Affairs was among the very best of our departments and that when it came to using its resources, it did so efficiently. It was lean and effective and should never have had to deal with the across-the-board budget cuts the government dealt out.
New Democrats said as much at the time, but the government refused to listen. Conservatives have proven time and again that they have a tin ear when it comes to these issues. They would rather fight for budget lines than fight for our veterans.
We have seen this many times, and it has resulted in the Conservatives eliminating more than 900 jobs at Veterans Affairs since 2009. That is a very large number of jobs that have been eliminated, and that is very troubling. This amounts to staff cuts of 23%. These deep and damaging budget cuts show that the government's actions fly in the face of what it says it stands for. That is why many people are wondering if this government really supports our military and our veterans.
Veterans are realizing this. They came to tell us about their problems, and we did what the government is incapable of doing: we listened. That is why the NDP is bringing forward proposals that will improve programs and services for veterans and their families.
The government prefers to play games with its omnibus budget at the last minute. The Conservatives know that they have made life more difficult for veterans, and they hope that the games they are playing with this budget will deceive enough people—