That, in the opinion of the House, the men and women who bravely serve Canada in the armed forces should be able to count on the government for support in their time of need, and that the government should demonstrate this support by (a) immediately addressing the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans by hiring appropriate mental health professionals; (b) reversing its decision to close veterans' offices; and (c) prioritizing and concluding the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides so that grieving families may have answers and closure.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I have the tremendous honour and great pleasure of rising in the House to move an important motion that will allow us to address some serious issues that many veterans across Canada will face as a result of the closure of Veterans Affairs offices. I am also honoured to be sharing my time with the hon. member for . In fact, I would like commend him for all of the hard work he does on the issues facing our veterans. He has been doing this work passionately for many years now, and I must commend him for it.
Getting back to the motion, tomorrow will be the last day of operation for several Veterans Affairs Canada offices. The affected offices are located in Corner Brook, Newfoundland; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Thunder Bay and Windsor, Ontario; Brandon, Manitoba; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Kelowna, British Columbia. These seven offices will close tomorrow—in addition to the Prince George office, which has already closed—if the government does not reverse its decision.
These looming closures, which are happening because the Conservatives do not comprehend the importance of the services offered by the Veterans Affairs Canada offices, will affect nearly 20,000 veterans. They will no longer have access to in-person services with a case manager who is familiar with the services offered by Service Canada and who can help them take advantage of the services they are entitled to. For example, they can have their compensation claims filled out. These services are important to veterans, yet they are having to deal with a government that does not understand that at all. The government does not respect them. Closing these offices will force veterans to travel more than 100 kilometres to meet with a case manager. That means five or six hours of driving in many cases.
For these veterans, having access to in-person services is crucial because they do not necessarily know about all the compensation options and services they are entitled to. Government propaganda is seeking to appease the veterans because they are truly frustrated. They are being told that Service Canada will open 662 offices and will offer them services, but that is not the case. In fact, these offices will only give them access to a computer—when the vast majority of them already have one at home—and a telephone number to call for information.
Contrary to what the government is saying, Service Canada will not offer any services to veterans. That will be tragic for the some 18,000 veterans affected by the closure of these offices. It needs to be said.
This motion is designed to tell the government that our veterans and soldiers have many issues and have lost faith in their government. This week, a group of veterans was welcomed—that word is a bit strong considering they were snubbed—by the . He offered to meet with them but then did not even have the decency to show up. He arrived very late and lashed out at a veteran who did not agree with him about the importance of Veterans Affairs Canada offices. The minister's attitude towards those veterans is indicative of the government's insensitivity towards them.
The hon. member for has received thousands of emails from veterans and soldiers who are fed up with the way the government is treating them. I am sure he can elaborate on that.
There is no question people are angry about the way the government is treating veterans. We ask soldiers to fight for their country, and now they have to fight their own government to access the services and compensation they are entitled to.
Over the past few years, soldiers and veterans have launched several class action suits. There will be more in the future because the government is ignoring their needs.
Closing these offices is a big deal. There will no longer be access to case managers who understand the inner workings of Veterans Affairs Canada. The department is complicated and extremely hard to understand online. The government is telling veterans that they will no longer have access to a person who can tell them what they are entitled to and help them fill out the forms required to obtain those services. That access is being taken away, and they feel discouraged. Many of them will not get what they are entitled to. The whole thing is absolutely scandalous. The way this government is treating our veterans, the country's heroes, is completely unacceptable.
As I said, the attitude exhibited by the this week is yet another example of how the government is abandoning our veterans. It is eliminating many services.
I will have more to say about the psychological services provided to veterans and the shortcomings in that area.
The government is making cuts to services that our soldiers and veterans are entitled to. I pointed the finger at the , but ultimately, I think the Prime Minister's Office and the Treasury Board are the ones responsible. All they have been saying over the past few years is “cut, cut, cut”. They are like headless chickens, or maybe heartless ones, heartless when it comes to veterans. That is how the government treats our veterans. The government is taking away services and compensation they are entitled to. They are being forced to go to court to get what they have a right to. That is absolutely scandalous, and veterans no longer trust the government or the .
The government is closing points of service. Veterans need to meet their case managers face to face for guidance, help and psychological support. Quite often veterans are injured and have a hard time getting the services they are entitled to. During a face-to-face meeting, the case manager might help the veteran fill out forms. This is extremely important. Nearly 20,000 veterans are being denied that service.
Not only does government propaganda suggest that the government is providing 500 points of service, but the Conservatives are saying that they have invested an additional $5 billion since coming to power. That is not true. It is more like $3.5 billion, or thereabouts, that was paid in benefits. Most of that money was additional benefits paid out to the very large number of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. It also includes the roughly $800 million settlement paid out in the class action suit filed by Mr. Manuge on behalf of veterans, a suit that the government lost. Not a lot of extra services are being provided.
Over the past few years, the Canadian Forces ombudsman has repeatedly pointed to the lack of mental health personnel to treat our soldiers and veterans. In 2003, the government announced that roughly 400 people would be assigned to that. For a few years now, we have been short at least 60 people to provide our veterans with mental health care. We have seen the crisis this has caused in the past few months. Our soldiers need psychological support, and this government is simply not doing enough.
Since my time is running out, let me offer some help to my colleagues affected by the closure. I encourage them to support this important motion and to tell the autocrats at the Prime Minister's Office and the Treasury Board that they are on the wrong track when it comes to our veterans. They are heading in the wrong direction.
I invite the members affected by these closures to tell the government that it is on the wrong track and ask it to reverse its decision. This is important for the thousands of veterans across the country.
Mr. Speaker, before I start I want to answer the question from the Conservative MP. If he honestly believes that a new budgetary framework will come in for Veterans Affairs, then it should be introduced in a government bill like it was with Bill , which we fully supported. In lumping this into an overall budget with thousands of other spending items and cuts and everything else, we would have to express confidence in the government. I can assure members it will be a long day before we in the NDP ever express confidence in the government.
Today we heard him talk about a very important motion brought in by my colleague. It is an honour, and at the same time there is a bit of sadness, that we bring this to the floor of the House of Commons. Veterans should not have to fight and struggle to get the benefits they so rightly deserve. They have already fought for this country. It is their country, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of government or opposition, that owes them the ultimate and unlimited responsibility, because they have the unlimited liability. The military, the RCMP, and their families deserve no less.
Let us go over a bit of the track record of the current government. The reality is that it took a five-year lawsuit to settle the SISIP clawback, the insurance payment clawback that was being deducted from disabled veterans. It took a ruling from Judge Barnes. It forced the government into an $888 million lawsuit. If the Conservatives had listened to us many years ago, it would have been settled; there would have been less angst among the members of the veterans community, and it would have saved the government and the taxpayer a lot of money. However, they did not.
Now what happens? They are now taking RCMP disabled veterans to court on the exact same type of issue. There are over 1,200 people in a class action lawsuit against the government right now. They have been asked by the RCMP and their families, by the Royal Canadian Legion, and by us repeatedly, to stop the court proceedings, work with the legal team and the RCMP veterans and give them the respect, dignity and payment they so rightly deserve. Their answer is that they are going to go to the courts.
There is another lawsuit going on, with Equitas, against the government, over certain aspects of the new veterans charter. What did the crown attorneys presenting the case for the government say in that lawsuit? These are smart lawyers. They get their directions directly from the government. They indicated that there is no fiduciary or social moral responsibility for the veterans community; that only applies to the aboriginal community. I am paraphrasing.
The members of the veterans community were outraged when they heard this. I have asked the minister and the government on six separate occasions whether they do or do not have a moral, legal, social and fiduciary responsibility to care for those they put in harm's way. What do we get? Absolute silence.
We should not have been too surprised when we saw what happened the other day. I know the minister, deep down, probably regrets what happened. I am sure that he does. However, the reality is that it happened. This type of conduct has happened with veterans across the country for sixteen and a half years, through ten different ministers and from two different parties. What I witnessed the other day was the lowest of the low. That is why we had no choice. They brought in the so-called Veterans Bill of Rights, which we knew was toothless because there is no punishment. If they break a certain element of the Veterans Bill of Rights, they just say they are sorry and they move on. However, every single day of the year our veterans, RCMP, and their families, deserve the utmost respect, dignity and courtesy.
It is our job, whether in government or in opposition, to listen to their concerns. We may not like what they are telling us. We may not like the manner in which they are telling us. However, we get paid very well, and ministers get paid even better, to listen to those concerns. It is our responsibility. We could not sit here if it were not for the sacrifice of the men and women who put on the uniform, and their families, and that of the RCMP who serve us in Canada.
Veterans have unlimited liability. That means they are willing to risk their lives so that you and I can be here, Mr. Speaker. We, again, have the ultimate responsibility for their needs and that of their families, all the way to and including their headstones.
A while back the government presented a budget and said it was going to spend millions more dollars on the Last Post Fund. However, it did not change the litmus test of who could qualify for that fund. Service members who make $12,000 or less may qualify for proper burials, but those who make over that limit do not qualify. Even though the government put more money into it, two-thirds of the applicants are still denied and the Conservatives refuse to correct that.
On the issue of the closure of offices, I want to tell the people of Canada and the Conservatives right now that when they are kicked out of office in the next election, we in the NDP will reopen those offices and make them better, so they provide better services to the men and women who serve our country.
There is something else the government is doing, and many people are unaware of this. When the last Korean overseas veteran passes away, all of the contract service beds across this country will be finished, aside from rare exceptions. Right now the Perley, Camp Hill, the Belcher and other hospitals across the country that service veterans are subsidized by the federal government. When the last Korean veteran dies, the modern-day veterans from 1954 onward will no longer have access to those beds paid for by the federal government.
The federal government is downloading this responsibility onto the backs of the provinces. The previous said that health care was a provincial responsibility. I remind the government that the care and treatment of veterans, RCMP members and their families is a federal responsibility, and to download that to the provinces is unacceptable. In Nova Scotia alone, a $41 million download will happen in the near future. It is unacceptable when we see floors of hospitals being closed for veterans and being transferred over to provincial uses.
The men and women who serve our country deserve no less. They deserve to have the best treatment. As Rick Mercer once said, when we take them from heaven on earth, which is Canada, and send them over to hell on earth, we should give them a gold card and make sure we give them platinum service when they come back.
There are many veterans I deal with who are getting very good service from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That is true, and I compliment the workers of the department who are providing that service. However, the problem is that many others are not getting that service. There are approximately 700,000 men and women who retired from the military who have dependant spouses and the DVA has a client base of just over 200,000, so more than two-thirds of that base is not being serviced now. Many of them do not require the services, but they may one day, and many more veterans are coming online.
I want to highlight two of my constituents, Kim and Blair Davis. They have given me permission to do this. The minister's office knows this file very well, because a few months ago I held an open press conference with the Davises. He had a serious brain injury from a LAV rollover accident and explosion that killed a few of his buddies. He has had major operations and is suffering severely from psychological problems, including PTSD and others. He has not asked for the government to give him a Rolex watch or a trip to Florida, but for basic rehabilitation services. He has asked for things like VIP service to help him, his wife and his family.
Several months went by and I got an email from him yesterday saying, “I am at my wit's end with this government. I simply do not know where to turn. Please, please help me and my family”. When a press conference is held, the government says it is going to look after the family and do all sorts of things, and two and a half months later I get an email saying it has not done anything yet. This is indicative of a government that simply is not listening.
In my final words, I will implore the and the to please stop the cuts to these departments and hire the mental health workers that are required. The government can pump money in, but if there is a bureaucracy delaying the hiring of these mental health workers, it is simply not working. I implore these two fine men to please get off their chairs and do something in a rational, speedy manner so that the men and women who serve our country in the RCMP and the military and their families will get the respect and dignity they so rightfully deserve.
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the .
Mr. Speaker, it is indeed an honour to join in this important debate. I am particularly proud to do so as part of a government that has demonstrated in meaningful ways its genuine support for and pride in the men and women who have served both in the military and the RCMP and who continue to serve this great country.
Our continued commitment remains. We will ensure that veterans and their families have the support they need, where and when they need it.
The shift in where we are placing our resources reflects the very real and changing demographics within our veterans community and where veterans choose to live. We are ensuring that Veterans Affairs' employees are located where they are needed the most, where they can provide the fastest and most effective service to the greatest number of veterans and their families. No government has done more on this front. As of February, we will have increased the number of points of service for veterans sixteenfold since 2006. Veterans now have access to service and information at our government's nearly 600 Service Canada offices. For the first time in our history, Veterans Affairs Canada has a presence in every region of this country, from coast to coast to coast.
In the eight communities where we are transferring an area office, we will continue to provide additional support to local veterans by posting one of our specially trained employees in the nearest Service Canada location, and in some cases within the same building or the same area.
In 2009, for example, we first started working with the Department of National Defence to open 24 integrated personnel support centres and another seven satellite offices on Canadian Armed Forces' bases and wings across the country. The result is that more than a hundred of our front-line employees are now working alongside their counterparts at National Defence to provide one-stop care and support to veterans and still-serving members. Thanks to our cutting red tape for veterans' initiatives, we are just a click away with our full suite of new e-services that are available online 24/7.
Let me also directly address the claims that our government is not committed to veterans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since 2006, we have added $4.7 billion in new funding for programs and services directly related to veterans and their families. While the number of veterans in Canada declines, our government has only increased the budget for veterans' services to a record number and it is a record that Canada can be proud of.
Nevertheless, one group in particular has questioned our loyalty to veterans. I am speaking of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. It has tried to paint itself as the champion of veterans. Let me be absolutely clear: it is anything but. This union has opposed Bill , the priority hiring for injured veterans act. This would give the veterans injured on duty while serving Canada the first crack at federal job opportunities. I cannot think of anyone who deserves these opportunities more, yet the public sector unions stand in opposition to it.
Canada's veterans of both the Armed Forces and the RCMP have stood up for us through thick and thin, while the public service unions only support veterans when it suits their political objectives and their agenda. Shame on them.
However, there is another extremely important issue we must discuss today, the issue of mental health among Canada's veterans.
Above everything else, I want to echo the 's expressions of sympathy and those of every member of our government by offering my own sincere condolences to the families of military personnel who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Nothing we can say or do here today will undo the tragedy they have and will continue to endure, but we cannot let them down. We must let them know that we mourn with them, that we are committed to taking action.
Indeed, I want to assure all Canadians that under the leadership of our and the , we are all exploring further enhancements in this very complex area of the human dynamic.
These are very complex issues, and there are no easy solutions. Our military and my department at Veterans Affairs Canada have never had more comprehensive mental health programs than what we currently have. That begins with the full care and support required to treat operational stress injuries, such as post traumatic stress disorder. In fact, through our partnership with the Department of National Defence, we are operating and funding a total of 17 such clinics across the country. We have established tele-mental health services at these clinics to reach veterans living in remote or rural areas of our country.
As well, Veterans Affairs has access to a national network of more than 4,800 community mental health professionals so that veterans can get the help they need, wherever they need it and when they need it. This includes approximately 375 community clinical care managers who are available to provide intensive care management services to those with complex mental health issues.
In addition, we have a 24-hour toll-free crisis and referral centre and world-class peer support programs so that veterans and their families can seek help from others who know first-hand what it is like to cope with severe service-related injuries.
As these different programs and services illustrate, help is indeed available, but as a number of authorities have noted in recent weeks, the first step is to ask for help. We have to overcome the stigma that is still too often associated with mental illness. We have to do everything we can to encourage men and women in crisis to seek the care they need. We have to reach out in every way we can to those who are suffering in silence. We have to demonstrate to veterans and still-serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces that true courage is admitting the need for help.
Recognizing the sacrifice of Canada's veterans is an important part of this entire process of providing help and support. This year we will commemorate the many milestone anniversaries approaching from the World War I and World War II eras. We will encourage Canadians across the country to recognize and honour Canada's veterans, not just for their service but for their sacrifice.
Most of all, I want to reassure all veterans that they will continue to receive the specialized care and support they require regardless of where they live. I want to repeat that: regardless of where they live, veterans and their families can continue to rely on home visits from registered nurses and their Veterans Affairs Canada case managers for those who require them.
We will continue to be there for them to cut their grass, to shovel their snow, and of course to help them with their housekeeping needs, as well as to provide health care and financial benefits as they need them.
Through our comprehensive review of the new veterans charter, we also intend to take into account and implement improvements to our continued commitment to support our veterans, especially those most in need.
We are not going anywhere. We have always been there for Canada's veterans and their families, and we always will be. I am not leaving.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join my colleague to take part in the debate today on what is a critical issue: the welfare of Canada's brave men and women in uniform who serve our country and who have served our country.
First I would like to again extend my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to all those who have been affected by recent tragedies. My thoughts and prayers are with those individuals' families and friends and with the entire Canadian military family. The government, and indeed all Canadians, appreciates and recognizes the important service that the members of the Canadian Armed Forces provide to all of us. We also recognize the responsibility to care for their physical and mental health and we are committed to providing them with the care they need and deserve.
I think it is important to take a few minutes today to highlight the incredible work of the members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the vital service that they provide our country. Being a member of the Canadian Armed Forces is more than a job; it is a way of life. Every single day, our men and women in uniform willingly put service before self to serve our country, having made the commitment to protect the security of Canada and of Canadians.
They can be deployed at a moment's notice to serve on operations either at home or abroad, leaving their families and friends and the comforts of home behind. They can be called to serve in hostile environments and austere conditions, sometimes risking their safety and lives to protect others.
At home they safeguard our land, skies, and oceans. They stand on guard to help Canadians in need of life-saving help. Last year alone, Canadian Armed Forces assets were deployed to more than 1,000 search and rescue incidents, providing critical capabilities and expertise.
They also stand on guard to support civil authorities in times of natural disasters, as they did in June of last year when southern Alberta suffered crippling floods. At their peak, 2,300 regular and reserve force personnel were deployed in support of Operation Lentus, as the mission was named. They assisted with the evacuation of civilians. They removed debris to ease the flow of water. They assisted in remediation efforts. They sandbagged areas and buildings. They repaired critical infrastructure. They also assisted provincial and local authorities in the assessment and monitoring of the floods.
The Canadian Armed Forces also assist in preventing disasters. Every year they contribute to Parks Canada Agency's avalanche control program in Rogers Pass, British Columbia, along the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway, helping to prevent potential loss of life through unexpected avalanches.
Our men and women in uniform also do exceptional work overseas. For example, since 2006, through Operation Caribbe, the Canadian Armed Forces have been supporting the multinational-led campaign against illicit trafficking by international organized crime in the western hemisphere. Trafficking of drugs, weapons, money, and people is a major source of revenue for transnational organized crime groups and poses a threat to international, regional, and Canadian security.
Half a world away, our military has also been detecting and disrupting terrorist activity in the Arabian Sea region since 2004 through Operation Artemis.
Further afield, after more than 12 years of involvement in Afghanistan, Canadian Armed Forces operations in that country will end on March 31, 2014. More than 40,000 Canadian military members have served in Afghanistan, some of them deploying more than once. Our activities have included combat, security, development, support, and training operations in varying capacities in regions in Afghanistan. Over the past decade, the Canadian mission has seen great leaps, great heroism, yet great tragedy. We will never forget the Canadians who gave their lives so that the people of Afghanistan may have a more peaceful and prosperous future.
The Canadian Armed Forces also stand ready to provide, on behalf of the Government of Canada, aid to other countries devastated by natural disasters. Last fall the Disaster Assistance Response Team, DART, was employed to provide humanitarian support to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan.
At its peak, DART included more than 300 members, with a range of tasks, such as clearing debris to reopen vital transportation links, re-establishing power supplies, purifying water, and providing medical care to over 6,500 patients. DART made a difference in the lives of so many citizens of the Philippines dealing with this tragedy.
We can be proud of our Canadian Forces members that they give so much to the citizens of this country and others around the globe, but their service unfortunately comes with sacrifice and risks, risks to their physical health and to their mental health. While we do everything we can to mitigate these risks, injuries, either physical or mental, do happen. When they do, our men and women in uniform deserve to receive the best possible health care. The Government of Canada is committed to providing it to them. In fact, our government has done more than any other before it when it comes to the care of our ill and injured men and women in uniform.
As I pointed out yesterday in the House, we have increased our annual health care expenditures by over $100 million, for a total of over $420 million per year. We have created the Joint Personnel Support Units to allow our ill and injured members to work with medical personnel, social workers, occupational therapists, and others in order to help them return to work.
The Canadian Armed Forces has a solid mental health program, one that was recognized as a model by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. We provide mental health care through 29 clinics across Canada, from Esquimalt to Halifax, and support is provided throughout the entire career and deployment cycle of a Canadian Armed Forces member.
The Canadian Armed Forces mental health strategy, released in 2013, was praised by some of Canada's top mental health authorities, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, and the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Group.
The mental health care program is supported by over 400 full-time mental health professionals working for the Canadian Armed Forces, and the government expects there to be even more as we continue to hire.
The Government of Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Armed Forces take mental health care very seriously. The forces continue to work with their allies and partners in civilian health care to determine the best treatment, awareness, and prevention approaches for our military men and women and to combat the stigma and barriers around mental health care.
As I stated in December, we must continue to do all we can as a team to support our personnel, to encourage people in crisis to access our health care system, and to reinforce and promote the mental health care system we have in the Canadian Armed Forces.
This is an important message for all Canadians in all walks of life. All of us, including everyone in this room, have a role to play in eliminating the stigma around mental health issues and in encouraging those in need to seek help. Our men and women in uniform can rest assured that this government will continue to make the well-being of our men and women in uniform a priority and will ensure that those who have served and fought for our freedom receive the care they require and deserve.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to today to speak on behalf of the Liberal caucus, along with other colleagues, on this opposition motion put forward today by the hon. member for .
There is a crisis emerging in the support for injured soldiers and veterans alike. This is a crisis that has led to a number of tragedies and recent suicides. I want add my words of sympathy and compassion for the families and friends of those members and veterans.
However, like so many crises, this one did not appear overnight. Over a decade of engagement in Afghanistan has created an entire new generation of veterans as well as a generation of current serving members, some of whom are now suffering as a result of their service.
The men and women who enlist in the Canadian Forces to serve their country are called on to risk their lives and often go through traumatic events.
The government and the people of Canada are duty-bound to provide our soldiers, sailors and veterans with the best mental and physical health services, as well as access to government services that they can count on. The Conservative government has not been able to fulfill this solemn responsibility.
This is a debate I think we all wish was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the government, time and time again, has put its own economic and political self-interest ahead of the well-being of Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans alike, and sadly, the years of government neglect contribute to the tragic consequences of which we have spoken.
The hopelessness and despair that leads people to consider ending their lives is a hopelessness and despair that is added to when budgets are cut and services are worsened even when a crisis, and some of the steps that need to be taken to address that crisis, is identified.
Far from a complete solution to the complex issues facing our service men and women and our veterans, the motion represents a step forward, and that is why the Liberal Party will be supporting the motion.
The mental health crisis affecting both current Canadian service members and veterans did not arise overnight. Countless independent experts, armed forces medical officials, the National Defence and Veterans Affairs Ombudsmen, and even a parliamentary committee have sounded the alarm bells and offered solutions.
I would suggest that while the Conservatives have had a lot of words about how much they care for our men and women in uniform, but when it comes right down to the actions that have been identified that need to be taken, they have performed poorly. In fact, I would say that there have been eight wasted years. The Conservatives have simply chosen not to listen.
In 2009, the Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report that provided both an assessment of the government's CF mental health strategy and 36 concrete recommendations to address the issues and gaps they found. Recommendations included everything from prevention to early identification to addressing stigma to providing support to integrating resources and finding ways to make sure that medical professionals are hired and available. The committee recommended that the assessments continue over the course of years and that the military reservists be included.
Four and a half years later, this report gathers dust on a shelf in the minister's office. Many of the recommendations, I would say most of the recommendations, have not been implemented, and there has not been a single follow-up report from the government.
In 2012, the Canadian Forces Ombudsman recommended that the Canadian Forces evaluate its capacity to respond to the PTSD/OSI challenge and to address the “palpable and growing tension between commander and clinician...relative to OSI medical treatment and administrative support”. Yet the government seems to be caught by surprise, rushing forward to claim that now it will provide solutions while remarkably still ignoring the fundamental issues that created these problems in the first place.
There is not only a lack of resources, there is a lack of care and a lack of intention to make this a priority. More than just ignoring the issue, the Conservative government has actively made it more difficult to provide adequate care to Canadian Armed Forces service members and veterans alike.
The ombudsman made recommendations to enable “…more decisive leadership of the mental health system's capacity to meet the OSI imperative”, yet we found out that in 2010, there was a hiring freeze. Therefore, the efforts made by the Surgeon General and military medical personnel to fill the gaps in medical professional care have been consistently and routinely blocked by that hiring freeze, which the government and the minister responsible chose to do absolutely nothing about.
Of the 12 recommendations made by the ombudsman to improve the treatment of injured reservists, only 4 were judged to have been fully implemented in his follow-up. That is 4 out of 12. That is a failing grade.
Contrary to its claims of unprecedented support—and more than one photo op, I might add—the government has failed to reach even the benchmarks for mental health professionals set in 2003 under a previous Liberal government, to say nothing of the new levels now needed after over a decade of engagement in Afghanistan, including in some of the most dangerous terrain.
The Canadian Forces ombudsman's report in the fall of 2012 warned the government then that it had never reached the 2003 goal of 447 mental health workers. We knew what was needed to support injured armed forces members. We knew that back in 2003, and the level of support needed has only gone up. However, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, when questioned at the House of Commons committee on national defence, recently admitted that he is “very concerned about the capacity we have” to treat injured soldiers, given the government's Canadian Armed Forces budget cuts.
In September 2012, a national defence press release boasted about how funds earmarked for additional mental health workers were “identified personally by Minister MacKay”. At the time of the press release, 378 mental health professionals were employed. Remember, the goal set in 2003, before the primary operational period in Afghanistan, was 447. We had 378 of those positions filled, and now 18 months later, what has happened? The government has hired a measly 10 more. As of last month, 388 positions were filled. It is far short of what is needed, and the gap is costing lives.
The Conservative government may be earmarking the funds; it claims that it has the funds and that it has added funds, but it is making it impossible for the Department of National Defence to spend them. In their frustration, defence sources have gone to the media to share their frustration and alarm. According to a recent report in the Canadian press:
Even though the positions were identified and money earmarked, every potential hire—both contract and public service—has been subject to an increasing level of scrutiny....
Rather than being able to hire the staff they know they need, they are instead forced to justify every application in writing, put it up several chains in the department's bureaucracy and put it before a committee of assistant deputy ministers at national defence, by which time either most of those applications have been denied or the person being recruited had moved on to another position.
According to the ombudsman, Mr. Daigle, as of today there are currently 76 qualified professionals that could be hired immediately, but they have remained in the candidate pool because of a “cumbersome” and slow-moving hiring process. The government's own hiring freezes blocked the provision of necessary medical support positions. The support is not there. Over half of the military bases in Canada do not have a psychiatrist.
These shortages are not going unnoticed. They are affecting access and quality of care, but they are also affecting morale. When I talk about hopelessness and despair, imagine the plight of a serving forces member injured in Afghanistan who has to wait up to two years to get a medical diagnosis and before that medical diagnosis is made, that person cannot access the support and services that are needed. That is the situation that our men and women are facing.
While the government tells us one story with a lot of nice-sounding words about what it is doing, the service men and women I spoke to in Petawawa certainly told another story. There appears to be a gap between what their experience is and what is said by the government and higher ranks in the armed forces, and that is contributing to the sense of hopelessness and despair.
I will draw the House's attention to recommendation 2 in the standing committee's report that I referred to, which is entitled, “Pour de meilleurs soins: services de santé offerts au personnel des forces canadiennes, en particulier dans le cas des troubles de stress post-traumatique”.
Recommendation 2: The Department of National Defence should cause an independent audit to be conducted of military patient case management practices to determine the extent to which a gap exists between expressed Canadian Forces policy and the actual practices applied to the continuing treatment and care of injured Canadian Forces personnel. Once defined, appropriate measures should be taken, throughout the chain of command, to eliminate the gap and improve patient care.
Four years ago, it was already clear that there was a disconnect between what was being said and what was being experienced. The committee said, address that and take care of it in all levels of the chain of command. What has the government done on that level? It has done nothing.
This was echoed when I met with executives at the Alberta NWT Command Legion. They told me about mentally injured service members waiting months and months for diagnosis, without which they have no access to the operational stress injury clinics that would otherwise be available. I heard how the Legion itself was paying, from its scarce funds, rent for injured service members who were being discharged from the forces, and who were not receiving the retirement benefits due to them in a timely manner and unable to pay their rent. The Legion was providing support to fill the very gaps created by the government because of a lack of intention to correct the situation.
Retired General Rick Hillier, former Chief of the Defence Staff, neatly summed up the issue when he said:
I think that now this is beyond the medical issue. I think that many of our young men and women have lost confidence in our country to support them.
How sad is that statement? How sad are Canadians to know that there is that lack of support for the men and women in uniform who serve us so well? The government is balancing its budget on the backs of veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members. General Hillier is right: this is beyond a medical issue. This is a case of the government abandoning those who have served it.
When the Canadian Armed Forces cannot spend the money it is given, that money flows back into federal coffers as lapsed funds. In 2011 alone, the Department of National Defence gave back $1.5 billion of unspent funds to the federal treasury. There are announcements of funds, but those funds lapse and are given back. There are announcements of correcting problems, but those problems do not get corrected.
To date, up to $7 billion of funds have lapsed from the Department of National Defence. What kinds of supports could have been provided with those funds?
Why does the government say it is correcting these problems and filling these gaps and, meanwhile, not spend the funds available, but turn them back into general revenues, and not hire the medical professionals needed? This is not only with regard to mental health care or veterans' offices closing down.
I would ask how many dollars are being saved by closing down these nine offices that are so critical to injured veterans who depend on that kind of one-on-one care that they have been receiving. How much is being saved? What percentage is that of the $7 billion that have been allowed to lapse from the National Defence’s budget?
Clearly, aside from the commitment to the members of the armed forces and veterans for photo opportunities, there is no commitment by the government to provide these men and women who have served, and do serve, with the resources they need. As well as the lapse in funding, the government is now cutting funding outright, across the Canadian Armed Forces.
In shocking testimony in late 2012, before a Senate committee, Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, the commander of the army, told the committee that the land forces operating budget had been shrunk by an eye-popping 22%, a figure that does not show up anywhere in publicly available defence documents.
Training has been hit particularly hard. According to Lieutenant-General Devlin, the training budgets for the formation are probably 45% plus lower than they have been. By 2014–15, the army will have only 75% of the budget it had three years prior. Between the strategic review and the deficit reduction action plan, the Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with $2.7 billion less than planned,and less than promised, because this is a government that made a huge show of its defence strategy. It calls it the Canada first defence strategy. I call it the Conservatives failed defence strategy.
The fundamental underpinning of the strategy was stable and increased funding for 20 years. However, that has simply not happened. By 2010, the budget freezes meant that statutory salary increases were coming out of the department's own budget and forcing them to shrink spending on other things. Since then, there have been billions in budget cuts. This is a Conservative failed defence strategy that impacts the men and women in uniform and our veterans every day.
These cuts have specific consequences. The Veterans Transition Network, founded by Dr. Marvin Westwood and Dr. David Kuhl of UBC in my riding of Vancouver Quadra, has been providing valuable support to returning service members since 1999. To date, the Department of National Defence has yet to fund a single participant. Of the countless veterans who could benefit from this program, Veterans Affairs has funded participation for a mere eight. It then used this program to celebrate the government's branding and to claim credit, but in fact, eight people have been funded; not eight events, not eight workshops, but eight veterans.
In testimony before the National Defence committee, the executive director said:
They're talking about supporting our program in principle, and I'm sure, with budget cuts as they are, that everyone is starting to ask where the money is going to come from.
That is one more example of the government's inability to follow through.
Even the most basic services, such as offices for veterans to interact with and housing for military families who support those who serve, have fallen victim to Conservative cuts.
The Conservatives are cutting 781 employees from Veterans Affairs workforce by 2014–15, some 22%, as well as closing the nine veterans service centres. How is that going to improve services to veterans? Of course it is not. It is going to make things worse. Instead of supporting veterans, the government has decided to nickel-and-dime their pensions. It is more willing to spend scarce resources on lawyers defending the government when veterans have to go to court to get served than it is to spend it on the veterans. It does not take much to figure out where its priorities are: in its own interest and not in the interests of veterans and the men and women in uniform.
I want to conclude with this. The issue of supporting our armed forces members and our veterans is not a Liberal, Conservative, or NDP issue.
It is a human issue. It is a Canadian issue. It is an issue of right and wrong. It is an issue of will, intention, and action, not words. The men and women in uniform stand up for Canada every day. Why is the government not standing up for them?
The government appears willing to spend time, money, and political capital on commemorating battles of yesterday. We want the government to spend that time, money, political capital, and will on supporting our armed forces members and our veterans with the resources they need and deserve today.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to clarify at the outset that I have the pleasure of sharing my time with the member for .
Mr. Speaker, it is my honour to rise in support of the motion moved by the member for . I think it is very important to reiterate what the motion says, because we will be voting on the motion and it is important for Canadians to be watching and seeing the very specific measures that we are simply asking all the members of this House to support, so that, in fact, we can provide the best possible support to our veterans who have served in honour.
That motion simply calls for the House to ensure that the men and women who bravely served Canada in the Armed Forces be able to count on the government for support in their time of need and that the government should demonstrate this support by immediately addressing the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans, by hiring appropriate mental health professions; second, to reverse the decisions to close the veterans offices, which it has decided to close; and third, to prioritize and conclude the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on the military suicides, so that grieving families may have answers and closure.
I think these are very reasonable requests. These requests come from those who have served and their families.
I also wish to add my condolences to the families who have recently suffered through these suicides.
On behalf of their families and our veterans, I request all members to support this motion.
We send our armed forces into conflict and dire circumstances. They witness the atrocities of war. Any ordinary person would probably suffer some kind of mental trauma from this. It is important that we, the members of Parliament, be here to stand up for them and ensure that the appropriate medical services are there when they return, whether those are minor concerns or whether they may lead to post traumatic stress disorder or other problems. Many who suffer mental problems also may suffer physical disabilities because of the impact they have on their health and on their families.
We are imploring all the members of this House to carefully consider this motion and its reasonable requests. This is the least we can do for our veterans.
Many of those recently deployed to Afghanistan have served not just one but numerous deployments, and so they have been subjected to considerable stress. I, my constituents, and all Edmontonians recognize and are extremely grateful and proud of their contribution, and in particular, the Edmonton Garrison for their service continuously in the mission to Afghanistan. I had the privilege of participating in the recent memorial to their service: the installation at city hall.
I have had the honour, as well, of attending with the former minister of defence one of the repatriation ceremonies at Petawawa. I can share with members that it is an extremely emotional experience. It brings home, very clearly, the sacrifice made, not just by our soldiers but also by their families who are left behind.
It is absolutely critical that we provide the best possible first-rate health services to our armed forces.
My father served in World War II, in the air force. I never had the chance to speak with my father because, unlike many of his friends, he chose not to discuss the war. I suspect, in his time, in his generation, this was something they kept to themselves, if they were stressed by the experience. I regret now that I did not take that opportunity. However, many of his friends, colleagues who fought, and members of our family circle have often regaled us, as children growing up, with their tales of the war. One of them, particularly, was a hero: a fighter pilot who was shot down and interned. Therefore, I am fully aware of what occurred in those wars. Unfortunately, I did not meet my great uncle who served in World War I, because he gave his life in that war. There has been a lot of contribution by my family.
I grew up being very proud of our armed forces and continue to be honoured that they serve in my city. It is home to 5,000 military personnel and their families, so it is important that I stand up on their behalf and seek the best possible supports for them.
At the start of the Afghan mission, 750 troops from the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry deployed, and they have continued to serve through that mission. As my colleagues have shared, veterans should not have to return home to fight for the health and financial benefits that they should be awarded. It is critical that as members of this House we stand up and hold the government accountable for ensuring those services are provided, and in a timely fashion.
I have been absolutely appalled at the stance of the current government. These are not the only lawsuits; the government seems to have a propensity for wanting to take Canadians to court instead of delivering on the services it should be delivering. There was the extended lawsuit that was dragged out, costing many millions of dollars. The veterans finally won that case and ended the clawback of their disability benefits. As my colleagues have mentioned, the second lawsuit on the fiduciary responsibility of the government to its military is now proceeding. We highly recommend that the government back off on wasting Canadian dollars on fighting our armed forces in courts and instead simply extend them the benefits they deserve.
The recent suicides are indeed a tragedy that could potentially be avoided. We are not saying absolutely that the lack of services is directly the cause, but any additional health services that can be provided will help to avoid a tragedy. Many in this House have previously spoken in this place about the suicides that have been suffered in their own families. They have implored that all of us stand up for more attention to supports in mental health.
I note that the Library of Parliament just issued a report on the current issues with mental health in Canada. It says that one of the solutions is more funding for mental health promotion and that investment would likely produce long-term savings. That is not just savings in dollars, but savings in lives. Very clearly this is one of those areas where we need to be giving greater attention.
Given the rise in the number of suicides among our veterans, there is an issue. It is not enough simply to say to the veterans that they should be reaching out. My experience with those who are suffering mental distress is that we need to be watching over those people, whether they are in our family or among our neighbours or in the armed forces.
Clearly, we need additional measures. There are a number measures that have been recommended by the Veterans Ombudsman, by parliamentary committees, and certainly in this House today. I encourage all members to give them due consideration.
First of all, we need to reduce the cuts to the veterans offices. I run into this all the time, whether we are asking for health studies or the impact of industrial activities, any kind of activity that is going on in rural areas. We are often told that the concentration of the population is not enough to justify the expenditure or action. We need to ensure that even if they are small offices in a rural area, it is important that these citizens also have equal access to those services. I look forward to assurances that they are not missing those services simply because they are not near a major centre. We have to remember that a lot of our first nations peoples also served in the armed forces and they very often live in rural areas, not close to major centres.
As some of the members have reminded us, the armed forces and our veterans are a unilateral federal responsibility. There is a deep concern, for example, with the hospitals and the long-term care centres, such as the Kipnes Centre for Veterans in Edmonton. I am very proud it exists; it is a fantastic centre. It is very important that we think about the future of those services.
We have a good number of veterans returning home. As we have lost World War I veterans and we are slowly losing the World War II veterans who will not be using those services anymore, it is important that those high-quality services be available to all our veterans. They should all be equal in the way we treat them when they return.
A very dear friend of my father was living at the Kipnes Centre, and I had a chance to visit him there. He was very upset because his wife, who was not a member of the armed forces, could not live with him, and he therefore entered into a deep depression.
There are many policies that merit being looked into again. With a small expenditure of money, we may be able to serve our veterans in a better way. A 1-800 number is not sufficient. I get complaints all the time in my office about 1-800 numbers to other services, such as pensions, immigration and so forth. Let us ensure the veterans are better looked after.
I would like to close with a quote from the member for that he shared with us before the Christmas break. It was on the tombstone of a fallen World War I soldier. It says, “This Canadian soldier left his home so that you can live in yours”.
That is something for us to keep in mind. It is very important that we make sure these services are available to all of our veterans.
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to express my sadness and, more importantly, my indignation at how this government is treating members of our military and our veterans.
I am honoured to give my support to these courageous men who have given so much and who are so dedicated to our country and our values.
Canada has always been a top defender of the rights and freedoms that all Canadians cherish.
The men and woman in the Canadian Armed Forces are called upon to risk their lives to protect our rights and freedoms. We thank them for the huge sacrifice that they make for all of us.
Our society is indebted to these exceptional men and women for their commitment. No matter what happens to them during their mission, our soldiers, our veterans and their families must know that they can count on our ongoing support.
Once again, this government is shirking its responsibility. It has broken the social pact between Canada and its army.
Once again, the actions of this government and the cavalier approach of its members show just how cynical the Conservatives can be towards the Canadian public.
I want to remind members of the latest facts in this case, which shed a cold hard light on the Conservatives' blindness towards the state of our veterans and members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
In two months, eight members of the military of all ranks have chosen to take their own life.
What is the doing to try to deal with this issue? Has he announced more mental health measures for soldiers or a new approach to treat post traumatic stress disorder? No.
The minister is toeing the Conservative government line. He is taking a dollars and cents approach and cutting the services that are needed the most.
While the people who shed their blood to defend this country are taking their own lives out of desperation, the minister is closing veterans' service centres.
The offices in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland will be closed as of tomorrow. The one in Prince George, B.C., has already been closed.
Trying to face the criticism, the maintained that veterans who use the offices that are closing could rely on Service Canada, especially its online and remote services.
Consider this example of the quality of those services. Corporal Bruce Moncur, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2006, is a young man who knows how to use a computer. This non-commissioned officer told the media that he spent a week wading through departmental bureaucracy before he was able to fill out his forms online.
Now imagine a 90-year-old veteran trying to deal with the same situation. Can anyone reasonably believe that a 90-year-old veteran could easily access any service at all on the Internet? Clearly, the Conservatives want nothing to do with anyone who is having difficulties.
Even more appalling than cutting services to those who fought and suffered to defend our values is the attitude of the minister responsible for veterans. On Tuesday, when he was supposed to meet with veterans' representatives who had come to share their concerns, the minister first wanted to skip that meeting. Then, after changing his mind, he met with them, but only to slam the door in their faces even harder.
This caused such an uproar across the country that veterans' associations and members of the Royal Canadian Legion were calling for the minister to step down.
Betraying those who loyally served this country was not enough for the government; through the hon. member for , the government suggested that these veterans, including some who fought during the Second World War, were being manipulated by the media and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. This is absolutely ludicrous.
Who could reasonably believe that soldiers who survived the Normandy invasion, the Korean War or the mission in Afghanistan could be so easily manipulated? The reality is that this government has an unfair policy of taking away more and more from the weak and the disadvantaged.
It applies this ideology mechanically, without an ounce of humanity. It stops at nothing. The proof is that the Department of Veterans Affairs had the nerve to ask Corporal Leona MacEachern's family to return $581 of her disability pension because the money was paid out after she committed suicide on Christmas day.
All public services are being affected by this destructive policy. All Canadians are being made to suffer. The government is causing the people of this country immense harm that cannot be undone with empty apologies. To correct the injustice wreaked upon them by this government, we must deal with our soldiers and our veterans in ways they can understand: we must take action and be honourable.
We, the members of the NDP, are calmly surveying the reality, without any preconceived ideas. The NDP has always led the way with its proposals to improve programs and services for serving and retired members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families. That is why, today, the NDP has a simple and practical response to the crisis that our soldiers and veterans are going through. First and foremost, we have a duty to provide access to appropriate mental health care for all military personnel and veterans and their families suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or operational stress injuries. This requires two sets of actions.
First, members of the Canadian Forces who need this help must be encouraged to ask for it. We understand that it is difficult for people in military life to ask for outside help. However, that help does exist and it is effective. Too few of our soldiers ask for that help. We have to encourage and support them.
However, there are still too few material supports. To remedy the situation and to provide as much access as possible, we must hire as many mental health specialists as are required. We should not be looking at the cost when it comes to this matter. Our soldiers risk their lives. They should not have to beg for help.
The transition to civilian life is also a crucial step for our soldiers, and we can help with that. We all know how important it is to get into the job market and to feel useful. Every man and woman has the right to this dignity and so do our soldiers who are returning to civilian life.
We must therefore expand existing programs, such as the program that helps military members transition to careers in shipbuilding. In addition, we must also create new opportunities through federal incentives to hire veterans. Our veterans must have access to personalized service from the federal government no matter what their age. The government therefore needs to immediately reverse its decision to close offices that provide services for veterans.
Finally, to support families mourning the loss of a soldier to suicide, we must do everything we can to shed some light on the circumstances surrounding such tragedies. The government must immediately increase its efforts to conclude the outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides.
In conclusion, I would like to read the Act of Remembrance, which states the following:
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We shall remember them.
We will remember them. Today, the time has come for us to remember them. That is why I am calling on all members, wherever they come from, to support this motion. Let us show some compassion for our veterans. Let us extend them a helping hand. They deserve it.
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the .
Let me begin by extending my deepest and heartfelt condolences to all those who have been affected by the recent tragedies. Our thoughts and prayers are with these individuals' families, friends, and the entire Canadian military family.
The suicide of a family member or a close friend is a profound life-altering event, and I am sure many of us in the House today can attest to that. It is a tragedy in the true sense of the word. Let me say clearly here in the House that we all have a responsibility for those around us. Let us continue to break down the stigmas attached to mental health issues.
As with many of my colleagues in the House this week, my heart was warmed by the tremendous response by all Canadians to Bell's Let's Talk Day on January 28. Canadians from coast to coast to coast reached out to each other through various media, including social media, to let Canadians suffering from mental health conditions know they are not alone. Every Canadian has a stake in this important issue
Only by recognizing symptoms, coming forward, and getting help when we need it can we really tackle mental health conditions. That is why in 2012 our government announced an additional $11.4 million investment to enhance the Canadian Armed Forces' mental health programs. That was in addition to the approximately $420 million spent annually on Canadian Forces health care, including $50 million specifically for mental health.
The men and women in uniform who serve our country with such distinction are subject to unique dangers and events. Being a member of the Canadian Armed Forces is more than a job; it is a way of life. Every single day, our men and women in uniform willingly put service before self to serve this country, having made the commitment to protect the security of Canada and Canadians. They can be called to deploy at a moment's notice to serve on operations, either at home or abroad, leaving their families, their friends, and the comforts of home behind.
The array of jobs in the Canadian Armed Forces involves physical danger. Of that there is no doubt. Yet we must also recognize the great mental stresses in many aspects of military life, whether someone is deployed overseas or at home.
We take the issue of member suicide very seriously. Great efforts are made to identify members at risk for mental health problems and to provide them with assistance in the form of treatment, counselling, and other types of support.
When speaking of military suicide, the topic of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other operational stress injuries, OSI, is inevitably raised. Canada is a recognized world leader in fighting the stigmatization of mental illness and raising awareness of both PTSD and OSI.
Over the past decade, the Canadian Armed Forces has put in place a series of programs to increase the effectiveness of care for deployment-related problems. It starts with prevention.
We have increased mental health awareness by bringing together a host of players to build a national education strategy that is enhancing the services already available to CAF members and their families. The road to mental readiness program is now being implemented for CAF leadership, CAF personnel, and their families.
Mental health and operational stress issues are also included in the leadership training curriculum to ensure that these issues are understood and respected across all ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces.
To date, over 50,000 Canadian Armed Forces members have received some form of mental health training and education, and we have a comprehensive pre- and post-deployment program to assist members in dealing with the challenges of a deployment. This includes pre-deployment screenings and training for mental readiness and enhanced post-deployment screening, providing an evaluation of both physical and psychological health.
When treatment for PTSD is required, the Canadian Armed Forces is guided by best practices, with an emphasis on early detection and timely access to evidence-based care. Care for those members suffering from PTSD is available through a variety of initiatives.
Seven centres have been established, in Ottawa, Halifax, Valcartier, Edmonton, Victoria, Gagetown, and Petawawa, and they are integrated into an enhanced system of interdisciplinary mental health care.
The operational stress injuries social support program, OSISS, is a national peer support network for injured members and their families to address the issue of stigma. It also includes a bereavement peer support program to help those who have lost loved ones.
The Canadian Forces member assistance program is a voluntary confidential advisory service to help members and their families with personal concerns. A toll-free phone line is open 24 hours a day and is staffed by professionals. As well, the integrated personnel support centres that exist in partnership with Veterans Affairs Canada provide a full range of support and referral services. We are also active in research.
The Department of National Defence works collaboratively with Veterans Affairs and the RCMP on educational best practices and the development of a joint mental health strategy through the joint mental health care project. The Department of National Defence continues to conduct research with other centres and our international allies on the understanding of post traumatic stress disorder.
Finally, in September of last year, the Surgeon General's mental health strategy was released. It took an open and honest look at the state and impact of mental illness in the Canadian Armed Forces and in Canadian society, identifying areas to improve and set priorities and areas of focus for the next five years. The strategic priorities include increased partnerships of internal and external agencies, improved efficiency of the mental health system, and improved internal and external communications.
I would also like to take a few moments to clarify the role and purpose of the boards of inquiry. As soon as we learn of a suicide of a Canadian Armed Forces member, a medical professional technical suicide review is ordered by the Surgeon General. It quickly and thoroughly ascertains the circumstances surrounding the death, whether action could have been taken to prevent it, given the information available at the time, and it provides immediate information on whether Canadian Armed Forces processes, procedures, and programs should be revised.
In contrast, a board of inquiry is an internal, non-judicial, administrative fact-finding investigation convened to examine and report on complex or significant events. It is intended to allow the Chief of the Defence Staff and other members of the chain of command to obtain a better understanding of incidents affecting the functioning of the Canadian Armed Forces. A board of inquiry, therefore, is not specifically convened only in the event of a military suicide. However, it is Canadian Armed Forces policy to conduct a board of inquiry for every instance of suicide in the forces.
I can tell the House that the has expressed serious concerns to the chain of command regarding the outstanding boards of inquiry, as we have just heard. As a result, the Chief of the Defence Staff has recently directed a dedicated team to be convened to close outstanding boards of inquiry as quickly as possible. Both of these processes provided us with an opportunity to improve the system to help reduce the risk of suicide in the future.
The Canadian Armed Forces has made tremendous strides in recent years in supporting military personnel who suffer from deployment-related mental health conditions. Today, we have approximately 400 full-time mental health professionals and we are working to hire more. We have provided mental health care through 38 priority care clinics and detachments and 26 mental health clinics across Canada, and support is provided throughout the entire career of a member.
We expect a lot from our members of the Canadian Armed Forces and they deliver ever single day. Their jobs come with risks and bring challenges that most of us in the House never have to face. Those members suffering from mental health issues deserve our help. It is a moral obligation of our society. For those who would sacrifice their lives for us, it is really the least that we can do, and these members can rest assured that this government is committed to building upon the work we have done when it comes to dealing with mental illness in the Canadian Armed Forces and doing all we can to prevent military suicides.
However, this is not something we can do on our own. One important and concrete step we can take together as a society is to work to eliminate the stigma around mental health issues and, most of all, encourage those in need to seek help.
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the motion before us and first and foremost to express my deepest sympathies to those families who have recently lost a loved one in such sad and tragic circumstances.
Our hearts ache for them, and we are committed to doing whatever it takes to address the complex factors and realities of suicide. There are no simple solutions. We understand that, but we are determined to do everything we can to overcome the stigma that is still attached to mental illness and to encourage all Canadians in need to seek help when they are suffering.
As well, I believe all Canadians deserve to know that their government, our government, is proud to stand with the men and women who wear our nation's uniform, past and present. In fact, if anyone were to look at the Government of Canada's record, if they were to look at it in a truly fair and objective way, I sincerely believe they would agree that we have matched our heartfelt words of gratitude with real and meaningful action.
With my 10 minutes, I would like to demonstrate how Canadians can be proud of what their country is doing to care for and support the men and women who have served our country so well.
Our government's efforts on behalf of veterans and their families begin at Veterans Affairs Canada, which has an annual budget of close to $3.6 billion. Some people will ask if $3.6 billion is enough. Obviously we could always spend more—every department could—but to put Veterans Affairs Canada's current budget in perspective, it is already $785 million more than what the Government of Canada allotted to the department in 2005. That amounts to a 27.5% jump in the department's budget over the past eight years, a time that I am sure I do not need to remind the House has been economically challenging, to say the least.
In fact, since 2006, when our government implemented the new veterans charter that had been unanimously passed by the House, we have invested a total of almost $4.7 billion in new funding to enhance veterans' benefits programs and services. As significant as this new funding is, however, it still tells only a small part of our story. What is far more important is how this money is being spent.
Before we introduced the new veterans charter, all Canada could do for its veterans was to provide them primarily with disability pensions, most of which are valued at an average of $800 per month for a single veteran, along with some related health care and case management services.
At best, Canada was simply providing injured and ill veterans a monthly cheque and wishing them well. At worst, we were encouraging increasingly younger veterans to spend the rest of their lives focused on proving their health was deteriorating, solely so they might receive a modest increase to their monthly pensions.
The new veterans charter turned this around by focusing on ability over disability. By shifting to a more modern and complete approach, Canada can now provide both the immediate and the long-term financial support that injured veterans and their families need while also offering what they still want most: to make the best recovery possible as quickly as possible.
Through the new veterans charter we are doing that. We are providing the kind of care and support veterans need to make a successful transition to civilian life. This includes full medical, psychosocial, and vocational rehabilitation services through career transition services, financial benefits, health care benefits, and one-on-one case management services.
What does all this mean for veterans on a practical level? It means many things. For example, it means that veterans with a rehabilitation need related to their service may be eligible for up to $75,800 in training assistance to start a new career. If the veteran is too seriously injured to work again, we will transfer the vocational support to his or her spouse and provide a series of financial benefits.
As well, if the veteran has a health problem that is creating a severe and permanent impairment for which they have received a disability award, the financial benefits they are entitled to will result in an annual minimum pre-tax income of $42,426. That is in addition to a tax-free disability award that may be awarded and can be valued at up to $301,275.
On top of this, we have a collection of programs to help veterans with their daily needs. For example, we help veterans with shovelling snow from their driveways and with cutting their grass. We also have meals prepared in their homes or delivered to their front doors. We can ensure home visits by health care professionals and case managers for veterans who need them.
We can reimburse veterans for the cost of travelling to their medical appointments, and in some cases we can even pick up the tab when veterans need someone to accompany them to their doctor appointments.
We are also committed to making improvements on what we are already doing. To that end, the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs is currently in the process of conducting a comprehensive review of the new veterans charter. We want the committee to go beyond the significant enhancements we implemented two years ago and to study the entire new veterans charter with a special focus on seriously injured veterans, as well as support for families and the delivery of programs by the department.
We believe this review is exactly what is needed. We believe it offers the appropriate forum for all Canadians to participate in an open and frank discussion about the right and responsible ways to enhance our support to veterans and their families.
Canadians rightly want to know that their government is here for Canada's veterans and their families. I am proud to say that we are, always have been, and always will be.
Mr. Speaker, I stand in support of this motion put forward by the hon. member for . The motion would immediately address the mental health crisis facing Canadian soldiers and veterans by hiring appropriate mental health professionals, by reversing the decision to close veterans offices, and by prioritizing and concluding more than 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides, so that grieving families might have answers and closure.
I want to begin with the story that I tell every November 11, Remembrance Day. I share the same story every July 1. July 1 is known far and wide as Canada Day, but in Newfoundland and Labrador July 1 is also Memorial Day. Canada Day does not begin in my province until noon on July 1. Until then it is Memorial Day.
July 1, 1916, is known as the bloodiest day in Newfoundland and Labrador history. On that day, near the small town of Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Somme, 801 Newfoundland and Labrador officers and soldiers, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties, went over the top. The next morning, only 68 answered the roll call, out of 801. The rest were either killed, wounded, or missing.
A general wrote this to the then prime minister of Newfoundland, Sir Edward Morris, about the courage and discipline displayed by the members of the Newfoundland Regiment in their first battle on the western front at Beaumont-Hamel:
It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.
I see that statement as the highest compliment to any soldier.
For the small nation of Newfoundland, the loss was absolutely devastating. It was felt in every town, every outport, and every family. The Newfoundland Regiment was renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1917, the only time in the history of the British army that such a designation has been given during a time of warfare.
Our First World War soldiers were known as “fighting Newfoundlanders”, a designation that carries over to this day, mostly in reference to the spirit of the fighting Newfoundlander.
Our contribution to the First World War was not just in blood. The debt we took on as a nation to supply a regiment is partly to blame for our financial crisis of the 1930s, which led to Newfoundland surrendering its democracy in 1933 in favour of government by commission. It is the only time that a democracy has been voluntarily surrendered.
Be it the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, or Afghanistan, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have always stepped forward. When Canadians agree to serve in the forces, they accept what is called unlimited liability, that they may be killed in service. Without question, it is the ultimate sacrifice for Canada. In return, we owe them the best care possible. Our veterans are not getting the best care possible.
Why do I say that? Why do veterans say that? Let us start with mental health. The question of whether Canadian Forces personnel receive timely and appropriate mental health care has been a long-standing concern, especially in light of the fact that Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan is coming to a close and thousands of soldiers are returning home with mental injuries. Many of our soldiers and their families say that they cannot get the help they need.
There have been eight suicides in the past two months alone. As it stands, there are at least 50 outstanding boards of inquiry into suicides of members of the Canadian Forces.
On January 31, tomorrow, eight regional veterans offices will close, including the veterans office in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, my home province. The Corner Brook office provides front-line services to 1,500 veterans on the west coast of the island.
Once the office closes, veterans who are in desperate need of in-person, front-line service will have to travel eight, nine, or ten hours by car to get to the nearest office in St. John's on the east coast of Newfoundland. That is eight, nine, or ten hours.
The Conservatives say there is always the Internet; there is always the telephone. Back in November during a rally outside the veterans office in Corner Brook, Hedley Smith, a legionnaire from the west coast city, had this to say about the Internet and telephone:
A lot of these [veterans] are deaf, old and crippled and can't understand anything they hear on the telephone. They need one-on-one service. That's the way that it's got to be.
Nineteen-year-old Bertram Hillier was among the soldiers in the last draft of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who went overseas to fight in the Second World War. He had this to say about the closure of the Corner Brook office:
I haven't got that much education and they help me a lot with filling out forms and things like that.
Everything I want, I come here and there's no problem.
There is a problem now.
Veterans who accepted the unlimited liability, who served their country knowing and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, now feel abandoned by the current Conservative government.
Veteran members of the Canadian Forces serve our country with courage and distinction. Our responsibility, our duty, is to be there for them in their moment of need, not to abandon them to budget and service cuts. I call that the ultimate insult.
The Conservative government's treatment of our veterans and forces is disgraceful, and it manifested itself this week when a delegation of veterans from across the country, including a veteran from Corner Brook, came to Ottawa for a meeting with the . They came here in a last-ditch bid to persuade the Conservative government to reverse its decision to close the eight remaining Veterans Affairs offices across the country.
What did the do? He left the veterans waiting for 70 minutes, and then he turned his back on the veterans when they got frustrated. The minister has since apologized, which is a start. As the member for said earlier today, “...it was not the minister's finest day.”
In the end, the west coast of Newfoundland will still be without a Veterans Affairs office, effective tomorrow.
Corner Brook veteran Paul Davis was a member of the delegation that came here to Ottawa this week. I met with him myself. Mr. Davis is 66, and he had this to say:
We have 1,500 veterans on the west coast who depend on the DVA office in Corner Brook. Now we have nowhere to go with our problems, no one to talk to now.
While there will be one dedicated person at the local Service Canada office to deal with veterans, that one dedicated person will have to do the work of the seven people who worked at the Veterans Affairs office, and that is not going to cut it.
What should happen? Hire long-promised mental health professionals to assist soldiers and veterans. Hire them now. Reverse the decision to close Veterans Affairs offices and prioritize and conclude the more than 50 ongoing boards of inquiry on military suicides. That is what should happen now.
The men and women of our military left heaven on earth—Canada—to serve in what was “hell on earth” in many cases, as the member for said.
The men and women of the Canadian Forces stood on guard for us. They stand on guard for us. Our veterans, seniors in many cases, are now forced to stand on guard for their own because the current Conservative government is not standing on guard for them.
Mr. Speaker, this week's unfortunate events involving the and tomorrow's closing of veterans' centres exposes the soft underbelly of this government beast, a government ruled by uncaring ideology instead of good public policy.
It is indeed an honour and a privilege to rise today to add my voice in defending and honouring our veterans. The reduction in services for our brave men and women who risk their lives for us, for our country, and for our freedom is appalling and without merit. The cowardice on display across the aisle dishonours the great sacrifices made by generations of men and women who have served Canada in its time of need.
Where are the Conservative backbenchers who should be pushing the government to reverse these reckless cuts? They should be joining us in calling for improvements instead of meekly lining up behind the minister and marching veterans into Service Canada to stand in line. They have already stood on the line at Passchendaele; at Vimy Ridge; at the Somme, where my great-grandfather, Lieutenant Louis Rosario Lavoie, made the ultimate sacrifice; in the Spanish Civil War; at Dieppe on D-Day; at Monte Cassino; in Hong Kong; in Korea; in Bosnia; in Afghanistan; and at countless other locations at home and around the world. They have done their time on the line.
Now the current government is asking them to make another sacrifice, and I say, no.
What all Canadians want, what veterans want and deserve, and what we on this side of the House want is for the government to give those who have faithfully served Canada, and their families, the respect and dignity they deserve.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, I am reminded of my great-grandfather, Harold Riley, who served Canada in both world wars. He was wounded three times in the Great War, came back with shell shock, and suffered regular nightmares for the rest of his life. We did not know what we now do: how to help soldiers who come back home with mental health issues.
We owe it to them to provide all the help we can so that they do not suffer like my great-grandfather and so many others did and so they can lead happy, peaceful lives after that great personal sacrifice.
It is time we act on the over 50 outstanding boards of inquiry on military suicides so that grieving families may have the answers and closure they deserve and so that we may learn how to better prevent more tragedies in the future.
Recent soldiers should be of great concern to Canadians, as they are to New Democrats. Our motion today seeks to address this very important issue.
Last October 1, on the third anniversary of the passing of my grandmother, Ivy Harris, who worked at the GECO munitions plant as a teenager with my great-grandmother, and then at 17 joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps, my father, my uncle, and I became members of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 73, in her honour and in honour of all of our family members who have answered our country's call. I feel it is my duty to them to rise to defend all of our veterans. It is about respect and dignity.
In addition, this is also why I will soon be tabling a private member's bill in this House to make Remembrance Day a national statutory holiday. On the 100th year since the start of the war to end all wars, my private member's bill is one way I can personally convey my profound respect for all those who have served our country and continue to faithfully serve our country to this day.
It is time we recommit ourselves wholeheartedly to our veterans. I know that Canadians agree, and I hope soon Conservatives will agree too.
Of course, today we are also talking about the closing of eight veterans' centres across the country. Veterans are going to be asked to stand in Service Canada lines or to suffer through horrific wait times on the phone. We have been hearing for the last year and a half, since Conservatives started cutting Service Canada locations, that we have dropped calls and a degradation in quality and service. Even MPs representing their constituents can sometimes have trouble getting through. Is this what we want to make our veterans do? It is a disgrace to ask our veterans to stand in line after all they have done for our country.
The closing of the veterans' centres is inevitably going to degrade the service they receive.
After my grandmother became a senior citizen and started to have trouble keeping up the house, the Veterans Affairs' centre was there for her. It helped to provide the services that helped her to stay in her home so she could live out her life in dignity and peace without having to suffer through giving up the home she had lived in for over 50 years.
I cannot fathom why the government would make these changes. It actually spits in the face of veterans when the minister makes such appalling remarks and exhibits behaviour of a crass nature. Sure he apologized, but it should not have happened in the first place. That kind of thing should never happen. To make veterans wait 70 minutes is the level of service they are going to get going to Service Canada offices, and that is exactly the service the minister gave. We think he should resign, and if he does not resign, it is the 's responsibility to show respect to our brave men and women by firing him. He has shown time and again, on the F-35 file, on military procurement, and now in Veterans Affairs, that he has absolutely no business being a minister of the crown.
Unfortunately, coming from Toronto, I have had lots of previous experience with this minister, as the head of the OPP and as the Toronto police chief and then as chief of police in London. We would think that after all of those years of service, after all of that experience gained, he would have a bit more compassion and respect for the men and women who wear uniforms for our country.
Of course, the Veterans Affairs centres also serve RCMP veterans, men and women who have defended our streets and kept our streets safe all over the country, sometimes in very remote locations. All of these men and women who have served Canada deserve to have the best kind of service we can offer and the best mental health services we can offer. Sadly, the current government has been sorely lacking in this regard.
Again, why? Is this all about the budget line? Is this all about balancing the books so we can give a whole bunch of tax credits that will not actually help working people and will not help most of the veterans who have served our country? Is that what this is about, the bottom line? This is one area where the bottom line, while always important, should not be the deciding factor. What should be the deciding factor in the kind of services we provide, in the veterans' centres we have, and in what we do to honour their sacrifice is providing the best possible service. That should be the determining factor. However, we are closing veterans' centres all across the country, and we are going to put them in Service Canada locations.
There are 600 points of service. Having 600 point of bad service does not mean improvement in services for veterans. Replacing 13 people who deal with their cases in some offices with one person in the Service Canada office is not improving services. That is one-thirteenth, and that is if they can even get that person. If there is somebody in line in front of them, or if the person is serving someone else, they might be sent off to a telephone or asked to look at a computer to file their claims.
Online service is a whole other issue, and the current government has been lacking there too. Over 90% of EI claimants can file their claims online, but they cannot check the status of their claims online. Now we want to tell veterans to get their services online and to download an app on their phone. The world is changing, and the face of veterans is changing. They are becoming younger. Those kinds of online services might be good for them, but they are not good for those who came before them. We are asking people in their 80s and 90s to go sit in a Service Canada office and use one of their computers. It is an absolute disgrace. It is a degradation of service and has no business in this House.
We should be doing absolutely everything we can to improve services for veterans to honour that great sacrifice. I have repeated that a couple of times. They have sacrificed everything for our country, and we are not going to do the same for them. We should. We have to. We must, absolutely.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for .
As the member of Parliament for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke and CFB Petawawa, the largest Canadian Forces Base in Canada and training ground of the Warriors, and as a 14-year veteran of the Standing Committee on National Defence, I welcome the opportunity to participate in any debate regarding the well-being of the women and men who serve Canada in uniform.
I mentioned my number of years in service on the Standing Committee on National Defence to highlight that I am not some Johnny-come-lately when it comes to interest in the care of our soldiers. I witnessed the decade of darkness first-hand, and I am proud to say that I voted with the Conservative government and to reverse that decade of neglect.
I have watched in disgust every time our soldiers and veterans have been made into political footballs and kicked around by the opposition. The worst example for our women and men in uniform was the decision by the Liberal Party to use military procurement for partisan purposes and send our soldiers into Afghanistan without the proper equipment. The cancellation of the EH101 military helicopter contract for partisan political reasons cost us the precious lives of Canadian soldiers. It is a fact that once our Conservative government provided the strategic lift for our soldiers to get them off the ground and away from the IEDs that lined the roads of Afghanistan the casualty rate dropped.
Let us be clear. On behalf of all Canadians, the current official opposition, regardless of what it says, does not believe that Canada should have an armed military, and pardon me if I sound cynical every time the invokes the name of our soldiers and veterans and tries to embarrass our government. I am prepared to accept at face value the motion of the member for to work with all members of Parliament to improve the lives of our soldiers and veterans, as long as the politics are taken out of the discussion and facts are allowed to guide the way to our decision-making. I recognize that government is not perfect and there is always room for improvement.
My riding of Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke is served with a Veterans Affairs office in Pembroke, and a sister office, an integrated personnel support unit, IPSU, at Base Petawawa. Unlike the offices that are being closed, the Pembroke office is a very busy, high-tempo shop with 29 staff members. The caseload in this office is split between traditional Veterans Affairs clients and newer rehabilitation cases, more recent DND veterans. Veterans Affairs and DND work together through the integrated personnel support centre to help Canadian Armed Forces personnel, regular and reserve alike, and its veterans and their families, to achieve a successful transition from military to civilian life.
IPSCs were founded on the principle that early intervention makes a difference in recovering from illness or injuries and successfully re-establishing civilian life. The IPSC at Base Petawawa provides support to Canadian Armed Forces, ill and injured personnel and veterans and their families, with the focus on the following core functions: the return to work program coordination, casualty support outreach delivery, casualty tracking, casualty administration and advocacy services, support platoon structure to provide military leadership supervision, administration support, and a liaison for military family resource centres with local base support representatives and local unit commanding officers.
Veterans Affairs collaborates with the Department of National Defence to conduct outreach to Canadian Armed Forces personnel veterans and their families to provide them with a clear understanding of the number of programs, services, and supports available to them. This includes conducting transitional interviews with members before they leave the military.
Base Petawawa also operates an operational trauma and stress support centre. These centres were established to meet the needs of Canadian Forces members returning from overseas deployments and suffering from tour-related psychological problems. Operational trauma and stress support centres are an initiative designed to complement the full spectrum of high-quality health services that the Canadian Armed Forces provides to Canada's military personnel wherever and whenever they serve.
This government recognizes the important and selfless contribution of our military men and women. That is why I worked hard, together with all of my colleagues, to provide them with the best health services possible. Because we understand they are more likely to suffer from operational stress injuries such as post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, we know mental health services and support are critical. That is why Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Armed Forces are working together to ensure that veterans and military members with mental health issues receive the help they need.
Significant investment has been made by the Canadian Armed Forces to ensure that our military members receive the highest standard of mental health care possible. Since 2006, the Canadian Armed Forces health care investment has increased, bringing our expenses in health care close to $420 million each year. There are no budget cuts when it comes to caring for our military.
In 2012, the government announced an additional $11.4-million investment, to enhance the armed forces mental health care system specifically. This brings the total amount of annual mental health investment for military members to $50 million. These investments translate to approximately 400 mental health professionals dedicated to our men and women in uniform, and we are currently working on bringing in additional qualified applicants to fill the spaces available.
One of the challenges of having a military base in rural Ontario is the shortage of health care professionals for the entire population. Even though the federal Conservative government has struggled to find mental health care professionals for Base Petawawa, we have successfully staffed five doctors for a base population of 6,000 soldiers; compare that to one psychiatrist for a local civilian population of 100,000 people. We have five doctors for the military population of 6,000 and one for the remaining 100,000 people in the civilian population. Is there a health care crisis in Renfrew County? Yes. Is the federal government trying to deal with the provincial shortage? Yes.
To the family and friends of the military members and veterans who have taken their lives in the past and in the recent months, I extend my sincere condolences. Every suicide is a tragedy. As Canadians, we are all affected when one of our Canadian Armed Forces members takes his or her life. We know how much they gave to this country.
Canadians are proud of our armed forces. The Canadian Armed Forces is among the best armed forces in the world. The health of our military members will always be a priority for the Conservative Government of Canada. The strength of our military organization is its people, and we need to continue to take care of them and their families.
Our government is supporting the men and women in uniform in the Canadian Armed Forces who are suffering from mental illness. However, I wish to reiterate the role we play in eliminating the stigma around mental health. Going through mental illness is very difficult, so let us encourage people to seek help, because seeking help is the first step to recovery.
Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege to stand in this House and confirm our government's full and continued support for men and women who have served our country so well.
It is a special moment for me, because since my election in 2011, I have been serving on the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, and everything that is related to veterans is very dear to me.
Canada's veterans represent the very best of what it means to be Canadian. They have served with courage, distinction, and honour. They have always put country and service before all else to defend our cherished way of life, often at great sacrifice to their families and themselves. They have helped to bring peace and freedom to many places around the world that had known only violence and oppression.
That is their proud history, and it is why our nation is now the envy of the world. It is also why our government is committed to recognizing their service and honouring their sacrifice every day. That is our record, our history. We have made it an extraordinary priority to ensure veterans and their families receive the care and support they need and receive it when they need it. That is why our government has always insisted that veterans' benefits and services be maintained and enhanced, no matter what economic times we might find ourselves in.
That is why Veterans Affairs Canada's annual budget has increased by almost $785 million this year over 2005. That is why we have invested almost $4.7 billion in new funding to enhance veterans' benefits, programs, and services. We are committed to serving veterans as they have always served our great country.
With the time I have remaining, I would like to highlight some of the many ways we are working to serve veterans and their families better and faster and in more modern and convenient ways.
I am sure most members in this House are familiar with our government's cutting red tape for veterans initiative. We launched it in February 2012 with the single-minded purpose of providing veterans and their families with faster, hassle-free service, and that is what we have been doing.
We have been streamlining Veterans Affairs Canada's business processes, simplifying the department's policies and programs, and making greater use of new technology and e-services.
The results so far have been impressive, with improved turnaround time for processing veterans' disability benefits. Access to rehabilitation services is now being approved in just two weeks, instead of four. We have reduced the number of forms and the length of the forms veterans have to fill out, and we have placed a renewed emphasis on using plain language in our correspondence with veterans and their families.
That is just the start of what we have accomplished. By the time this five-year initiative is fully implemented, our programs, benefits, and services will be the most responsive, inclusive, and flexible that Canada's veterans have ever seen, and we will be delivering them as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Veterans are already reaping many of the benefits. Just last fall, for example, the announced a new approach to our vocational rehabilitation program that gives veterans improved access to about $75,800 in training to start a new career. This is great news for approximately 1,300 veterans participating in our vocational rehabilitation and vocational assessment services.
These changes also build on other recent enhancements. For example, we have simplified our process for reimbursing veterans for travel costs to and from their medical appointments. This means that approximately 17,000 veterans no longer need to send receipts to the department or verify their appointments with it to recover their travel expenses.
This one change has eliminated a lot of cumbersome paperwork for eligible veterans, and it is putting money back into their pockets faster. We are doing the same for the more than 100,000 veterans, widows, and caregivers who use the veterans independence program. Last year, we began providing upfront payments for snow clearing, lawn cutting, and housekeeping services. Veterans no longer have to pay out of their own pockets for these services and then wait to be reimbursed.
These kinds of changes make a real difference. They represent real results for veterans. They also allow Veterans Affairs Canada's employees more time to provide the extremely high-quality service to veterans that they are best suited to offer.
Another way we are doing that is by introducing a full suite of e-services for veterans who prefer to go online for the information and assistance they want. These new e-services include the new veterans' benefits browser, which helps visitors to our website quickly determine which benefits and services are most relevant to them; the new “My VAC Book”, which is a customized, print-on-demand brochure that puts important information at veterans' fingertips; and the enhanced My VAC Account, which provides veterans with secure 24/7 online access to the department from anywhere in the world.
Of course, some veterans, like some Canadians, still prefer the traditional approach to service—that is, speaking to a clerk, an agent, or a teller face to face. We understand that. We get it. That is why our government has been expanding veterans' services in those areas with the largest populations of veterans. That was the raison d'être, back in 2009, for establishing the integrated personnel support centres on Canadian Armed Forces bases and wings. Today we have 24 such centres across the country, as well as seven satellite offices, so that military personnel and veterans who are in the process of releasing can have one central point of service for assistance from VAC and DND employees who are working side by side. It is also why, more recently, we have been expanding VAC services into the nearly 600 Service Canada locations nationwide. Through this single change, we are giving veterans and their families new points of contact and greater access to professionally trained front-line employees in their own communities.
Our government believes that veterans deserve more options and more choices when it comes to dealing with Veterans Affairs Canada. Through the many innovations we are introducing, our government is proud to be delivering, with better and faster service.
Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for this opportunity to speak on this very important motion that will be voted on tonight in the House.
What I hope to do in my short time, before I hand it off to my colleague from , is to talk about some things that no one has talked about here today. I have listened to the debate and there are some things that have been said that are counterintuitive and do not make any sense, so I am going to try to make sense of some of them and try to get to the bottom of things.
I first want to talk about the offices closing. Veterans this week came to Ottawa hoping to meet with the about the impending closures. They were joined by some concerned staff and members of PSAC. Unfortunately, they were snubbed by the minister, if I can put it that way. He kept them waiting, failed to show up at the scheduled meeting, and then disrespectfully dismissed their concerns. Those are not my words, but the words of the veterans who came to Ottawa, including Roy Lamore, a Second World War veteran from Thunder Bay. They were rightly upset, which people saw on the news last night, and a number of them have called for his resignation.
The thing that sticks out in my mind and perhaps in many people's minds was indeed Roy Lamore, who has been a activist for veterans for over 70 years in this country. It was he who said “hogwash” just before the minister walked out of the meeting. We are probably going to hear more of that kind of terminology later, as time goes on.
Just before I stood to speak, there was a conversation going on back and forth about the number of veterans. I remind people that these offices also deal with 25,000 RCMP veterans and their families. That is often forgotten in this discussion. There are 25,000 RCMP veterans and their families. When Conservatives talk about investing $4.7 billion in Veterans Affairs, consider this: when Ste. Anne's Hospital is transferred and all the other cuts happen, there will be approximately 2,000 people cut from Veterans Affairs.
If we look at the Conservative cuts across all of the departments on a percentage basis, Veterans Affairs has the largest personnel cut of any department and the staff involved will all be gone by 2015, some time in the next year. All of those 2,000 people will be gone. That is the first point. It is a little counterintuitive for the government to say it is increasing service but cutting 2,000 people. How does it rationalize that? It says it is transferring the offices to 620 Service Canada points. I want to say a couple of things about that.
I heard Conservative member after Conservative member today say these people will be trained. We know from the 2012 ombudsman's report that the government does not have a good record of training anyone. I want to talk about that a little later when I talk about mental health. At least 620 people are going to be trained. These are not new positions at Service Canada, but people who are already there. Keep in mind that Service Canada is already understaffed and overworked. If anyone has to go to Service Canada for any help, that person would find that is very readily the case. Some of the people who are already there will supposedly be trained in Veterans Affairs issues. That is one of the things that disturbs veterans, particularly wartime veterans, the most.
In short, the government is going to let go of all the people who already have expertise, the people whom veterans have been dealing with, in some cases for many years, helping them with their issues. It will then train new people who will have Veterans Affairs business on top of all their other business, such as CPP disability, EI and all sorts of other things. To say the service is going to be better, well, it is absolutely impossible that it would get better.
What happens now in a typical Service Canada office? People wait in line for maybe 15 or 20 minutes or half an hour, if they are lucky, and then they will see someone who will say, “Have a seat over there while we wait for someone to be free”.
Now we could assume that 620 people are going to be trained by the current government, but in fact they are not going to be trained. So it is going to be a fiasco for those who are 93 years old to make their way to the Service Canada office to get some kind of service. It is a big problem.
Service Canada staff are excellent. Those people work hard and do the best they can, but to add more duties and training onto a job they do not really have or know anything about is going to be very difficult for the veterans.
I have received a couple of emails from constituents asking what exactly the closures mean. They hear the back and forth. They hear from the veterans and the minister, but what does it actually mean?
Well, this is what it means. One office has already been closed, more are closing, including the office in Thunder Bay. These offices provide critical and specialized services for the Canadian Forces and, as I said before, 25,000 RCMP retired members and their families. These services include assistance with accessing benefits and services, support for mental health services issues, crisis intervention, and helping elderly veterans access services to live independently in a one-on-one environment. It also means that veterans will have to travel to other cities if they want that face-to-face interaction for front-line services, or be forced to try to access service online or by telephone.
Last week I tried the 1-866-522-2122 number. Although I did not get anyone, it seemed as if the message I got was, “Well just hold on and enjoy 40 minutes of flute music and we'll see if we can get back to you”. It is just not a suitable situation.
Of course, many seniors do not have online services or cannot get access to them. I live 30 minutes from Thunder Bay and I do not have cellphone service or Internet service. I am not exactly sure how seniors across the country will be able to access these services. Of course, it is especially difficult for elderly veterans or those suffering from PTSD.
Veterans will lose that long-term relationship they have, and I think that is one of the things missing from the government's discussion here. Many of these veterans have built up long-term relationships with staff at regional offices, which is especially important for veterans young and old, wartime and modern veterans who have complex needs, particularly mental needs. To deal with telephones, or to go online, or to travel a long distance simply does not make sense. It would involve travelling long distances to meet people who likely would not have the same training as the people who are there now.
I will give one simple example of the difficulties that people have not talked about.
One of the services that the wartime veterans get is snow removal. What used to happen was that the Veterans Affairs office would help the veteran coordinate the snow removal service, ensuring that someone was hired to remove the snow, making sure they got paid, and so on and so forth. What will happen now is that the veteran will get a cheque at the beginning of the snow season based on last year's snow.
Last year in Thunder Bay there was hardly any snow, but there is lots of snow this year. So when the veterans run out of money halfway through, can members imagine their phoning or being online with Service Canada saying, “I've run out of money for my snow removal”. Is that going to get sorted out? I do not think so. It would get sorted though if Veterans Affairs offices remained open and if there were that face-to-face contact.
It is really disingenuous for the government to say there are fewer and fewer veterans. There are more veterans. There will be almost 6,000 new veterans released from the Canadian Armed Forces in the next year.
I could go on and on. I know members would like me to, but in closing, I would appeal to the minister that at the very least he keep these offices open until all of these other people, these 620 people or so, are trained.