Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you today, and a special thanks to Dr. Kitchen and Ms. Wagantall for restoring my faith in the political system, at least a little bit.
Veterans Affairs Canada: that name strikes fear and anger into many, many injured veterans and families. The only thing that is consistent about Veterans Affairs is how consistently broken it is in so many areas. As you have heard from veterans in past meetings, they are unhappy, desperate, and abandoned—yes, abandoned. There are so many basic structural flaws in the system that picking a starting point has taken most of my sleep since I have been asked to appear.
How can you run a multi-million dollar department with nothing written down on what success is? What are the goals? Where is the data? Even the suicide data is flawed. If you owned a business or a corporation, you would never operate without a set goal in mind. Really, they're just flailing around in the dirt, because there is no set plan and nothing written down on what a successful veteran looks like two or three years after release.
Veterans feel like criminals before they even start. The burden of proof needs to be on VAC, not on the injured vet. They're not capable. These are disabled and hurting vets. They're going through all kinds of trauma, and the last thing they need is to be treated like a criminal and have to do research. It's horrific. In the U.S., their burden of proof is on the department, not on the veteran.
When did Veterans Affairs Canada stop filling in the paperwork for the veteran? This will show you how basic the structural flaws are at VAC. Many people with post-traumatic stress disorder are not capable of filling out paperwork. They see the blanks on the forms and they see it all at once. They can't pick out one blank and answer it and then the next blank. They see it all at once.
This was told to me by a psychiatrist and proven to me when my husband—a helicopter mechanic with 23 years, 223 days—couldn't fix a pedal bike for about the first four years after release. He just didn't have the cognitive power. But they have to fill out the paperwork to access the help, and that is just a huge obstacle.
One has to ask how the very department that's taking care of veterans with PTSD doesn't realize that veterans have a problem with this paperwork and those forms. These are the people who are supposed to be responsible for it. They're supposed to know this stuff.
The problem with Veterans Affairs is that it's been broken for many years. My dad was a World War II vet, and he looked my husband in the eye and said, “In the eyes of the government, the only good vet is a dead vet.” So now you know: it isn't only the new veterans telling you that it's broken. Poor treatment of veterans isn't new, nor is it unique to Canada, but it still isn't right. It has to stop.
The men and women of our military take great pride in their career and are willing to sacrifice their lives for the protection of our freedoms and our way of life. They do this with full gusto, believing right to their core that the government has their backs and their families' backs if they are injured. It's quite the shock when they realize that isn't the case. They're not adequately providing support and help to the injured veterans, and these veterans have to claw, fight, and beg for any benefit they may receive, or Veterans Affairs offloads the entire burden on the caregiver. It's unbelievable the burden that is, as Jenny will probably tell you too.
Dealing with VAC is a trigger for me; it's a trigger for my husband; and I bet it's a trigger for Jenny and her husband too. The very fact that the caregiver is given no support or education like wound care, surgical packing, or proper lifting techniques—now you're starting to give it, but it's much too late.
I see that you've had quite the journey. I've been watching some of the past meetings. I think you realize just how desperate veterans are and that things aren't quite hunky-dory. When you hear from the witnesses, particularly from the powers that be, I think you need to realize that sometimes the figures and quotes are somewhat sanitized, and you need to do the digging to find out what the real truth of the matter is.
I loved it that some of you guys went and tried to do some of the forms, or tried to access the VAC website. In the rural area, we cannot access the VAC website. We cannot access the Blue Cross website. The Legions are no good to us. Yet, every time I hear your meetings, you're talking about how wonderful the Legion is and what a help they are, or how these websites are wonderful. Well, if we can't access it, it's not much good.
The unfortunate truth is that we have absolutely no more time for study, committees, re-evaluation, and consultation. In Saskatchewan, times are beyond desperate. They're desperate. We have no psychiatrists for our veterans.
We were blessed with two of the top doctors in their fields, psychiatrist Dr. Greg Passey and psychologist Dr. Susan Brock, and now they're gone. Both doctors tried so hard to find replacements, but mental health professionals are so few and far between, and they understand the administrative burden that VAC puts on them, and they know how tough it is to deal with veterans with PTSD.
We don't have a psychiatrist for veterans in Saskatchewan. We haven't had one since November, so some of these veterans have missed five to ten sessions, and we all know a veteran who's one or two sessions away from a crisis. We need help here. I've phoned the federal government, I've phoned the provincial government, and I've phoned the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. The federal government blames the provincial government, and the provincial government blames the federal government. Meanwhile, the veterans here are desperate.
Please, can you do something? Set up an OSI clinic or something here. You've set up these beautiful centres in places that already have practitioners. Why wouldn't you set one up where we have none? You would answer all our prayers. We have, what, two bases here? We have RCMP training, and that would be a lot.... Also, there are all the RCMP people who serve in Saskatchewan. T.C. Douglas would be rolling in his grave if he knew what health care and mental health care are like in his beloved province of Saskatchewan.
The other problem with getting practitioners in Saskatchewan is that the government tends to pay about two-thirds of what the rest of the country pays, so it's not like our Saskatchewan weather is going to make them come here. We need to at least be on a fair and level playing field, and VAC insists on paying provincial rates. I think that needs to be studied and looked at, because once again we are sitting here with no practitioners.
I have another couple of comments that I'd really like to get in.
A lot of veterans have been losing programs and benefits. The sad part is that not one veteran who has lost a program can understand why. I believe that if you're going to do something as devastating as removing the ELB or the rehab program, you need to have a face-to-face with that veteran and his family so he understands why you're taking away his benefits. Every single one of these people who have complained about losing benefits still to this day does not understand why they cut the benefit. I understand that there's a two-letter process and it's 60 days, but if they don't hear from them, they just cut them off. We need more face-to-face contact with Veterans Affairs.
Veterans Affairs has been setting up to be more distant. When you walk into a Veterans Affairs office, it's a horrible feeling. It's not welcoming. It's closed. It's almost a lockdown on the doors. Nobody feels like going into Veterans Affairs, because the whole environment doesn't feel very welcoming.
We need more one-on-one direct contact with veterans. You could go into their homes like you used to do; I don't know if you still do. You need to be able to see what environment they're in and what kind of state the family is in. They're probably not going to tell you until they start trusting you, and unfortunately there just isn't much VAC credibility with veterans. The flaws are so structural that I almost wonder if it's worth throwing all these good ideas and good money after bad. Maybe they should be blown up and started from scratch, and maybe we should even change the name, because “VAC” is such a trigger for everybody.
This is major work that needs to be done. I imagine that it's a huge job you're looking at, but please listen to the veterans and the caregivers. The caregivers are doing the bulk of the work and getting no resources. I'm sorry, but $7,000 a year does not replace a $60,000-a-year career. If my husband dies before me, do I have to live in poverty? All my best earning years are gone because I'm at home taking care of my husband, and gladly so, because he's much healthier for it.
How much time do I have left?
I have to tell you, Mr. Chair, that I forgot my notes once again. It's the story of my life. I will count on you to let me know when my time is up, because I have so much to tell you all.
First of all, thank you very much. You may remember me as the vet's spouse who ran after Mr. Fantino two years ago, in fact 23 months ago, not even two years. Here I am as a result of the system.
Very briefly, I'd like you to please acknowledge the fact that my ex-husband is sitting here. He's the one who has allowed me for the past two years to talk so openly about our challenges whether they are social, work-related, or sex-life related. Please ask me about the challenges; ask me anything you want to know about, but please, most of all, know that this man gave me the permission to talk openly.
Second of all, now as his separated wife, I am homeless, and because of him I can eat during the month. It's not the case for all women, for all spouses, for all caregivers, or even for all veterans when they end a relationship. I want you to acknowledge that most of the time, one of them becomes very vulnerable. I am it.
I ran after Mr. Fantino 23 months ago. A year ago I testified before the same committee, right here, where I expressed the fact that the caregiver relief benefit didn't make sense at all. In June 2015 I expressed the same thing before the Senate subcommittee, the fact that the caregiver relief benefit didn't make sense. Here I am, in May 2016, and I am now homeless.
I want to make sure you understand that it's the advocacy that killed me. Three things would have saved our marriage. The first one is everything related to the help and support that was promised to my husband. How can a man who spent 5,000 hours in a CC-130 Hercules...?
I'm sorry, but I will switch to French from English, because I'm exhausted. I hope you're ready.
My ex-husband has 5,000 flight hours to his credit. In 2007, Veterans Affairs Canada acknowledged that his tinnitus could be related to his military service. Two years later, Veterans Affairs Canada gave him hearing aids that were not covered under his pension, and there is nothing about this in his file.
For eight years, my former husband has fought to get recognition that his deafness is also related to his service. If the tinnitus is recognized, why is the deafness not? I do not understand it. The problem is that my ex-husband suffers not only from tinnitus, but also from deafness. The tinnitus maskers also mask his deafness. He cannot hear anything. Veterans Affairs Canada has to acknowledge the fact that his deafness is also associated with his service. That way, he can get care and devices that will improve his quality of life. This brings me to the quality of life issue. As long as this man is suffering, I am going to support him, as a family member.
If medical cannabis had been available before, that is the second thing that could have saved our marriage.
Medical cannabis, as Carla just mentioned, would have saved our marriage. Do you know why? All the pills he was taking—for sleeping, or to give him energy, or to wake him up, or to calm him down before we would attend family meetings—made him completely numb all the time. Do you know what it did? It prevented him from having positive social experiences. Don't forget that PTSD is a process. It's all about maturity.
Now, here's the thing. The third thing that would have saved my marriage is if this country would have recognized the service that I myself gave to my country. This is exactly why I want to talk to you today. I have so much to tell you, but I have one mission today, and that is to tell you that the battle about families is all about identity and dignity. Let me tell you what it's like.
The identity part is all about the core of the policies where I'm not recognized. Do you understand what that means? As much as for the Canadian Armed Forces as with Veterans Affairs Canada, if my husband cannot access services only because I'm there.... Remember, I had four kids at home, a full-time job, a big house to run, and I was told by a case manager that my husband couldn't have VIP service. Do you know why? Because I was there. “You can do it, Madam Migneault:” that's exactly what I was told.
This is the identity part: you have to recognize me in those policies. The dignity is about quality of life, and it has three aspects: support, education, and recognition.
The support is really all that comes with me, my own background. I would like to remind you that if I had been a military spouse, I would have come from the JPSU. If you're a serving member and you need services, chances are, if you have a wife, you won't get those services.
Do you want to know what the impacts are on my life as a caregiver? Just think about it. The burden is on me. No matter what, I have to deal with the situation, and I come with my own baggage. I need support to teach me how to protect myself from the collateral damage. I am that collateral damage, as we speak.
I need education to know how to support my husband, to help him, to be the ally who will make him want to get better. This is the input I can bring. Most people think about education as having to do with the therapeutic side of things. I do agree. But do you know what? For years I'm the one who gave my husband a massage. He has a cracked backbone. He would rather receive a massage from his wife than from a stranger, and he felt like I was doing a better job. Well, this is probably true, but if I had been trained to massage him correctly, more efficiently, I would have lost less energy in trying to help him. That's the point—I need education.
I cannot talk on behalf of everybody. My purpose is really to bring the voices from down to up. I cannot tell you what education should be. If you ask me, knowing that many live with, for instance, domestic violence, I would be the one promoting the teaching of self-defence, if needed. Education can be that large. It also means we have to deal with the reality, the reality of the ugliness of the darkness.
Then there's recognition. Let's be honest, we're talking about money. The more you want to help me through my husband, I'd like to remind you that the more you are making me dependent on him. That's the point. The recognition is really about the money. First of all, I had to quit my job in order to stay with my husband eight years ago. Eight years ago I was 35 years old, and I'd like to remind you that I testified, in November 2007, before this same committee. Read it. I was 35 years old, and we had three children at home back then. You'll see who I was and see who I am today.
I cannot work 40 hours a week now. I am transitioning. Understand me: I became a military spouse myself, living 24 hours a day with someone with PTSD. If you don't still believe that transfer PTSD is a reality, come back to earth. Now, the family needs an independent voice. Do you know why? Because in a marriage, my needs are not the same as my husband's. Give me an independent voice, acknowledge where I am, my needs, and let's work on an action plan.
In terms of education, it's things like mental health first aid, which even all VAC employees have, wound care, and proper lifting techniques. It's really obvious stuff, Robert.
Dealing with PTSD, I wish I knew back then what I know now. Life would have gone so much easier. It's simple things, like the fact that someone with PTSD has trouble filling out forms. If they'd told me that at the beginning, think of how many fewer domestics I'd have had. I mean, I was getting so frustrated trying to get him to fill out the forms. It was integral understanding that he couldn't, and I'm amazed that VAC hasn't figured that out yet.
I had VAC make a special phone call to me, to tell me that since my husband was no longer going to be seeing Dr. Brock, I could no longer go to the office. They would not pay for the travel. I said, “Yes, I realize it's only my husband who counts for you.” Every person who's taking care of a person with PTSD should have regular psychological appointments. You need to come from a place of stability.
The two best things are these. First, you need to talk to your veteran's psychiatrist. There are two pills. I'm not making a prescription recommendation, but they work: clonazepam and propranolol. If your husband's having a psychotic episode, you need to know that and have them handy. You also need to have an escape plan, for both you and your kids, that your veteran will never guess. This is just survival. This is just pure, simple survival of a veteran's caregiver.
I will be honest with you. My answer will be sort of political.
Just remember that last August, families were promised $100 million a year. Do you all remember that, in August? I remember. I was there, at the press conference. Now everybody seems to have forgotten about it.
I say that politically speaking, since caregivers and families are not top priority—which I respect, of course, because we all have to wait our turn, it seems—right now would be a great time and an opportunity to become the world leader when it comes to caregiving. Right now we could think about it collectively, with the right voices.
An independent voice means that you recognize me, not as being a serving member or a wounded veteran. An independent voice means that you believe in me and what I can bring to the well-being of my veteran and my family. I thank Carla for reminding us of the impact on children. It is generations that are suffering.
An independent voice means that you recognize me for what I can bring, and for who I am, and my potential, instead of watching me go down slowly—just as you see with me.
Madam Migneault and Madam Murray, thank you very much for being here.
I'm just brainstorming on my question, so I'll try to figure it out. For six months I've been thinking a lot about all the issues for veterans. Last week I think I started to understand something, and what you said today corresponds to this vision that came into my mind. You talked about stopping the circus, blowing it up, and starting from scratch, and then talking about the real issues.
What I've been seeing since the beginning is that there's the stakeholders group and there's the veterans. There are two things.
Also, in terms of what the ministry does, there are also two things, the financial benefits and the services. I think since the new charter of 2006, we are in a paradigm, which is to either create new benefits or increase existing benefits and allowances. That is good, and it had to be done, but it seems to me that this is kind of the circus, because even if it was done under the previous Conservative government—and I was wondering why, when we have all these new benefits, veterans still say we did nothing—I now see this new government following our path and just doing the easy stuff, which is to have new benefits and increase allowances.
I want to talk about the real issue, which might not be the real issue, but I'm trying to find out now.
Madam Murray, you talked about structural flaws in the ministry. I'm wondering if maybe it's not flaws but it's the structural culture of this ministry. I have a straightforward question, because veterans have been talking to me about this. Are you aware of non-official rules that the ministry is imposing on its case managers? I'll listen to you first, please, Madam Murray.
Listen, there are no words to describe what life is like when you only have a telephone number and you call to say that your husband is not well and needs help, but you are ignored.
There is nothing worse than to call someone and say my husband needs help and not be acknowledged because I'm the spouse.
In Quebec in the past six months, I believe we have more than 12 veterans who committed suicide. The pattern is all the same. They are all men in their forties, fathers of young children, and all abandoned by their wives at some point. Do you know why? The wives are trying. They're trying. When they're military, they go see the padre, they call the chain of command, they go to the MFRC, they go everywhere, they don't have a diagnosis: you're not the serving member, bye-bye.
I'm being told the same thing by Veterans Affairs. My husband saw a psychiatrist from Veterans Affairs for six years and no one ever asked me what was going on in my home. Six years: isn't that enough? I'm nothing—nothing. Don't talk about service delivery to me. I have no service to me, it's all through my husband—case managers, Veterans Affairs: my wife needs to see a psychologist, so the wife goes to see the doctor to have a prescription, the husband gives it, and then we wait. We wait and we wait: “You have 25 sessions, Mrs. Migneault”, and then bye-bye; 15 years with PTSD.
The JPSU didn't exist in my husband's time. It was the SPHL. Being released from the forces back in what I call the “dark days”—I think he got out in 2008—was horrific. SPHL was brought out and the case managers were just kind of feeling their way. It was horrific. I had to do all his paperwork, and nobody—not a case manager, nobody—was going to help me. They almost blocked my way. It was awful.
I wish I could soothe your fears. I told my children that if they went into the military I would disown them, and I'm not joking. I'm not going to watch this again.
I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't know what to tell you. I'm still living the nightmare. My husband still has PTSD, and I'm alone. I'm dealing with this all by myself.
I have no.... I mean, now we have OSISS for families. We never did before, but now we do, and that's kind of handy, but it's three or four hours away from me. I can pick up the phone, which is nice, which I didn't have before, but my husband was having an episode the other night, and I'm sitting there and I have the two bottles of pills in front of me in case something happens. He's doing great. He's using his tools and he's doing wonderfully, but you don't know, right? Also, we're out in the middle of nowhere. Even our local hospital was closed that weekend. I'm sitting there with those two bottles of pills and watching him, and I'm thinking, “I have no one to call.” I have no psychiatrist. I have no psychologist. We're on our own.
That's been my journey the whole—I'm sorry that I can't swear—way; you know what I was going to say. I survived, and now I try to support other caregivers, but right now in Saskatchewan the veterans are in such desperate need that I advocate for them too. We have to at least get them some help, and then I'll worry about getting the caregivers help.
For me, it's not about the money, but there's a Canadian Air Force $35,000 caregiver allowance that was never offered to me when I had to quit my job and take care of husband when he was in the military. I think that $35,000.... I mean, I don't care if I get the money or not. I'm broke, and I'm never going to be able to work again anyhow, but taking care of my husband works. He's so much better because I'm home and I can intervene before things go bad, right? If he starts getting fixated on something, I distract him with something or we'll go for a walk. I'm good at this now, but this is all self-taught. I don't want women to go through that.
I approached OSISS when I was in Alberta and going through the middle of it in Cold Lake. I approached the OSISS worker there and said that I wanted to start peer support for wives. He said, quote, that “PTSD doesn't exist in the air force”, and he wouldn't even talk to me again. He is now the manager of that district—the manager of that district—so do you want to tell me that things are getting better for veterans? I can quote you in a million ways how they aren't.
I'm sorry, but these guys are blowing smoke up your butts: the Legion, the VAC, the CPAC. You have to get to the truth. I know I'm not supposed to say this, but what have I got to lose? I've been alone the whole way now.
Thank you very much for your testimony here today.
I'm a substitute member of this committee. I'm used to dealing with fisheries issues. I have to tell you that it's a little less intense over there.
I appreciate what you said. I come from Chilliwack, B.C., home of the former CFB Chilliwack, so there are a number of veterans who have come back after their service to settle in my community. I've seen a lot of difficult files.
I will just recount the story of one veteran who has a physical injury. He can't walk without a cane. He's about my age. It was a service injury, a training accident, and he too experienced that delay-and-deny culture. How much worse it must be for the unseen occupational stress injury. If they're not going to acknowledge an ankle that won't work anymore, how are they going to acknowledge mental illness? I think there really is a cultural problem there.
You both mentioned independently access to medical marijuana. I wanted to get some answers from you. The Auditor General just touched on that as well.
Jenny, you mentioned that it was working for your ex-husband, but it was seen as a bit of the dark side that he was self-medicating at the time. When you're in the JPSU you're still a serving member of the Canadian Forces, and that would preclude you, I would assume, from using marijuana of any kind. Am I correct in that?