Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon.
Members of the committee, I want to thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for the first time. I certainly appreciate the great work the members have done on behalf of Canada's veterans and their families. I especially want to acknowledge the important work undertaken by the committee recently on issues such as indigenous veterans, ending veterans' homelessness and medical cannabis.
Mr. Chair, I also want to thank you for your motion on ending veterans' homelessness. All of us agree that having one homeless veteran is one too many, and it's important to shine a light on that issue. That's exactly what you have done, and I look forward to working with everybody on the committee to make sure that we can reduce homelessness.
I want to say that I was previously, 25 years ago, the secretary of state for Veterans Affairs, and it's certainly an honour and a privilege to be back here at this committee. I consider it an honour to have the position that I do and to have the privilege of representing the people who have done so much for our country.
Last week, I had the tremendous honour of accompanying the delegation of veterans to the shores of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. I was accompanied by a number of members, and I think everybody involved would be nothing but proud of the ceremonies and our country.
D-Day was of enormous importance for our country and for the world, and also a day of tremendous loss. Three hundred and fifty-nine Canadian soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice that day and more than 700 were wounded. To walk these beaches with the people who fought there 75 years ago and who saw their friends fall there, to visit the memorials and the final resting place of thousands of comrades—there are really no words to describe it. Together, we laid wreaths, we saw old battlefields and we paid tribute to those who made the sacrifice. Quite simply, it was one of the greatest honours I've had in my life.
Also, with many young Canadians as well, the best way to learn about our history is to ensure it lives on and to hear it from the veterans themselves. It is so important. We all gained a deeper understanding of what our troops went through 75 years ago.
I think it's fair to say that we went through some understanding, but it's pretty near impossible to realize what it would be like at Juno Beach. My colleagues here were there too, and just to look at coming up that beach...can you imagine it 75 years ago with the Nazis shooting down at them? It was just something else. Because of what they did, that's why we're at this table: for them, for their families and for all the people who followed in their footsteps, from the hills of Korea to the mountains of Afghanistan, and now in Iraq and Mali and beyond.
Canadians are forever in debt to those who step forward in the service and defence of this country and in support of our friends and allies around the world. It is our job to remember them and to take care of them when they return.
Before I speak to the changes compared to last year's estimates, I'd like to take a step back.
As you know, Veterans Affairs is a different department than it was four years ago. It's driven by vision and with a clear focus on the overall well-being of our Canadian Armed Forces members, our veterans and their families. It's because of that vision that we have invested over $10 billion in new dollars since 2015. It is a vision that saw our government immediately reopen nine Veterans Affairs offices. In fact, we opened an extra one, giving veterans better access to the information and programs and the services that they've earned.
In budget 2016, we increased the maximum value of the disability award for Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans with service-related illnesses and injuries to $360,000, putting more money directly into the pockets of veterans. We also increased the earnings loss benefit, raising it to 90% of an injured Canadian Armed Forces member's military salary at the time of their release from the forces.
We reversed a decade of cuts in service, hiring 700 more staff to deliver services and benefits, answer questions and help veterans through the transition process. We need people at Veterans Affairs to deal with veterans when they come in. We have increased outreach in every part of the country, including a strong effort to reach our veterans in the Canadian north.
Budgets 2017 and 2018 introduced eight new and enhanced programs, including a new veterans education and training benefit, providing veterans with up to $82,000; the caregiver recognition benefit; a veterans and families well-being fund; and a new veterans emergency fund, which is a fund that's so important. It's $4 million—$1 million a year—and last year we had to add $300,000 to that. It's something that's used. Last is expanded access to military family resource centres and a centre of excellence on post-traumatic stress disorder.
More recently, through budget 2019, we continued to build on these important initiatives with investments of $41 million to improve the transition process to civilian life; $20 million for a centre of excellence on chronic pain research; $30 million to recognize the contribution of Métis veterans to this country in Second World War efforts and to commemorate the sacrifice and achievements of all Métis veterans; and $25 million to improve how we care for members of the military, veterans and their families.
There's one underlying purpose for all of these changes and in fact for everything that our government has done over the last four years. It's not just the well-being of veterans but that of their families, because a veteran cannot do well if his or her family does not do well. This is why we are committed to ensuring our veterans and their families are better informed, better served and better supported.
I am pleased to report that this approach is working and, in fact, that applications are on the rise. In fact, with the renewed trust in the department since 2015, we have seen an increase of 60% in disability benefit applications since we formed government. This is a good thing. It means that veterans are coming forward and getting the help they need.
Of course, this kind of increase demands a response, so we're taking concrete steps to improve our service. Our government is providing $42.8 million over two years, which started in 2018-19, to increase service delivery capacity and keep up with the rise in demand. We also refocused our efforts, and service delivery is now centred on the individual veteran: their circumstances, their needs and strengths and those of the family.
To help address these needs, we have hired hundreds of new caseworker managers, who work directly with veterans. We have hired more than 450 new case managers, up from a low of 194. This is a significant improvement from where we were four years ago, and we will continue to recruit to meet the demands of the veterans community, because we know there's always more work to do for veterans.
Of course, the recent implementation of the pension for life was critical and delivered on our promise to bring back a monthly pension. The pension for life combined what veterans and stakeholders asked for with the most up-to-date research and understanding of veterans' well-being, which brings us back to why we're here today.
If we look at the main estimates and the numbers themselves, the net increase of $25.4 million that Veterans Affairs Canada will receive compared to the 2018-19 estimates will directly benefit veterans and their families.
The increase in funding as a result of the pension for life includes $685 million for pain and suffering compensation, $628 million for the income replacement benefit and $102 million for the additional pain and suffering compensation. All of these changes are significant fundamental improvements to the many services, supports and benefit programs required by veterans and their families to make a successful transition from military life.
I want to remind the committee that over 90% of our budget represents payments to veterans and their families, because they are the single guiding focus for everything that we do.
It's our job to help them transition smoothly to life after service and to commemorate and recognize their sacrifice. We have come a long way since 2015—from improving benefits and services to restoring trust with the veteran community and shifting the focus of government from being one of cost savings to one of support for veterans and their families.
In the months that follow, we will continue the important work that veterans have asked us to do, because that is what they deserve and that's exactly what Canadians expect from their government.
Again, I want to say it's an honour to be here, and I again want to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of this committee and my deputy minister, Mr. Natynczyk, whom I neglected to introduce, but most people know him.
Thank you very much. These are my remarks and I'm open to questions.
Minister, I'm going to read from a card that's in my hand, and you're receiving a copy of it.
This is on the back of the card. On the front side, there's a picture. It says, “Constable Catherine Campbell - Pay it Forward with Kindness in her Memory”. It continues, "In 2015, the life of Catherine Campbell was tragically cut short. Catherine was a dedicated police officer with the Truro Police Service, a volunteer member of the Stellarton Fire Department. She was a daughter, sister, aunt and friend. In Catherine's professional and personal life, she truly believed in kindness. One simple act of kindness can make a difference. In her memory, we ask that you take this card and perform an act of kindness. Then, pass this card onto others and ask them to do the same. Remember the passion, integrity and kindness Catherine exuded in her life. She will never be forgotten.” This says it is courtesy of the Central Nova Women's Resource Centre.
On the front of the card is a picture of Catherine Campbell holding a sign that reads, “#ReasonToRise One act of kindness can go a long way!” You can view that picture, sir. That picture inspires me every day.
Christopher Garnier, age 30, of Halifax, was convicted in 2017 of second-degree murder in the 2015 death of Truro, Nova Scotia, police officer, Catherine Campbell. An expert at trial testified that Garnier developed post-traumatic stress syndrome as a direct result of strangling Campbell, putting her body in a compost bin and dumping her under a bridge.
While behind bars, Garnier has been receiving treatment from a private psychologist funded by Veterans Affairs. That ties into today's discussion of the estimates. This money is allocated and dedicated in the estimates.
Christopher Garnier never served a day of his life in the military. He's getting his PTSD treatment paid for, while so many veterans must fight Veterans Affairs for theirs.
Sir, I've come to know you. We've travelled together. You are a fine gentleman. You are a person of integrity. You are a person who has served this country for over 30 years in your capacity as member of Parliament. You are now the minister. Your predecessor chose to maintain the benefits for Christopher Garnier.
On September 25, 2018, this motion was put before the House of Commons:
That, given the Prime Minister has told veterans that they are “asking for more than we are able to give”, the House call on the Minister of Veterans Affairs to revoke the Veterans Affairs Canada benefits that have been extended to Chris Garnier, who is not a veteran, is incarcerated for second-degree murder and for interfering with the dead body of police officer Catherine Campbell, and is currently receiving benefits for a disability he sustained while committing his heinous crimes.
I chose not to gloss over any of the facts in this or sweep this under the carpet because I've spent time with her parents Dwight and Susan, both in Truro and in Ottawa. On September 25, they watched every member of your Liberal government vote to maintain the benefits—including yourself, sir—of Christopher Garnier.
You have the power, as minister, with the stroke of a pen to revoke those benefits in your position. Will you do so?
Could I talk to a few of those points?
The $10 billion for our department is accrual funding, which means we have actuarials come in, looking at the full projection, the number of clients and the client base, and then we consider a young soldier, sailor, airman or airwoman who is 20 or 25 years old, and we're providing a benefit to them for potentially 60 or 70 years.
When we talk about our funding, some of that $10 billion is in the funding going forward, but be mindful that whatever benefit comes in is a statutory obligation and, every year, as our financial statements will show, we have had to go back and ask for additional funding because the benefits are needs driven. In addition, within that $10 billion, as the minister indicated, is the augmentation of staff.
Going to the whole aspect of wait times, right now, mindful of the 60% increase, the average wait time has been 32 weeks.
First of all, with regard to case managers, as I mentioned before, we're onboarding them as quickly as we can. We're also again trying to change the triage system as to who needs case management and who needs guided support.
As the minister indicated, we received surge funding and we've hired not only additional case managers but additional adjudicators.
In terms of the backlog, the backlog is in the order of 18,000. The number of 40,000 is for all of the files that are currently in the department, no matter whether they've been waiting a week or a longer period of time beyond the standard, but the backlog is in the order of 18,000.
What we've been able to do is to get surge funding to assist us in terms of getting more adjudicators and case managers while we try to do some other things, because it's not only about people. As the minister indicated, we're trying to digitize as much as we can. It used to take us weeks to get medical files and service files. We're trying to do it digitally and link in to the Canadian Armed Forces or Library and Archives.
We're also trying to take a much more presumptive approach.... I know that the lawyers in the room may not like the term “presumptive”, but with regard to mental health, we're being much more, I guess, open to the notion that someone who has served and gone through a difficult time, as a result of that has a bona fide diagnosis, and we're approving it at a rate of over 90%.
The other thing we're doing, especially for those veterans who have served in pretty physically demanding trades, is that we're using a cumulative joint trauma tool. For example, for an infantryman who has hundreds of parachute jumps, the likelihood is that he or she could have difficulty with their ankles, knees, hips, back, neck and shoulders. Again, we're trying to expedite it in that way.
What we are also doing is using the My VAC Account in order to—again—expedite the whole application system. One of our problems is that some of the applications don't come in complete, and we have to go to and fro and back to the veteran trying to get a diagnosis. Through using this pension for life digital tool, the system, kind of like your taxes, only accepts it when the application is complete.
The last piece is closing the seam with the Canadian Armed Forces. About 24% of all of our clientele are still serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. By closing the seam of the Canadian Armed Forces, we can get all of this work done while these men and women are still in uniform. They have their pay and they have some of the best medical care in the country. Let's get everything done before they take off the uniform.
It's all of these steps that we're going through in order to see what the trend is if we put all of this into place and then what is in our enduring model in terms of the workforce as we project over the next few years.
I believe all of you were in the room when you heard my questioning of the minister regarding Christopher Garnier, who is receiving benefits, is not a veteran and is a convicted murderer. I'm sure that somewhere along the line this was not the intention of the program, because if it was we're in big trouble.
I think there's probably a good answer in the process of what happened, or at least I hope there's a good answer about what happened in terms of this decision. I want to ask each of you, as individuals who are in the management team of Veterans Affairs, to describe to this committee and to me the process—in particular, if you can comment on it and if you're familiar with the Garnier application for benefits for PTSD suffered by him in the act of murdering Catherine Campbell. It was witnessed in the courtroom as the reason he would receive these benefits.
To correct the record, quite clearly, the minister—and I've had a follow-up conversation with him after his testimony—was not absolutely clear in terms of what had happened when the government voted on the motion that was before them. I'm sure you're familiar with it because you carry out the policies of the government.
The policy on the day of the debate changed. It changed in that every individual, from that point forward, who makes an application, who is a convicted murderer or convicted of a serious crime and is put into a penitentiary, would no longer qualify for such benefits even though he or she was a family member of a veteran, so that it would never happen again.
Again, this reinforces my contention to you—and I'd like your response individually, one or more—as to the process. It confirms the contention that somewhere a mistake was made along the line. Lead me through, if you can, as the top management team, from the time the application arrived, who evaluated it, who saw it and who made the final decision whether this murderer got benefits, because he has them. This government decided to maintain them. To this day they maintain them and this minister is unaware, so please answer.