I call the meeting to order.
Good morning, everybody. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on February 25, the committee is resuming its study on service delivery to veterans. After the meeting, I'd like to go in camera for committee business for probably five to 10 minutes.
We'll begin on service delivery to veterans. We have here today, as witnesses from the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman's office, Robyn Hynes, director general of operations, and Gary Walbourne, the ombudsman. We'll start with a 10-minute opening statement from the witnesses and then we'll move into questioning.
Welcome. Thanks for coming in today.
Thank you for the invitation to be here today to give my perspective on the delivery of service to veterans.
As ombudsman to the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, my office is completely independent of both military and civilian chains of command, reporting directly to the . As an evidence-based, neutral organization, we do not advocate for any particular group. However, we do advocate for fairness, to ensure that any process or policy inside the department treats the members, both military and civilian, fairly.
Part of my constituency base is former members of the Canadian Armed Forces. If their issues involve the Canadian Armed Forces, they utilize the services of my office. If their issues have to do with receipt of benefits or services from Veterans Affairs, they utilize the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman.
As you would expect, with overlapping constituents, our two offices work well together. In fact, several members from my office have worked at the ombudsman's office and vice versa, including me. I spent three years there as deputy ombudsman.
Of the approximately 200,000 veteran clients at Veterans Affairs, we don't hear from all of them. We hear from the ones who slip through the cracks. Seamless transition for most ill or injured military members who require benefits and services remains a concept, not a reality, and is fraught with painstaking challenges.
Efforts to reduce complexities in service delivery have not provided the desired outcomes. Many of the available programs and services are overlapping. Others are frustratingly hard to navigate. For example, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, Veterans Affairs Canada, and SISIP, the insurance provider, all have their own case managers and their own vocational and rehabilitation programs.
Some of the offered programs become inaccessible through the sheer lack of awareness of the eligibility criteria. It would be best to have one knowledgeable point of contact that you can trust for the entire journey.
It is no secret that there are endless forms and long delays in adjudication. Paperwork, and lots of it, remains the primary method to obtain services and benefits from Veterans Affairs. At present, a file is transferred from the Department of National Defence to Veterans Affairs and then goes for adjudication while the member waits. In some cases, this could be for an extended period of time if there are complexities or nuances with the file. As far as adjudication goes, it is not, in my opinion, acceptable that there is a 16-week service delay.
I believe that all the evidence we need for the determination of attribution of service sits within the Canadian Armed Forces. Before they release a member, they work with them for an extended period of time, depending on the injury or malady. We know where, when, and how the soldier has become ill or injured. In my opinion, everything should and can be done before the member leaves the service.
One step to make life easier would be to start with the determination of service attribution. I think the biggest stumbling block, if we want to talk about ease of transition and access to care, probably starts right there.
I firmly believe that the Canadian Armed Forces are responsible to the member while they wear the uniform. I do believe that if the Surgeon General's office determines the service attribution, Veterans Affairs can deliver their programs based on the needs of the client, considering the injury or malady and the impact on quality of life. I also believe that there will always be a need for adjudication services inside Veterans Affairs Canada, especially for operational stress injuries, which many times manifest themselves later in life.
I routinely ask my staff and challenge them about what a service delivery model would look like. Why do I do that? Because as bureaucracies we have a tendency to search out process-centric solutions vice veteran-centric needs. For example, on the Veterans 20/20 project, the problem is that we're so focused on the project that we're failing to look at the outcomes.
As for ease of transition, as I just mentioned, I'm aware that the department is working very closely with Veterans Affairs Canada on their Veterans 20/20 project, now known as “Care, Compassion, Respect 20/20”. I know that many task forces have been formed and that representatives from both entities participated. I do believe that these types of conversations will help, but I also believe that we're going to have to go back to the basics, back to the core way we do business. A fundamental change to the service delivery model is what is required.
There has been much fanfare about the reopening of offices and hiring additional staff, but I believe we should place as much effort, if not more, on changing the delivery model. Doing the same thing over and over again, as we have in the past, will not provide better results. We must challenge the status quo methods of operating within departments.
My office is engaged in this effort and is currently considering what a new delivery model could look like from a transitioning member's perspective. This product may be of assistance to this committee and should be ready within the next six to 10 weeks.
The last comment I'd like to make, Mr. Chair, concerns the families of these transitioning members. I believe that we can and should do more, whether in it's access to mental health care, respite, or some sort of financial help to assist those who are helping our members to transition. It should be considered in anything we do going forward.
I stand by for your questions.
Thank you both for coming. I appreciate that.
You talked in your opening remarks about speeding up service. We've been talking a lot in this committee about service delivery and how we get it done. We're finding that service is taking a long period of time.
I'm wondering if you could share with us any further comments on steps that you think we could be taking. We've talked about how we identify the steps for the soldier right at the beginning and go through the steps with them. By the time they're done, they're familiar with everything out there and with what's available to them. As they step forward into Veterans Affairs, sometimes we see that files go missed. We lose things.
Can you comment on what you think might be a step, or one or two steps, that might speed that up so that we're not taking 16 weeks but are able to do it in eight weeks?
I think we can do it more quickly than that also.
For example, let's go back to attribution of service. What happens now when a member's releasing is that when a soldier becomes ill or injured, he or she is taken care of by the medical system inside the Canadian Armed Forces. We stay with that soldier up until the point where they receive a permanent category medical assessment and they're about to be released. At that point, we know when, where, and how the soldier was hurt.
This file transfer you talk about concerns the medical files that have to be transferred from the Canadian Armed Forces to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The issue for me is that if we determine attribution of service to the Canadian Armed Forces, there is no file transfer. We'll just send over the information that, yes, this soldier was hurt, and it is attributable to their service, and here's when it happened and here's what happened. Then Veterans Affairs Canada can deliver the programs they're intended to deliver—namely, the services and benefits the member requires, based on their malady.
I think we can shorten the process even far beyond eight weeks, but I think the first step we have to take is the determination of attribution of service. Currently for reserve force members, the Canadian Armed Forces makes that determination so that they can have access to the government employee insurance program. We're already doing it for the reservists. I think it should be extended to all force members who are medically releasing.
That in and of itself stops the file transfer. There is no review. When it gets to Veterans Affairs, it goes right to program delivery. I think we can do it, and do it very quickly. It's something we're already practising for the reserve force, and I think it could be extended for all the force members.
As part of my opening statement, I talked a little bit about there being multiple players at the table. SISIP is another one.
It's an insurance policy. The Chief of the Defence Staff is a policyholder. Inside that program there's vocational rehabilitation, for example, but it has a $25,000 ceiling on it. The one at Veterans Affairs Canada has a $75,000 ceiling. There's a difference there.
The eligibility criteria to get into the SISIP program are different from what would be required to get into another program. It makes the system very convoluted. SISIP, being the first payer, does not give that releasing member the opportunity or the option of where they should go. They each have a case manager with a different set of rules and marching orders. They have different levels of financial support and aid inside of the programs.
It's not working that well, in my opinion. We made several recommendations when I was a deputy ombudsman at Veterans Affairs, and I notice the Veterans Ombudsman now is continuing with the idea that they should be looking at all these programs to see which ones are working well and which ones aren't. I understand there was a request for proposal released online a couple of weeks ago, asking for an entity to come in and look at all the rehabilitation programs to see the best way forward. That's a positive step, I think, but I do believe we need to start getting some of the complexity out of the system.
We've done several reviews on the JPSU over the years. I know that when the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Vance, came in, he took it upon himself as one of his personal goals to get to the bottom of the JPSU, to get it set up and ready to have it functioning to provide that service to the members as required.
My problem with the JPSU would go back to the staffing levels, first and foremost. I have been in this position for a little over two and half years, and I've heard since I've started that we don't have the right numbers of staff on the ground. I found out today that we're still about 30 bodies shy of what the full operational numbers should be. The problem with the full op number is that it was established prior to coming out of Afghanistan, so my question would be, on the number that we've targeted—it was 457, and I think it has increased to 474—is it the right number? If it is, why aren't we doing more to staff more quickly?
I understand that there are competitive salaries across the country. These things need to be addressed, but it's not as if we found out about this today. We've known it for several years. That's my concern with the JPSU.
I know that General Vance has put a lot of effort into the organization and how it's going to be structured. There are going to be some responsibilities that devolve back down to the local chains of command. I think that's probably a good thing in order to help them have flexibility on the ground and to adapt. I reserve final comment until I see what the end result is going to be and until we're fully staffed and have done an environmental assessment to ensure that the right case management ratio is in place and people are moving through the system at the pace they need to.
I don't have much insight on the numbers. I have the same awareness that you have.
If we want to talk about helping veterans, I would say this: I don't know if any of us has a solution to prevent suicide, but I do believe we have the opportunity to remove as many obstacles in the environment as possible. For example, I know it's always the ugly thing to talk about, but let's talk about money. The calls I receive at my desk are not about not getting their medication last week, but about how they'll make their mortgage next month or how they'll get their kids to school.
If you take someone, especially with operational stress injuries, and you haven't given them a solid platform to step on prior to letting them take off the uniform, I think you're not helping the situation. What needs to happen is that the member who is releasing because of this type of malady is sure, before the uniform comes off, that everything they require is in place. They know when their earnings loss benefit or pension cheque will be in the bank. They know who their doctor will be. They know what their service benefit will look like.
We can do that. We have the ability to do that. It will take some leadership and desire to get it changed, but I do believe our job is to remove as many obstacles as possible in the path of these releasing members so that we can help reduce that number.
When we talk about families, for me, families are a part of my constituency base. All members and their families, all former members and their families, all former cadets and their families—they're a large part of my constituency base and always of concern.
The issue with families, for me, is that we hear all the time that we should do everything for the soldier and families, but what are we actually going to do for families?
There are programs available in Veterans Affairs Canada that help families somewhat. There is some respite care; I think they're entitled to a couple of weeks. What you have to understand, though, is that when a member is dealing with an operational stress injury, we see it for eight hours a day. The family sees it for the rest of the day. Anything wrong or bad that's going to happen to that member will first be felt on the home front, so why don't we allow families access to the clinics, where there are counsellors available that can talk to the families? Do we give them enough information and education?
We have tried, through our small little entity, to publish as much information as we can on our website, to make it as accessible as possible, but I believe we can do more. In Veterans Affairs Canada, if there's a caregiver taking care of a veteran, that caregiver is given a wage. If a family member is doing it, it's not the same thing.
That's exactly the model we're headed toward. We believe that when the member receives his temporary medical category, an assessment should be done on whether there is an opportunity for that member to return to work or if they are going to be released.
Contrary to what we may hear in the media, the Canadian Armed Forces, in my opinion, do an extremely good job with injured members. They stay with them throughout the process and they don't release them until they have a plan in place to go forward with their medical care, so kudos to the Canadian Armed Forces. Good job. Well done. The point is that as we change from program to benefit to service, there is a different set of rules and regulations and knowledge that you need.
You are exactly right that having one point from when the first determination is made through until the end, when the member is out and is receiving his benefits and services and his life is starting to move forward, is absolutely critical in the process. If we take operational stress injuries as an example, they can manifest themselves in many ways. Chaos and confusion do not help anyone who is suffering from that type of malady. To have a constant in your life throughout that process is absolutely critical, in my opinion.
I was there when Mr. Parent coined the phrase “a veteran is a veteran”. I think we're at a point in time when we should start to say that a soldier is a soldier, a sailor is a sailor, and an aviator is an aviator. Why do we have classes of soldiers?
In 2006, the Australian government decided to go parity across the board, where all soldiers—they went even so far as to include cadets—are covered. Should they become ill or injured in the service or custody of their country, all those members, both reserve force and others, have full access to benefits and services. I asked the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force for some input on what happened financially, and they said there was basically no change in what they had done, either administratively or program-wise.
I think we're probably finding ourselves getting to that point. Inside the Canadian Armed Forces you have the army, navy, and the air force, and then some special entities. The way in which reserve force soldiers are used, engaged, deployed, and employed is different inside each element. I think we need some continuity across the board. I think we're at a point in time when we need to start removing complexity from the system, because the first thing a reservist has to do.... The question will be, what type of soldier are you: A, B, B-plus, or C? Once that's determined, that opens up certain doors and gates for you. If you're not a B-plus, then certain benefits and services are not available to you.
Why are we still talking about this? I think what we need to do is start saying that a soldier is a soldier. It changes the game. Removing complexities from the system will start to go right to the core of the issues we're talking about—those who slip through transition, those who don't have some support when they get out. I think that would be my point on that question.
The product I talked about that I'll have ready in six to 10 weeks is going to look at all our allies and what they have available.
First, as I think any member of the Canadian Armed Forces or a veteran would tell you, we need a Canadian solution. However, I don't think that fact precludes looking at best practices.
We have found Australia.... I do believe parity across the board is a good practice. The Americans are doing some things so that they will not release a soldier, not allow him to take off the uniform, until everything is in place, so the continuity of life and salary and all those things continues until there's a place for this person to go.
We are looking at best practices, and they will be included in the document that I hope to produce in the next six to 10 weeks.
I've learned in this environment that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I believe attribution of service is a game-changer on the ground. I think we can cut four to six weeks off the process immediately.
The second thing we have to do is get out of this class-of-soldier thing we're in, A, B, B-plus, C, regular force, reserve force. We need to stop that.
The third point for me, once we've accomplished those two other things, is make a commitment to the suffering soldier who has experienced injury or malady. We don't let that soldier go until we have everything in place. That's what I'd like to see in a delivery model. Attribution of service goes to the Canadian Armed Forces. Veterans Affairs Canada determines quality of life and supplies benefits and services. Then, before we get there, the Canadian Armed Forces should hang on to the member until everything is in place.
These are the three steps I'd like to see brought to bear. I think we'll have to do them incrementally. We should try attribution of service first. Seeing that we already do it for reservists, why wouldn't we extend it? Moving forward, I think the other pieces would automatically go away; if we say that there are no classes of soldiers, everyone gets equal treatment. The third piece, the idea that you're not going anywhere until we have everything you require in place, would eliminate most of the transition problems.
First and foremost, they have different responsibilities—that goes without saying—but is one an extension of another?
Let me compound your issue, and I'll probably get in a lot of trouble on this. Why are there two ombudsmen? I serve the current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces , and my friend Guy Parent is out there doing the same thing. I understand the complexities of each entity, but we do it ourselves. We talk about coming together—let's get closer—and meanwhile, we do the same thing.
I do believe the two departments could be closer together. This concierge, life coach, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't have to be a DND employee. They can be a Veterans Affairs Canada employee, or maybe a veteran who has been hired. There are many opportunities.
Could the two departments come closer together? Yes, but it'll go back to a comment made by one of your colleagues this morning about swimming lanes. The lines will become more blurred. We know that the funding going to veterans is statutory funding and won't be touched. That's a no-brainer, but how is the administration going to work and what would it look like?
Looking at where we are today with two separate departments, I think there is going to be complexity in trying to bring them together. There are going to be problems and difficulty in getting it done, but I don't believe that precludes us from finding better ways to work together, such as saying, “This is your responsibility; you do that, and then I'll do this.” I would start to look that way before I would say, “Let's bring the two of them close together.”
I was mentioning to some of the others when I first got here that this is my 11th year in Parliament, and I have never sat on Veterans Affairs. This is a first for me. I'm privileged to be here.
When you jump into a new committee, one of the unfortunate things is that you get somewhat of a shallow understanding. It's like one of those prayer chains: when you're at the very end, everybody else has prayed for what you're going to pray for. I've gotten to that point. I've listened to this question and that question.
If I were going to be praying for vets, one of the things I'd be asking for is that in their transitions.... We touched on it slightly, but I want you to elaborate on the importance of moving into the workforce and on what we're doing as a government to make that easier for them. Are there areas in which we can improve on those things?
Thank you. This is one my pet projects.
Last year a piece of legislation called the Veterans Hiring Act was approved and passed through the House. I sat in front of the committee and said that I thought the opportunity that then presented itself gave the authority to the Department of National Defence to determine whether the injury or malady was in service to Canada. If it's in service to Canada, you get statutory placement on that list. If you're medically releasing, but not due to service, you get mandatory status on that list. It's absolutely critical to get on that list quickly, because the jobs come on and off the list very quickly.
Throughout the jigs and the reels, the authority was given to Veterans Affairs Canada. Let me tell you what happened.
When the member is released, either statutory or medical, because of service, the file goes to Veterans Affairs Canada for adjudication. It can be adjudicated. I don't know what the timeline is. I've lost sight of it. We've tried so hard to get at that data, and it's almost impossible. That's one thing.
When the person says, “Yeah, okay; it's attributable to service, so on the list you go,” then guess what? If that veteran now wants benefits and services, the file goes back for readjudication.
We're doing this to ourselves. We continue to add complexity and put layers where they should never be. When I spoke to the then acting president of the Public Service Commission, the comment to me was, “We don't care who gives us the name as long as someone in authority gives us the name.”
I think it was an opportunity. Had we taken that opportunity and given the authority to the Department of National Defence, it would have been a quick step from that point to my other point of attribution of service with regard to access to services and benefits. A lot of the things we are encountering we've imposed upon ourselves. I firmly believe that was an opportunity missed.
I think I can say from my experience at Veterans Affairs Canada, and now in this position, that corporate Canada has stepped up pretty well. I think that through a lot of work, both Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence have gotten a lot of corporate partners on side.
My word of caution about those types of commercials and advertisements is that sometimes too much exposure scares away a potential employer. We talk about operational stress injuries, and it's an umbrella term. It can mean anything from anxiety to full-on, full-blown PTSD and the gamut of everything in between.
I think we need to educate the public that we have soldiers on whom we've spent millions of training dollars, who have learned loyalty, command, respect, dedication, and those types of attributes that are wanted by any organization, whether it's private or public. I think that's what we need to be promoting. These people who do experience OSIs are day-to-day operationally fully functioning; they have maladies, and they suffer through them.
My caution is that not every soldier leaving the Canadian Armed Forces is broken. There are 5,000 to 6,000 releasing every year; about 1,400 are releasing medically—that's about 600 because of service, 900 not—so there are people with a lot of attributes and capabilities who are just walking out the door and could be picked up by anybody. That's my word of caution about those types of things.
Thank you, again. I have two quick questions.
We've been focusing on the veteran and that preparation for transition from DND to VAC. We also know that there are injuries that the veterans themselves might not be aware of; these manifest themselves over time, perhaps over 10 or 15 years. How should these service-related injuries be addressed if DND is sending notification to VAC before individuals are out of uniform?
If time permits, I have a second question. There are support staff, people who have worked for DND, but they're not part of the forces. I'm thinking, for example, of an Afghani interpreter who was brought to Canada, and his reward was to be brought here and given opportunities for education. He has PTSD and he cannot function. All those opportunities mean nothing because he cannot function and he cannot get help through DND or the operational stress injury clinic. Is this an issue? It doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar. Should it be?
This office was created in 1998 coming out of Somalia, and if anyone knows the history about Somalia and the issues that arose there, we can say that sexual assault and harassment and conduct unbecoming were some of the catalysts that caused this office to be created.
I wasn't around when they created the office, so I'm not quite sure what authorities were given or were not given to the ombudsman at that point in time, but we have handled and continue to handle sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints at our office. It's a service that we've offered and that I will continue to offer until I have a level of assurance that the system in place is indeed independent and is fully inclusive.
My office deals with not only the uniformed members of the Canadian Armed Forces but also with the employees. This sexual response team does not deal with civilians. We know, those of us who've been around a while, especially in the regions, that military members command civilians and civilians command military members. We've left 28,000 to 30,000 people outside. I don't think that's fair and I live in fairness. That's my role, so as I've said and as I'll continue to say, my office offers the service and will continue to do so until I feel we have a program in place that is fully inclusive and is fair to everybody.
The sexual response team...they call it independent, but it reports to the deputy minister.
I think there are two issues.
One, I think, would be probably an uptick in resource requirement through the Surgeon General, but I believe any money invested there will be more than gained on the other end. It comes down to whether there is leadership and desire. If there is a desire to fix something and you put the right leadership to it, it will get done.
I have to also be cognizant that there is a lot going on in the environment. There are a lot of things going on. We're engaged in multiple theatres. The Canadian Armed Forces are a very busy group. That's the only slack I'll give them.
I believe this comes down to probably a small requirement for resources, and it's just a matter of someone taking this on as a champion and making it happen.
I believe if we continue to have the conversations around what we currently do and doing more of that, we're never going to change. We have to go back and look at the model and say, “It's not working. Let's throw it out and start again.”
I'm not talking about getting rid of resources inside of Veterans Affairs Canada. Hire the case managers you're going to hire. Are they case managers? Maybe they're life coaches, maybe they're something else. Maybe they teach people how to do resumés and the interviewing skills, which we know is a big gap.
There's much we can do, but there is no future in continuing to do what we've done. We're going to keep having this conversation. As you said, in 12 months, in two years, we'll be back having the conversation. I think we're at that point.
In my opinion—I know there would be a small uptake of resources—first and foremost, attribution of service should be determined by the Canadian Armed Forces. It is absolutely critical. If we did that, I would put my reputation on the line that we could cut four to six weeks from the 16 weeks up front.
Second, I think we need to make a commitment to these injured soldiers and tell them they don't take off the uniform until they tell us they're ready or we have everything in place for them.
Those are the two things that I'd look at right now.
With those two moves alone, you don't have a transition problem anymore. The soldier is being well taken care of, still wearing the uniform, still gainfully employed in whatever type of work that may be, but they're not left waiting 16 or 18 weeks to determine if there's going to be a cheque or if there's going to be a future.
If you want to do something real quick, I think those are the two things we need to do.
Actually, you just mentioned something that's leading right into my next question. It's almost as though we planned this.
You mentioned those who stay at home and self-medicate. I'm a physician, and one of the things we know, first of all, is that substance abuse itself is a diagnosis as opposed to a moral failing. As well, we know that substance abuse is often the first outward indication that there's a mental health problem. If someone has attempted to self-medicate, they haven't told anyone about their mental health issues. The first sign that comes to anyone's attention is that they're caught drunk driving or something like that.
Now, if members who've been in the service have been disciplined for substance abuse issues, or even if there's just been a recognition of substance abuse issues, does that itself seem to throw up any barriers for care?
As Mr. Van Kesteren has said, oftentimes when we have two or three rounds here, people are asking the questions that you had written down. I still think Ms. Romanado's looking over my shoulder, because she's asking all the ones I'm looking at.
Also, kudos to you for your concise and informative answers. Thank you very much.
We've talked a little bit about families, and that's probably why Ms. Romanado and I are familiar.... We both come from military families. You've mentioned a bit about families and providing information for them beforehand. I know you've answered that, and I appreciate your comments about providing that education, providing the information to the employer.
Can you give us any information on what other countries might be doing in this manner?
It keeps going back to access, access, access. It's no good to have a problem if there's no access to relief for that problem.
Suicide hotlines are available in just about every community across the country. We do have the ability to interject into issues if there are compelling circumstances in which we feel there would be harm to the member or others. We can very quickly get the chain of command's attention. I can tell you that once something of that magnitude is brought to their attention, they engage, and they engage very quickly and very heavily.
The Veterans Ombudsman's office is another opportunity. They have the ability, in compelling circumstances, to bring resources to bear. I think it goes back to educating people. I was surprised, when I first went across this country, at the number of people who didn't know they had an ombudsman. It was an office that had been in existence for 15 or 16 years, and people didn't know that we even had an ombudsman.
It comes back to education and having things readily accessible and available. I think that's where we are.
Well, it's probably a question best left to my colleague Mr. Parent, the ombudsman for Veterans Affairs.
However, I would say that if we talk about one standard, there should be one route of access. There should be one engagement. There should be one form to fill out. We need to get down to one. At Veterans Affairs Canada, there are now 15 different forms for 15 different types of services and benefits. We want to get down to one.
When we talk about one veteran, we're not just talking about everyone being treated equally; we're talking about one access. How do people get access to services and benefits? I believe there's a lot that can be done.
I believe, first of all, that a soldier is a soldier. If we started there, we wouldn't have these classes and types of veterans when we get to the other end. You can be class B your whole life and never see a theatre of operation, yet still be hurt in the service of this country. Probably your access to services and benefits is going to be a little different from that of a regular force member, even though the malady may be exactly the same.
I'll leave it at that, but it's a good question for the veterans ombudsman.
Thank you so much. This has been so informative.
I really appreciated what you said about thinking about the total cost of a mission. You are so absolutely right. I think all of us have a love for our military. When people ask me what the greatest part of my job is, I say it's the military and the veterans. That is probably what is nearest and dearest to me.
In my riding of Chatham-Kent—Essex, or Leamington now.... I say that because we have the Essex and Kent command in Windsor and Chatham, and these men and women have had such an impact on all of our lives.
When we talk about the total cost, have we really taken into account the later years of our soldiers? Are we doing enough there? Are we considering what might happen two, five, or maybe 10 years down the road? Is there enough effort being focused on that part of their life?
I am going to steal some of the things I have heard in the environment. I will try not to take credit for them.
There has been talk. You know, we have boot camp, the basic training for people coming in, and we spend all this time developing the type of soldier we want. However, going out, we get a SCAN seminar, a second career seminar, that lasts two or three days or maybe a week. I think there is more we can do there.
We will go back again to where I am. We get a temporary medical category for the person before they get to a permanent medical category. At that point in time, there are at least six or eight months before the soldier is let outside. Why aren't we taking advantage of that time to do some training? It is civilian acclimatization, or whatever you want to call it. Something as simple as writing a CV and translating your abilities and capabilities to civvy talk is a piece of work. There is almost a bit of a game to it, and you need to know how to do that.
I have had colonels apply for positions inside my organization, but the rules are that I can see only what is on their application. When he tells me he is a commanding officer, I get it. He has handled everything: HR, finance, procurement, parking, whatever. He has done it. I know he has all the experience he needs, but if he doesn't demonstrate it to me, there is nothing I can do to help him.
I think things like that are little things we could teach folks to help them out, and then bring the families into a part of that and start talking about what the impact on their life is going to be and what is available. I think education is a big part of it.
We are working with the department right now to build one common IT platform with everything on it, very similar to the one that was introduced at Veterans Affairs Canada, the benefits navigator, so we are working with them on that and trying to develop that platform. I think it would be a tremendous boost, especially to spouses and family members, to have a place they can go to find out whatever they want. Through a series of clicks, what is important or pertinent to you would come forward, and everything else would fade into the background.
We are working towards that, and I am very pleased with the help and engagement we are getting from the department.
I have a few very quick comments.
There are certain things said here today that I think are of key importance. I think the attribution of service piece goes without saying. I really believe we need to have an adult conversation about that.
Secondly, I say a soldier is a soldier. There should be parity for our reservists. The reservists played a big role in Afghanistan, a large role in Afghanistan.
When I talk about attribution of service and having to avoid that adjudication process at Veterans Affairs Canada, please, please do not leave this room with the thought that I'm saying we should remove resources from the environment. Now is our opportunity, with the additional resources coming in and a change to the business model, for us to get this right. I think the case managers we're hiring at Veterans Affairs are required. Will we need them all to be case managers? Maybe not. Maybe some can be life coaches. Let's not take the opportunity today to cut other resources out; instead, change the delivery model and bring the resources to bear.
I'll now do my public service announcement.
Our website, ombuds.ca, has a lot of information on it. We have just started to transfer all our videos and literature into ASL. That's online for our members, so we're doing as much as we can to educate. I suggest to everyone to please drop by. I love the stats.
The last thing I'll say is that the issues we're talking about here today have been talked about for years. I've been to these committees. I love every opportunity I have—I'll get that on the record—but I do need to make sure that it's time for something to happen. I come down and I talk about leadership and desire. If you desire to change something badly enough, and you want to fix it, put the leadership to it and it will happen. I think it's time to stop hiding behind our own silos of authority. Open the doors. It's time for a change.
What I'm hearing from the members, both those serving and released, is that frustration is mounting. It's mounting. People are frustrated. My calls are up almost 30% over last year. I noticed that MGERC, the military grievances external review committee, has released its report. Their grievances are going through the ceiling. Something is happening in the environment, and if we're not cognizant of it and we don't deal with it, I hate to say it, but we'll be back having this conversation again in 10 or 12 months.