I call the meeting to order.
Welcome today to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are studying service delivery to veterans.
From the Department of National Defence we have Brigadier-General Nicolas Eldaoud, chief of staff, military personnel command; Marie-France Langlois, director, casualty support management, JPSU; Bruce Phillips, family peer support coordinator; and Vanessa Pok Shin, family peer support coordinator.
From the Department of Veterans Affairs we have Elizabeth Douglas, director general, service delivery and program management; Robert Cormier, area director, field operations; and Anne-Marie Pellerin, director, case management and support services.
We will start with 10 minutes from each group. The we will go to questioning. We will ask the group to direct their questions toward a specific organization and witness.
We will start with the Department of National Defence.
Good morning, Mr. Chair, and thank you, members of the committee.
I am Brigadier-General Nicolas Eldaoud and I am the chief of staff of military personnel command. I am very happy to be here this morning with my team.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear today and speak to you about the joint personnel support unit, or JPSU, and the operational stress injury social support process.
My role is to assist the commander of military personnel command, Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross, in Canadian Armed Forces military personnel management, from recruitment through training, education, benefits, health care, and spiritual services to career management, honours, and history.
The commander of Military Personnel Command is also responsible for providing support and services and delivering programs to ill and injured military personnel and their families, as well as supporting the families of deceased military personnel. These services are delivered by the joint personnel support unit, or JPSU, which consists of eight regional headquarters and 24 integrated personal support centres (IPSCs) and seven satellites across the country, with a headquarters here in Ottawa.
Joining me today are the real experts. First is Navy Captain Marie-France Langlois. She is the director of casualty support management as well as the commanding officer of the JPSU.
Also with me are Ms. Vanessa Pok Shin, OSISS family peer support coordinator here in the national capital region, and Mr. Bruce Phillips, OSISS peer support coordinator.
We serve a number of distinct groups, each of which usually includes regular and reserve force personnel and their families.
There are four groups in all.
The first group are those who are ill or injured and who are expected to be able to return to full duty participate in our return-to-duty program. This program assists military personnel throughout recuperation and recovery and their return to their military duty, which could be a gradual return consistent with the prescription for return to duty that has been issued by a medical officer.
The second group are those who are ill or injured to the extent that they are not expected to be fit for full military duty are supported through transition services. Approximately 10,000 regular and reserve members transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces each year. Of that number, about 16% are released for medical reasons, and we support them through that transition to civilian life.
The third group is made up of those who are neither ill nor injured. But they are entitled to transition services, recognizing the challenges of adjusting from the military lifestyle to civilian life. Transition includes those who are releasing or retiring, and are either seeking civilian employment or looking forward to a well-planned, successful retirement.
Finally, we also support and assist the families of military personnel who are deceased, ensuring that a designated assistant is assigned to assist these families with the administrative support and assistance they require.
The joint personnel support unit, the JPSU, and its subunits, the integrated personnel support centres or IPSCs, were envisioned to be a one-stop shop where those who are ill or injured would receive advice, support, and assistance, not only from the military staff who deliver programs and oversee personnel posted to the IPSCs but from other partners.
Chief among these partners is Veterans Affairs Canada, VAC. VAC staff are co-located with CAF personnel in the IPSCs, and VAC is a key partner in the transition assistance that is provided to releasing and transitioning CAF personnel. VAC and CAF are intertwined in many aspects of service delivery. As an example, if you look at the VAC website, you will see that it invites military personnel and veterans to come to the IPSCs for information and services.
The IPSCs deliver the following services: return-to-duty coordination; advocacy services; mobility assistance; adapted physical fitness programs for individuals; the Soldier On program, which you may have heard of before; vocational rehabilitation; peer support, including operational stress injury social support, or OSSIS, and the Helping Our Peers by Providing Empathy program, or HOPE; support in accessing CAF, SISIP, and Veterans Affairs compensation and benefits; transition services for those who are released; civilian employment facilitation, including priority hiring within the public service; and finally, administrative support to families of the fallen.
The operational stress injuries social support, or OSISS, program that I just mentioned is a good example of a joint Veterans Affairs Canada/Canadian Armed Forces program. Jointly funded and operated, it provides valued peer support to members, veterans and families.
Founded in 2001, the OSISS program was established to complete the clinical care provided by Canadian Forces mental health professionals. A group of military members and veterans who had served in theatres of operation recognized the benefits of sharing their experiences and set up a peer-based support network.
From those roots, OSISS has now developed into a well-established program, managed in partnership by the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada. Every member of the network brings to it first-hand experience and practical knowledge of what it is like to struggle with an operational stress injury or to live with someone who has one.
As serious as an operational stress injury may be for affected Canadian forces personnel are veterans, there are also repercussions for their families. Through the OSISS program, peer support is also available to members of the families of those suffering from operational stress injuries. Members of the immediate family can invest considerable effort in trying to understand the injury, being supportive during recovery and maintaining family stability.
Over time, these demands can become major stressors on family members who try to adapt to the long-term effects of the injury. Because of these stressors, it is important that family members also seek help and support so that they can safeguard their own well-being, that of their children and the injured person.
OSISS is bolstered by trained volunteers who have previously benefited from the program and who choose to volunteer to support others. Being able to assist others can be a significant part of the recovery process, and many of our volunteers are quite active in providing that support. They are a key component of the program's success.
We are actively working with Veterans Affairs Canada on improving services offered by our organizations to veterans. As an example, the CAF and VAC are working jointly on a national career transition and employment strategy that integrates information on employment, financial planning and investing, and government programs offered to veterans. There are also other joint task force working groups between CAF and VAC that are currently ongoing. All of them aim to ensure the seamless transition of veterans to civilian life.
This strategy takes a whole-of-government approach and anticipates expanding its focus to include other government agencies, such as Employment and Social Development Canada, Service Canada, the Public Service Commission, and others, to leverage existing programs and resources that will support transitioning members and veterans.
Thank you again for the opportunity to appear, Mr. Chair. I would be pleased to respond to the committee's questions.
My name is Bruce Phillips. Thank you for having me here today.
I will give you a brief background on Vanessa and me.
I'm a 28-year veteran of the Canadian Forces. I have spent 17 years in the Patricias—that is the PPCLI, if you're not familiar with it—and then I did an occupational transfer to LCIS, or Land Communication and Information Systems, as a technician. I've spent time in Calgary, Wainwright, Kingston, and Petawawa. I had tours in Cyprus, Croatia, and Bosnia, and I was also posted in Germany for a time, where I was born.
My job has three components. I work one side of that, the peer network, and Vanessa works the family side. The third component, as was mentioned by the brigadier-general, is the volunteer component.
Outside of that, I'm not sure if there is any more to add.
Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this session.
My name is Elizabeth Douglas, and I am the director general of service delivery and program management at Veterans Affairs Canada.
Today I am joined by my colleagues Anne-Marie Pellerin, director of case management and support services, and Robert Cormier, the area director of field operations from Montreal. We are pleased and happy to be here to answer any questions on the study regarding service delivery.
The care and support of veterans, Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families is Veterans Affairs Canada's highest priority.
VAC undertakes studies and research regarding veterans and veterans' issues. The Life After Service Study of 2013 found that there is no so-called average veteran. In fact, nearly 27% of released Canadian Armed Forces members reported a difficult adjustment. Another 17% reported that their transition was neither easy nor difficult.
Not all members who medically release need the same level of transition assistance, and many who release for other reasons do need significant transition support. This makes the development of VAC's policies, programs, and service delivery to support members, veterans, and their families in transition to civilian life of greatest importance to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Evidence from the life after service study highlights that a successful military-to-civilian transition is particularly dependent on factors in seven key domains of well-being. These domains are employment; finances; health; social integration, both family and community; housing; life skills; and culture, which includes identity.
The transition period is an opportunity for Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces to assist veterans in all of these seven areas as they move into civilian life.
To do so, VAC, in partnership with the Canadian Armed Forces, has more than 100 staff working side by side in 24 integrated personnel support centres, known as IPSCs, across Canada. The purpose of this partnership is to provide a coordinated approach to care and support for Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans, and their families in the transition from military to civilian life.
The IPSCs provide access to available benefits, programs, and family services from both departments, allowing veterans, families, and members to focus on recovery as they prepare for the next stage of their lives.
Additionally, VAC transition interviews are available to all releasing Canadian Armed Forces members and their families. The transition interview is a screening process used by VAC to assist releasing members and their families in identifying potential risks and/or barriers to successful re-establishment.
During this interview, VAC staff will identify any potential risks or barriers; determine the level of support/intervention required; provide a collaborative approach to identify necessary benefits and services; work to establish a relationship of trust and confidence; gain a greater understanding of the member's transition needs; empower members and their families to become active participants in this transition process; provide information about or access to the full range of Veterans Affairs Canada's benefits and services; and refer members, veterans, and families to the appropriate resources as required.
Enhanced transition services is another joint initiative by VAC and the Canadian Armed Forces, put in place in response to the June 2014 report of this committee. Veterans Affairs Canada is now engaging earlier with medically releasing Canadian Armed Forces members and their families. This was implemented nationally in September 2015, with the goal of ensuring the best possible outcomes during this transition from military to civilian life.
Early intervention is critical in a successful transition process. It is imperative that VAC become involved with medically releasing members during their pre-release stage of transition. Through early engagement with medically releasing members, VAC is committed to building stronger relationships with medically releasing members prior to release; strengthening joint case management activities between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada; assigning of a Veterans Affairs Canada case manager or veteran service agent before release, based on the member's need; assisting members with completion of VAC program applications; rendering New Veterans Charter program eligibility decisions pre-release, where possible, so that services and benefits are available immediately after release; assisting members with registration and navigation of My VAC Account; providing members with a copy of My VAC Book; and providing information on how employment in the federal public service can be sought and found.
Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces are working together to develop joint case plans that will address barriers, ensure timely access to available programs and services, and provide an overall coordinated approach to case management activities. This ensures a continuum of services following release and for as long as those services are required.
An expanded post-release follow-up process was implemented in October 2015. Up to that point, VAC was following up with veterans who were assessed at a level of risk designated as moderate to high. With this new initiative, post-release follow-up is expanded to include medically released veterans designated as being at minimal risk. This provides an additional opportunity for VAC to follow up with medically released veterans to ensure that their transition needs are being met and to address any concerns or issues that this minimal-risk group may have.
On October 1, 2015, VAC and the CAF launched a pilot project to provide medically released veterans and their families with access to the military family services program, MFSP, for two years after release in order to support them in their transition to civilian life. The pilot project includes access to seven military family resource centres located in Victoria, Edmonton, Shilo, Valcartier, Trenton, North Bay, and Halifax; access to the military family services program's family information line; and an enhanced familyforce.ca website to assist with transition.
Results as of March 2016 indicate that the military family services program is well received and welcomed by the veteran community. Service utilization is increasing on a monthly basis. As of March, over 2,400 veterans and family members have been served at both pilot and non-pilot locations.
In conclusion, as part of Veterans Affairs Canada's five-year strategic plan, the department is more closely aligning with the Canadian Armed Forces to close gaps in service and address as many barriers as possible before a member of the Canadian Armed Forces releases.
All of these measures help to achieve better outcomes for all of our military personnel, veterans, and their families by ensuring they have the support they need before, during, and after their release from the military.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you for joining us this morning. It is an honour to have you with us here at the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. All the more so because, if I am not mistaken, this is the first time that we have with us both Canadian Armed Forces personnel and a number of representatives from Veterans Affairs Canada.
We have so many questions to ask you that it is difficult to decide where to start. I would specifically like to talk to Ms. Douglas, Ms. Pellerin, and Mr. Cormier.
I am sure you are aware that a number of veterans have come here in recent months; they have had many complaints about the programs and services provided by your department. They have mentioned benefits, red tape and other problems.
Transition interviews have been held for two years. I myself was released from the Canadian Armed Forces a few months ago, and I had my transition interview by telephone the day before yesterday. It was a very interesting experience. I found it was very well done.
I have noticed that most veterans who have come to tell us about their concerns and their complaints about the treatment they have received were released more than two years ago.
Can you share with us your data, if you have any, about veterans who have been released in the last two years and who have gone through transition interviews? Have the interviews made a difference? Have they improved the situation for veterans?
Yes, sir, absolutely, and thank you for your question on this matter.
The issue of mental health, and certainly the stigma within the Canadian Armed Forces, is absolutely recognized, and from the top. Obviously, I am referring to General Jonathan Vance, our Chief of the Defence Staff.
The way we handle this.... The number one enterprise is the chain of command talking about it. Our surgeon general is very involved and committed to making sure that mental health within the CAF is a recognized issue and that the chain of command sees it as a condition that exists among the ranks that we need to talk about. That is why we are very involved.
Bell Let's Talk, for example, is one initiative we embrace. We are doing this with Bell, and for the last few years we have been extremely involved. Every year this thing goes on and improves, to the point where.... General Vance usually gets all his general officers together twice a year. The last time we did that, when he got us together, the subject of that two-day conference was mental health, and he had it right in the middle of the Bell Let's Talk event, just to show you how important it is.
It is about the chain of command talking about it, recognizing the issue, understanding what the issue is, and encouraging people to just say it and not be concerned about any repercussions that could come. There shouldn't be any repercussions. Most of those mental health issues are within the universality of service. We keep people. This issue of “If you have a mental health problem, we will release you” is a myth that we are trying to destroy.
Okay. Fifty per cent of releasing members do not have a transition interview, so they do not necessarily know what services are available to them, and you do not know if they're going to need help. It's a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach for half of the transitioning members, if I understand it correctly.
Now I'm going to switch gears, General. We talked a bit about universality of service and mental health. You mentioned that our CDS is very much dedicated to making sure that the issue of mental health in the military is not hidden and that folks do seek out support. I know for a fact that's not happening, because my son just lost two classmates, and they hadn't even seen service. There is still that stigma and there is still that fear of coming forward to say, “I need help now.”
I know that when folks join the Canadian Armed Forces, there are actual medical, physical, and mental requirements to be able to join. We're talking about the few who would probably not have mental illness who are actually being selected, yet we still have a lot of suicides.
I'm concerned that it is not getting down to the ranks, right down to the students who are studying at our military colleges, that they can seek help. I'd like to know what concrete measures are happening—rather than Bell's Let's Talk initiative or twice-a-year conversations—so that our students are not suffering in silence and our active members are not suffering in silence. Could you could elaborate on that, please?
You are the mom of two soldiers. Thank you.
I didn't say that our effort toward mental health is done, not at all. We are active, absolutely, and we understand that it's not there yet. What you're referring to in terms of the military college is something I've been personally very involved in over the last few months. Currently there's a board of inquiry happening at RMC as we speak to understand what is going on, not only in terms of what the students know and what they're being told, but what the environment is at RMC. Is there something we can do? Is it the leadership? It's a very complex issue.
I didn't come here prepared to talk about mental readiness, so I don't have any statistics to give you, but let me just say this. I can assure everybody here, and actually every Canadian, that the number one priority of the leaders in the Canadian Armed Forces—the number one priority—is the care and well-being of their troops. As soon as you talk about anything that could jeopardize that, and mental health is one of them, it's our top priority.
It will take time, however. It is a societal problem. We know this. We need to deal with it. We're never going to stop looking at it. Actually, be aware that General Vance's mission on mental health—and actually he goes even further, to suicide—is to eliminate suicide in the CAF, and we're working on it. It's not to reduce it, but to eliminate it. While some people tell him that he can't do this, he says, and I may even almost quote him, “I'll be damned if I don't try.” We'll never stop working on this until we get there. Whether we do get there is something else, but we won't stop.
I'm sorry I don't have statistics to give you.
Thank you again.