Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good afternoon, everyone. It's a pleasure to be here.
The Vanier Institute of the Family is a national, independent, charitable organization dedicated to understanding the diversity and complexity of families and the reality of family life in Canada.
We're a national resource for anyone who is interested in or involved in families in Canada.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the institute, we were established by General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier and his wife Pauline, 50 years ago. Their Excellencies established the institute to study all families in Canada. Since Monsieur Vanier was a husband and a father as well as an officer, a wounded vet, and a commander-in-chief, we honour his legacy in our military and veteran family initiative.
At the institute, we seek to understand families and to enhance the national understanding of how families interact with and have an impact on our social, economic, environmental, and cultural forces.
We fulfill that mission through our research, our publications, our projects, our presentations, partnerships and collaborations, and of course, these days, through networks and social media.
I'm here today to share with you information about the military and veteran family initiative. I'm here to share insights from our round tables with vets and veteran organizations, families, and family support organizations. I'm here to inspire those who study, serve, and support families, to engage with and include military and veteran families in all of their programs and services across the country.
First, here's a little bit about the military veteran family initiative. About five years ago, following a round table that I had the honour to co-host with the current Governor General, the Right Honourable David Johnston, and his wife Sharon, we brought together a group of family experts from across the country, one of whom was a military representative. Of all the distinguished people at the round table, everybody knew a little bit about every aspect of family. Everybody knew a little bit about refugee families, indigenous families, and families new to Canada, and so on. Nobody around the table had a solid understanding of military or veteran families. These were the cream of the crop of Canadian experts and they were not aware of what military and veteran families were experiencing. We followed that with a series of round tables and, ultimately, a conference on military and veteran families, and we solidified this initiative.
The purpose of the initiative is to increase awareness of military and veteran families, their unique experiences, their perspectives, and what they bring to the table; and to bring together those who serve exclusively, or largely, military and veteran families with those organizations that may be serving military and veteran families and not even know it.
We have four primary goals in the initiative, namely to build awareness, to build professional competency, to build organizational capacity, and to build community. Regardless of where military and veteran families live—and we know they are in every community from coast to coast—should they reach out to access any service, whether it be education, health, mental health, or recreation, everybody will have at least a basic understanding of their experiences and their perspectives, so that they'll be able to access equitable services, regardless of what community they live in.
Our ultimate goal is to ensure that those families have equitable access to services in the communities in which they live.
In that past five years, we have been working specifically on building awareness by increasing military literacy. We want every community service provider, every teacher, principal, guidance counsellor, and mental health provider to have at least a basic understanding of military and veteran families—the lingo, the jargon—and to help them understand the reality of their experiences.
We have been working with organizations to build organizational capacity, so that organizations as a whole can begin to identify, recognize, and support military and veteran families.
We have been working on building professional competency, whether it's within the field of early childhood education, or teaching, or mental health.
We're about to launch a new awareness program specifically targeting building awareness for family physicians across the country. That will be launched in November of this year in British Columbia.
We're building community. We want every professional and every organization to know who in their community and who within their peer group is available to assist them when necessary. When a family, a veteran, or a military family goes to reach out for services or support, they are received and immediately start to get what they're looking for as opposed to being put in a paused state, or being referred to somebody else and having to wait for a longer period of time. Everybody will be able to meet their needs.
One of the major accomplishments of the military veteran family initiative has been the establishment of the Canadian military and veteran leadership circle. This was established almost two years ago, and it now includes 35 member organizations from the private, public, and non-profit sector. As you would imagine, some of the military and veteran organizations, like the legion and the organizations that serve veterans, are members.
What's unique about this particular leadership circle is that it also includes organizations like the Canadian Child Care Federation. We know that when a military family has a new child, like other families in Canada, they're likely going to be reaching out and accessing child care services in their community. We're working with organizations like that to make sure they have basic awareness and understanding of the life of a military and veteran family.
We held the inaugural, first of its kind, meeting in 2015, and began to develop and establish collaborations, co-operations, and partnerships across and among organizations. One of the major outcomes has been to reduce duplication and to increase proper collaborations, so that if a family is participating in one program and slides over to another, then it's a seamless move. We've seen organizations pool their resources so that they're better together than they are separately.
The leadership circle was co-founded and co-chaired by the chief of military personnel.. When he left it was taken over by the commander of military personnel command, the deputy minister of VAC, and the chair of the Vanier Institute.
Our purpose of the leadership circle is to strengthen the community of support for Canadian military and veterans' families through knowledge mobilization, relationship building, and coordination of existing services, emerging projects, and programs. What we're looking at is ensuring that the programs that are evolving and developing are evidence based, evidence informed, or evidence inspired. We're linking the research that's being done, the academic research, and the program evaluation research together to make sure what is being made available is of high quality and is based on evidence.
What we're doing now is leveraging the skills, talents, and expertise of the key community leaders, and we're continuing to build awareness, capacity, competency, and community.
As we begin to work together, we want people to understand the experiences of veterans' families and the life they've had while being in the military and in transition. We want the professional community across the country to have an understanding of the mobility, separation, and risk that military families have experienced, and what veterans are going through in transition.
We believe that we can accomplish more together and that we can extend our reach by working together. VAC and government don't have to do this alone. We are working across organizations to eliminate boundaries, to build a bigger picture, and to mobilize community support across the country.
Our members are passionate and diverse. We continue to discover interconnections and interdependencies among stakeholders and service providers, as well as family members. It's about relationships. It's about how we look forward to helping these relationships grow.
In addition to organizations like VETS and other organizations, we have wonderful advancements being made with school guidance counsellors in rehabilitation and integration, and with occupational therapists and physiotherapists across the country.
One of the things the leadership circle has produced is a compendium, which is a perpetual digital document. It is a summary to date of all of the partnerships and collaborations that are in existence across the country, and it is growing continually. The next meeting is this January, and we'll continue to see that grow.
It's our pleasure to be here and to work with you as you continue your work. We continue to work with those organizations that have shared interests and shared mandates, including those around the world in the United States, in Australia, and in the U.K.
We are a resource to you and to other organizations in Canada. We invite you to work with us as we continue to pursue our mandate and our objective to ensure that military and veterans' families have access to the services they need.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee. Thank you for having me here today.
It's my pleasure to speak to you today about this important topic of service delivery.
My name is Debbie Lowther, and I am the chair and co-founder of VETS Canada, Veterans Emergency Transition Services. I am also the spouse of a military veteran of 15 years who was medically released in 2005. My husband and I co-founded VETS Canada in 2010.
The aim of VETS Canada is to provide assistance to veterans who are in crisis, who are at risk of homelessness, or who are already homeless.
What sets us apart from other organizations is that we don't wait for the veteran to come to us to ask for help. We go out in search of the veteran and offer them help. We're a volunteer-led organization. We have teams of volunteers in every province and major urban centre across the country, and those teams, as I said, go out into the streets conducting what we call “boots on the ground walks”. They visit the shelters, the drop-in centres, and the areas of the streets where the people who might need some help would be frequenting.
We also respond to referrals from shelters, from concerned family members, and from other organizations, including Veterans Affairs. In 2014 we were awarded a contract by the federal government, making us service providers to Veterans Affairs in the field of crisis and homeless veterans' outreach. To date, we've had the privilege of assisting over 1,200 veterans across this country.
The first thing we do when we come across a veteran who needs some help is to connect them to Veterans Affairs, because we want to make sure veterans are getting the services and benefits they may be entitled to from the department.
What does that mean? That means we deal with the department quite frequently, either on behalf of the veterans or with the veterans, because they sometimes find that process very overwhelming. Our volunteers will act as a mediator, hand-holder, or whatever the need might be.
With that frequent interaction with the department, what are we seeing? We're seeing that over the past couple of years there have been a lot of improvements with the department. We're also seeing that there is improvement still to be made.
In the past few years, the department has reduced the number of forms it takes for a veteran to apply for benefits and services, and that's been a welcome change. The department has endeavoured to reduce turnaround times in processing applications for disability benefits. The goal is 16 weeks. It's been our experience that the majority of the veterans we assist are receiving their benefits in that time frame. Over the past year, for some reason, the cases we're seeing have become increasingly complex, and it takes a little longer for those folks to get their responses.
Over the past six months, we've had the opportunity to work with some of the new Veterans Affairs case managers who have been hired, and it's been noted that with the decreased caseload, or lighter caseload, our veterans are receiving a faster response time from their case managers. For veterans who previously may have had to wait 48 to 72 hours to hear back from a case manager, we're finding that now they're getting a call back in less than 48 hours, and sometimes in less than 24 hours. We do believe that the hiring of additional case managers has been a great improvement.
It has been our experience that there are inconsistencies in how information about benefits is communicated to veterans. More often than not, the case managers are helpful and forthcoming with the information on benefits and services, but there are times, if the veterans don't know the right questions to ask, then they don't get the information, and they don't know what they're entitled to. Imagine a veteran who is struggling with PTSD, and who can barely get out of his house to go to the grocery store, trying to navigate the process of applications for benefits. We would like to see a more standardized process of case manager and client or veteran interaction, with maybe a checklist of some sort.
We're aware that the department is making efforts to provide a more seamless transition from the military by strengthening partnerships with the Department of National Defence, which is a sensible move, we feel. One issue that is frequently brought up, and probably one of the most frustrating, is the fact that when a veteran is still serving, that veteran may undergo a medical assessment by a military doctor to determine whether an injury or illness is service related. When that veteran transfers over to Veterans Affairs, he may have to be reassessed by Veterans Affairs doctors for that same condition or illness.
We've seen cases where people have been released from the military, they've been followed up by military doctors, their conditions have been determined to be a result of their service, and then they are followed up by Veterans Affairs doctors and their benefits are denied. They say that it's not service related. That's one frustration that impedes the seamless transition, we believe.
In closing, I will repeat what I said at the beginning. We've seen a lot of improvements over the last little while, but there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made. We do believe in continued consultation with community groups and veterans themselves. As Nora alluded to, we need collaboration rather than duplication, and we believe there are a lot of organizations that can work together for the betterment of our men and women who served this country. I think it's important for the department to continue to consult with the community organizations and the veterans to get the feedback they need.
I would like to thank you for having me here today.
Now come the tough questions. Actually, Ms. Mathyssen alluded to this a little earlier. We had the pleasure on Tuesday night of seeing Contact! Unload. It is a very powerful play, done by soldiers who have the experiences. It is extremely powerful.
For someone like me, who comes from a rough-and-tumble world, it struck me immensely. I encourage you to see it, if you get the chance. Hopefully, the Vanier Institute might even take a look at that as something to use in their presentations, to show Canadians what this means. It is a very powerful thing.
It brings up the issues of how you deal with military families and the experiences they have, how they relate to their life experiences when they come back from the theatre, how everyone deals with things totally differently, and what they experience.
Mrs. Lowther, you are in the process of trying to deal with a lot of these soldiers who haven't necessarily recognized or don't want to recognize at this point in their life that there is an issue with mental issues they are dealing with. You are looking at ways to solve that problem.
I, too, come from Saskatchewan. I live right on the U.S. border. I have a number of veterans who are saying to me, in Saskatchewan that we do not have psychologists for our veterans. They have no access to it, yet two hours south of us is Minot air base, in North Dakota, which has a huge, immense service in that area. They are asking, “Should we be going there to access that service?”
I realize that maybe you can't answer that part, but how do you access these mental health services for these people?