Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good morning to all.
I appreciate the invitation to appear before you today to discuss issues surrounding transition from military to civilian life. I am joined by my director general of operations, Ms. Robyn Hynes.
It is my understanding that you are currently studying programming and best practices from like-minded countries around the world. I believe it is important to keep up with the latest trends and innovative practices from these countries in order to best inform what we do here at home.
An ombudsman really is no different. Our office is part of the International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces and other like-minded institutions, whose aim is to establish best practices and lessons learned related to the mandate, powers, and functioning of these institutions. There is a lot to be learned from all participants, as there's a lot to be learned from the witnesses you have and will hear from over the course of your study. However, I also believe that there are made-in-Canada solutions to some of the issues facing current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces, whether in uniform or transitioning to civilian life.
Since my appointment to the position in 2014, our office has published 11 evidence-based reports that are a direct result of systemic investigations that we have undertaken. I provided a comprehensive document to the in response to his call for submissions from across the country to inform the new defence policy, now known as “Strong, Secure, Engaged”.
Progress on implementing the evidence-based recommendations contained in my report has been lacklustre. Our constituents are now publishing report cards on departmental progress on our website and through various social media channels, and we will continue to publish and update these report cards on a regular basis. As an office that is not entrenched in legislation, nor do I report to Parliament, I have few levers that I can pull in order to hold the department to account. Therefore, publishing departmental progress is extremely important as a measurement tool moving forward. I am pleased to say that some of my recommendations have been accepted and have appeared in the defence policy review.
Last year, I published a report recommending a new service delivery model for medically releasing Canadian Armed Forces members, in which I made three recommendations: first, that the CAF retain all ill and injured soldiers until all benefits and services from all sources are in place; second, to establish a type of concierge service to act as a single point of contact for transitioning members and their families; and finally, to develop a secure web portal, single point of entry, for all matters relating to the transition from the Canadian Armed Forces to civilian life.
I was pleased that the first chapter of “Strong, Secure, Engaged” was dedicated to the well-being of the Canadian Armed Forces members and their families. My recommendation to retain ill and injured members until all benefits and services are in place appears to have been accepted. However, my constituency and my office have yet to see a policy suite to support the departmental claims that holding the member is already being done across the country, and sadly, my office is still getting calls from members being released before these benefits and services are in place.
However, in a recent conversation with the chief of military personnel command, I have been advised this is currently being worked on, with an eye for completion by year's end. This is good news. I'm also pleased to report that a concierge-type service is being developed, and I anxiously await this end product.
Finally, in the interests of expediency, our office, working in conjunction with the Canadian Armed Forces, is building a benefits browser that will help Canadian Armed Forces members understand what benefits and services they could be eligible for through the transition process.
Ladies and gentlemen, the terms “closing the seam” and “seamless transition” are buzzwords that are not unique to this government. These terms have been used for decades. We have been trying to move the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada closer for years. However, I believe that the system that was built to support current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces cannot be brought any closer together without taking a hard look in the mirror and asking why we do things the way we do. We have to get to the core issues. Hiring more people and opening more offices to do more of the same will not get current and former members any closer to that which they are entitled, which is a well-managed and timely transition process.
Based on the evidence it has, the Canadian Armed Forces decides whether a member can continue serving or should be released. It therefore raises the question, if the forces have enough evidence to end a member's career, why is that not sufficient to determine eligibility for benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada? Why there are two government entities that independently determine whether an illness or injury is attributable to military service still baffles me. The Canadian Armed Forces knows when, where, and how a member has become ill or injured. This is attribution to service.
On September 26, The Globe and Mail published my opinion editorial where I called for simple changes to the current system. In the op-ed, I reiterate the recommendation I made in the report published last year calling for a system in which the Canadian Armed Forces simply checks a box indicating that a member's illness or injury can reasonably be attributed to their service. Once this is done, Veterans Affairs should immediately accept that decision and determine what benefits and service the member is entitled to, not whether they are or aren't.
This simple change would cut wait times for benefits drastically. It would also provide clarity for releasing members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families in a period of change and uncertainty.
I have not received a wholesome response to this member-centric recommendation, despite many attempts at explanations as to why neither department has the policy authority to implement such a recommendation. However, I believe that it comes down to leadership and the steadfast devotion to the status quo. Instead, the stream of interdepartmental working groups devoted to transition is forever growing. The bureaucracy is throwing darts at concentric circles instead of aiming for the bull's eye. All the while, more current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families are waiting. They are the greatest victims of bureaucracy.
Every time a new program or practice is put in place, the government must take into account how it may brush up against the existing system to avoid duplication or unnecessary red tape. For a recent and troubling example, look no further than the Veterans Hiring Act. The ability for Veterans Affairs Canada to meet their 16-week service standard for priority hiring sits at 26% in this fiscal year. It is my opinion that this is unacceptable, yet no one seems to be asking the tough question: why? More accountability needs to be demanded from senior leadership.
I was deeply troubled by recommendation 15 on page 63 of this committee's report published in December 2016, titled “Improving Service Delivery to Canadian Veterans”. You call for changes to the service income security insurance plan, also known as SISIP. I caution this committee, and those considering fundamental changes to SISIP, that this is a program that works and works very well. Let me give you some examples.
With SISIP, each member is assigned a case manager and vocational rehabilitation counsellor who are accessible by phone, email, fax, or in person when geographically feasible, depending on how the member wants to communicate. This is not the case with all service providers. There are 91% of members who apply for this benefit prior to release, and 96% of those eligible members receive notice of their approval prior to release. Payment of the benefits are timely. Payment is made, 88% of the time, within five days of Manulife receiving all the information required to process a claim. The program works well for the members of the Canadian Armed Forces who pay into this insurance plan. Why make substantial changes?
In my line of business, one way to measure program success is by how few complaints you receive. When it comes to SISIP, we don't receive many engagements, and the majority are either for education or information on the program.
In order to best support all of our transitioning members, we must determine what the desired outcomes of our programs, benefits, and services are to be. If the goal is to have a happy, healthy, self-actualized, employed, and well-integrated former member in society, then we should build for that by removing already identified and studied impediments that a releasing member faces on his or her road to success. If machinery of government changes are needed to knock down those barriers, there is a mechanism for that. If legislation or regulatory changes are needed, there are also mechanisms for this.
Everything is within the realm of the possible, should the government choose to act on many of the recommendations that have been made. However, my fear is that those who have the loudest voice and believe change is impossible are being listened to at the end of the day.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I stand by for your questions.
It's a bittersweet thing, if I may say, because I do believe the mechanical pieces we require are in place in one form or another. I think the fundamental change that needs to happen first and foremost is that we must define what we want our programs of benefits and services to be. What ability we are trying to bring back to this transitioning member first needs to be determined.
I think the secondary issue that we're having is on who is responsible for what at any point in time. It's very convoluted now. I mean, there are various entities that can reach back to a member, so it's a little confusing on who's doing what. I believe there are programs that are running in duplication that could be sequenced. We could even see reductions in costs to the Government of Canada. There are many possibilities, but I think it's first and foremost, clear lines of responsibility and setting the program needs to our desired outcomes.
If we look at where the chief of defence staff is going, talking about the journey, he's talking about building some of these things. The JPSU needs to be the centre where these people are assigned, with a clear chain of command and one person responsible to decide when a member is being released and when Veterans Affairs Canada should be engaged.
The pieces are there; it's how we're exercising them, I think, is where we find the problem. Then we'll come up against some legislative...where there are certain authorities given to Veterans Affairs or not to the department, or they are given to the department. We need to decide who should have these responsibilities and who should be given this legislative right to implement these programs and services.
I think that the pieces we need are in place. It's a matter now of clearly defining what the programs are to be, who should be responsible, and giving that person the resources they need to do the job.
I appreciate your presentation, and I'm extremely ecstatic to meet with you. It's the first time I've met you. I'm Darrell Samson, and I'm the member of Parliament for Sackville—Preston—Chezzetcook in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia represents the highest number of veterans and military in Canada per capita, and I believe my riding has the highest in Nova Scotia, with 23% either military or veterans. It's the former riding of Peter Stoffer, who did a very good job and continues to do a good job in this area.
I have to tell you that in the two years that I've been a member, I've tried to continue to learn and I'm learning every day in this area. I'm extremely ecstatic to be on this committee.
That being said, I agree with you in many ways, as most of us I'm sure do. The transition is something that I continuously ask myself about. We have to do better. I agree 100%. I don't understand, so I guess I'm learning.
In any profession with public servants—all of us around this table—it doesn't matter what area we work for in government, we can advise, let them know, three months before we leave our job, and guess what. Everything is in place when we leave. It's unacceptable, so I agree 100%. I thank you and your office for doing the work you do. It does enforce the very important discussion.
Now, there are 10,000 members who retire yearly, and 27% of them have issues in transition. I'd also like to note that 60% of them are non-medically released. It's not just a problem with one group. It's a problem right across the board. It's unacceptable in many ways.
I like your suggestion on the what, the who, and the how. I think that's the crucial part. You talked about a report card your office has. We, as government, need to create a report card. We're talking about it now, as far as how we can make it better. We need to be doing the same thing. I believe that our government, right now—and I'm not talking about politics; it's not about politics at all—needs to do this right, and we need it done quickly.
We said not long ago that no member would be released without all benefits in place. I think it's pretty straightforward. “No members will be released.” We should be ensuring that's what we do. It's going to take a little time, but we don't have much. I really believe that we need to work very hard on that piece.
I'd like to talk about a few quick questions, because I've already used up three-quarters of my time, of course. I have an issue with that.
On accessibility and awareness, how can we do better in those two areas that are a major part of the transition? Can you speak to that please?
There are a lot of best practices around the world.
There are militaries in the world, the Dutch, Austrians, Australians, who have a duty to accommodate, so it's heading towards an easing of the universality of service. I think we're already headed there. When we look at Australian Defence, they have simplified their whole process by saying that all regular forces members—reserves, cadets, anyone inside of the Australian Defence Force—are considered as a member and covered under one insurance program.
It makes their processes very simplified. Instead of determining what type of soldier I am, A, B, or C, reg force, reserve force, or Canadian Ranger, it's one program that takes care of everybody. There's a good example of reducing complexity, reducing legislation.
How the Department of Defense in the United States transfers files from DOD over to the Veterans Affairs is much more simplified attribution of service.
There are many best practices. We usually look at the Five Eyes when we do a systemic review. We'll look at what type of program or practice they're using to see if there's any application or benefit to applying that to our systemic reviews. We'll sometimes base our recommendations on best practices that we've seen around the world.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I have spoken to you, Ombudsman, about military sexual trauma, and I want to raise it here. I understand that General Vance has put in place some processes that hopefully will address it, and I'm very grateful for that. However, I'm still concerned about the resistance or the fears of young men or women in regard to reporting sexual trauma. For example, they may be depressed, suffer from PTSD, but the cause of that is not necessarily in the medical records. If it is, it becomes a matter of privacy and, therefore, it's not necessarily tracked by the military.
There's the problem with tracking and then there's the problem, as I mentioned, of fear. It's a fear that if they go through the court martial process they will be exposed and their career limited, or a fear that there won't be any justice for them, because when they go through the court martial process only about a half of those perpetrators are convicted, or at least that's the information I have.
In terms of your experience, are you hearing from young men and women in regard to military sexual trauma? If not, what can we do to make them feel safer in regard to reporting it?
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Good morning.
Good morning, committee members as well. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you again as you come towards the end of your comparative study of services to veterans in other jurisdictions.
As I said, on May 1, as you began your hearings, I think it is important to look at what other countries are doing to support their veterans in order for Canada to keep up with best practices.
At that time, I put forward also that it is imperative to develop Canadian solutions to address Canadian problems. I left you with three elements to consider as you weigh your evidence going forward. Those elements were context, complex design, and outcomes.
I gave you a few examples of the difficulty making direct comparisons with other countries, since each country designs and administers their programs differently to meet their own national needs, imperatives and economic realities.
I also showed you diagrams that illustrate the complexity of Canada's veteran support system so as to remind you that any changes in design must serve to simplify the system and not make it more complex.
Finally, I spoke to the necessity of having clearly defined outcomes that define the end state we are trying to achieve. Without a clear understanding of what outcome for veterans is expected, we have no benchmark to measure whether we have achieved success or not.
You have now heard from five countries and they have provided you with a good overview of their efforts to support their veterans. I commend you for the quality of questions asked and for making it possible for this information to be collated in your future report.
For my office, this body of evidence provides us with useful information to better discern how to improve the support to our own veterans. As you have seen, the scale of effort the United States requires to support its veterans is huge due to the size of the United States Armed Forces and its very significant differences in national social programs from the Canadian context.
The fact that the United Kingdom does not have a department of veterans affairs creates a very unalike dynamic to the Canadian experience of providing services for veterans.
France's colonial past and New Zealand's small size create a different perspective on the services offered to veterans.
Australia is perhaps the country with the closest comparator to a Canadian context, with its similarly sized armed forces, national social programs, and geographic challenges. However, there are still significant divergences that require us to consider the context.
One of the problems with looking at how other nations support veterans is how to replicate a good idea in our already complex system. Over the last few years, Canada has layered numerous benefits to address gaps without considering this as an opportunity to consolidate and simplify benefits. Even though these new benefits have made a positive difference for some veterans, it has also made it even more complex and difficult for our veterans to navigate the system. It is for this reason that I have repeatedly recommended that a personal navigator would be a valuable addition in terms of helping veterans who need it most.
Although looking at what other nations do is useful, my office still struggles with the fact that what we as a nation are trying to achieve for our veterans is not clear. Simply stating what we are going to do to meet the needs of veterans and their families is not enough. What does “meeting their needs” mean?
For example, let’s consider a veteran who has a service-related injury and cannot work. We know that such a veteran needs to have his or her income replaced. Does income replacement mean we only replace the salary at the time of release? Do we consider career progression, and what do we mean by “career progression”? Is there a retirement component to this after age 65? Is a survivor benefit available after death? Are we trying to replicate what the veteran could have received if she or he had a full military career, or is it a recognition benefit that recognizes some aspects of a full military career but does not fully compensate for it? How do we determine where we draw that recognition compensation level?
This example illustrates why I have continued to push for clearly defined benefit outcomes. When we know what we need to achieve for the veteran, we can design our programs to achieve that outcome.
The current approach to income replacement is intended to improve existing programs or create new programs without truly understanding the results we are trying to achieve. No one has taken the time to clearly define the level of income replacement that should be offered to veterans.
In addition to defining the outcomes for what benefits are provided, we also need to define the outcomes for how those benefits are provided. If we look at homeless veterans, for example, we see that local authorities at municipal and provincial levels are better positioned to meet the immediate needs of these veterans. We should define how the federal government is going to work with those organizations to enable their efforts so that these veterans in crisis can then access the federal programs that will take them out of homelessness.
With clearly defined outcomes through partnerships, we can leverage the expertise of other levels of government and third parties to meet the immediate and long-term needs of veterans and their families more effectively. Without clearly defined outcomes, we cannot measure success and we cannot communicate effectively with our veterans. If we could focus on specific outcomes, then we can focus the support on what the veteran actually needs, and we can communicate clearly the types of programs available. From the veterans' perspective, this makes the system easier to navigate and understand.
In conclusion, as I cautioned earlier, while it is worthwhile to learn from others when developing new programs, it is difficult to draw direct comparisons, because each country designs and administers their programs differently to meet their own national needs, imperatives, and economic realities. These comparisons are made more challenging when we do not clearly understand the outcome we are trying to achieve in our own system. Above all, to achieve wellness for our veterans and their families, we need to stay focused on finding Canadian solutions to Canadian problems.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Yes. Thank you very much.
It's obvious in our report and so on that we have done comparative studies in the past with other jurisdictions as well. Personally, after having been almost around the world to talk to other veterans' organizations, I still believe we have one of the best systems around. However, there are ideas around the world that need to be considered, and one good idea that comes to mind, for instance, is Australia. Once you have been part of the armed forces there, you are entitled to mental health services, for instance, for the rest of your life. Things like that are things we should look at in the future.
I believe there are other countries as well that have good ideas, but to put them into our own system would be very awkward. For instance, one question that I didn't hear asked during the committee's work was how they define a veteran in other countries. I know that in some of those countries, for instance, it only includes people who have been deployed outside the country.
If that were the case in Canada, that would make a big difference in our support to veterans, so, really, I think our system is good as it is. It needs improvement, obviously, and maybe when we had the chance four or five years ago, instead of building benefits on top of benefits, we might have had better success if we had just decided to start over again and redesign a service for our veterans and their families.
Thank you. That's a very good comment.
I would say that culture is certainly where to start. On the National Defence side, obviously, if there is a resistance to sharing information, because some secret information may be contained within personal files and that sort of thing.... On the other hand, Veterans Affairs Canada, as we know, have had their fingers burned in the past with having privacy of members accessed.
In the end, if a client of Veterans Affairs or a serviceperson signs confidentiality waivers, information should be flowing back and forth. It's the individual's wish. The problem right now, as we know, in the transition process is that there are about six different confidentiality waivers that have to be signed for the transfer of documents to take place. Again, it's very complex. There is a bit of a culture of protectionism. It's a bit of everything.
Another thing is the fact that on the National Defence side, for instance, right now your service records are held by National Defence, but your medical records are held by Archives Canada, which is in Winnipeg but the access office is here in Ottawa. You can't make it any more complicated than that.
All of that goes into that particular issue.
Thank you very much, Monsieur Parent and Ms. Squire, for being here today.
I have only five minutes and about 50 questions. That's not going to work. On the record, I think we should set up a meeting for an hour and have a long chat so I can continue to learn about the process. I'll try to fire the questions quickly, and hopefully you can.... I don't know where to start. I have too many of them.
My colleague Bob said earlier, and I am finding it quite interesting, that the levels of government—the federal, the provincial, and the municipal—need to work together. If you want to drive me nuts when I'm asking about a veterans issue at the federal level, you just tell me that I have to talk to a province about a doctor. It's not about the doctor. As much as we may be talking with the doctor, it's about the veteran. We have to try to solve and work and find solutions for the veteran.
I've been in this committee only a couple of times, but Bob really pushes the question about the municipal government playing a better role. I agree with that, and I learned more about that one. I don't need an answer from you on that one.
The other one.... I'd love to talk about the browser and the comparison between VAC and the Canadian Armed Forces, and how we can make it blend together and that. There are all kinds of good questions there, too, but I don't want to ask you that either, because I don't have time for that.
I'd like to ask you about accessibility and awareness, because that's a big issue. You talked about those who are injured and those who are released non-medically. I could go a long way on that, too, but today I won't go there either.
I commend VIA Rail, for example—I'll get to some questions later. When I look at VIA Rail and I look at their initiative about hiring.... First of all, this year—we have not finished the year; we still have a couple of months left—veterans and their families can travel VIA Rail at 25% off. I've told that to all my networks. That's extremely important, but the time frame is running out on that.
There is also the initiative that 10% of their new hires will be veterans. That's something to be proud of. That's something we should be doing in all our constituencies, 338 of them. We represent all of Canada. I'm going to start talking to my business people and communities. Are you hiring 10%? Let's start somewhere. That's an interesting one but not a question for you, not today anyway.
In Nova Scotia, I have another issue. I'm working closely.... I'm glad you made reference to the Nova Scotia parliamentary committee, because there is something there that we need to work on. My colleague Mr. Fraser and I will study that. We've had a conversation around that, and some meetings with them, which sounds quite interesting.
Let's take quickly.... Again, I didn't get to any questions. How much time do I have?
The OSI clinic is a very good clinic. I visited it and I'm quite proud of what is there. The veterans are also quite happy to some extent. By that I mean it's not a 24-7 service, so I can't time my crisis, at least I don't think I can. When I do, when I go to a regular hospital, I'm not sure.... First of all, as my colleague said, they don't have the data because they don't track and they don't talk to each other, and second of all, the environment is not really very good for some of the crises. They're talking about a 24-hour clinic, where there would be emergency services dealing with veterans. We're having some great discussions between the group of veterans, me, and the Province of Nova Scotia. We need to continue that.
I won't ask you that question, but I'm going to go right to my questions now, Mr. Chair, because I know you're going to get frustrated with me in a minute.
Here are some questions I have. I've done town halls, but I'm going around to every Legion right now talking to veterans. Here are some of the questions they have, and maybe you can answer them. I'll give four in a row, and you can answer them quickly.
The first one is that you talked about those who are healthy. If you're forced to retire due to old age, what are your options? That's a very important question.
Second, why can't dependents collect tuition assistance if the member is released on injury or disability? If he can't—if he's not ready for it—can the kids access that?
Third, what certification is in place for when you transition? There's a big issue about certification. They could go right to the workforce and not have to upgrade a hundred times.
The final question would be about veteran ID cards. What can you say about that and when can we expect something solid?