Good morning, Chairman.
I'm Brad White, the dominion secretary of the Royal Canadian Legion. With me today is Mr. Ray McInnis. Ray is the director of the national service bureau. Ray and I will be alternating back and forth as we give our presentation today.
Today we are going to make our presentation in English, but if you have questions, we can answer in French or in English.
It's a great pleasure to appear in front of your committee. I am pleased to be able to speak to you this morning on behalf of our dominion president and our 300,000 members and their families.
The Legion has been asked to discuss programs, services, and support that we offer as an organization to our veterans and their families in their transition to civilian life.
The positive transition to life after release is essential for all Canadian Forces members, whether they be regular or reserve force personnel. Naturally we also include RCMP members and their families as part of that equation.
The experience of life after release is different and unique for each veteran. Some voluntarily leave after a short period of service, some are single, some have very young families, and some are in need of employment. Others retire after 30 or 35 years of service to the government; they have grown families, with very good financial security. Some members who retire are injured in service to their country, and they must make this transition through this very difficult period of time and under difficult circumstances.
Therefore it is important that the Department of National Defence, Veterans Affairs Canada, and the RCMP put in place complementary policy, practices, and programs supported by a sustainable research program with the goal of enabling a healthy transition for all our veterans and their families through this change in life's course.
The Royal Canadian Legion is the only veteran service organization that assists veterans and their families with representation to Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
The Legion's advocacy program is core to our mission. We have been assisting veterans since 1926 through our legislative mandate in both the Pension Act and the new Veterans Charter. Our 23 professional command service officers are located across the country and provide free assistance to veterans and their families in obtaining benefits and services from Veterans Affairs Canada.
Please note that you do not have to be a legion member to avail yourself of our services, and I will stress again that they're free services. Our national service officer network provides representation starting with first applications to VAC through all three levels of the VRAB.
Through the legislation, the Legion has access to service health records and departmental files to provide comprehensive yet independent representation at no cost. Last year our service officers prepared and represented disability claims on behalf of over 3,000 veterans to VAC and the VRAB. There is no other veterans group with this kind of direct contact, interaction, provision of support, and feedback from veterans, their families, and caregivers.
Our branch service officers are located in over 1,400 Legion branches in Canada. In this challenging environment, our branch service officer function becomes more important. Our volunteer branch service officers are the boots on the ground, the eyes and ears in our communities. Therefore it is important that every branch have an active and trained service officer to respond to the challenges facing our veteran community.
Branch service officers assist veterans by identifying those with unmet health needs and possible benefits from VAC and then making appropriate referrals to the command service officers.
Today the policies, programs, and services available to our veterans and their families are complex. Our command service officers are professional and receive regular training.
When it comes to serving veterans and their families, the Legion continues to be the only veterans organization in Canada advocating for and providing assistance to all of our veterans.
First and foremost, we offer camaraderie in our branches. To ensure camaraderie continues after service, the Legion offers a one-year free membership to all members releasing from the Canadian Armed Forces. Since its inception, nearly 2,000 members have signed on. Membership offers veterans and their families the opportunity to volunteer to help other veterans as part of the community-building that is an important value in the nature of our military culture.
Some veterans simply want to support a veterans organization through their membership contribution. However, there are many programs offered by the Legion branches supported by thousands of volunteers. These are the core programs for veterans, and membership is not always a requirement to attain these programs.
The impact of military service on our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women often makes the transition back to civilian life very challenging. Today the Legion is seeing a change in the needs of some of our younger veterans. This is the age group of early twenties and onwards. Many have invisible wounds and challenges with their transition back to civilian life. Our experience from the veterans transition program provides evidence that some veterans and their families feel isolated and need a welcome home in a very real way.
The veterans transition program, the only program of its kind in Canada, assists former members of the Canadian Forces with their transition into civilian life. This program was developed to address the invisible wounds of our soldiers so they can function and have healthy relationship with their families, friends at work, and particularly and most importantly, with themselves.
This program was established in 1999 with funding from the BC/Yukon Command. It is a group-based peer program facilitated at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. It is free of charge to former members of the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces. This program is expanding nationally and is planning to offer sessions uniquely for women.
VAC supports the program, and we recommend that DND and the Canadian Armed Forces support the expansion of the veterans transition program nationally to ensure that serving Canadian Armed Forces members affected by PTSD can have access to this program.
Last week our dominion executive council approved the establishment of an operational stress injury special section of the Royal Canadian Legion. The press release was made this morning.
There is a precedent for special sections within the Royal Canadian Legion. The tuberculosis veterans section was granted a charter in 1926 in response to the need to support veterans returning from World War I with tuberculosis and lung-related diseases. With a growing need to support and advocate for veterans suffering from OSI, the establishment of this special section will further strengthen the Legion's ability to respond to the needs of the veteran community. Through this section, the Legion will build on our outreach, support activities, and enhance our advocacy efforts. In addition, this is a member-driven initiative that will engage all the efforts of our veteran members, especially those with OSIs, and provide them with an opportunity to get involved and become part of the solution.
The mandate of the OSI special section is to recognize and address the needs of veterans suffering from operational stress injury through outreach information, referral services, and advocacy. The special section is a peer support network that will provide enhanced outreach and support to all veterans as defined by the Legion. To be a member of the OSI special section, you just have to be affected by OSI, but you don't have to be suffering from OSI.
The Legion in British Columbia has also partnered with the British Columbia Institute of Technology to deliver the Legion military skills conversion program to help accelerate and advance the civilian careers of former and current regular and reserve force members. This program offers fast-track education, with accreditation through BCIT, through credits for military experience and assistance while developing your own business and finding a job after release.
While the Legion continues to deliver many programs to veterans and their families to ensure quality of life after release and ease the transition from service, more research is required to determine the effects of service unique to the Canadian military demographic and unique to Canadian operations.
The Legion is currently engaged with, and very supportive of, the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research to ensure this capability is implemented. We provide annual financial support to the CIMVHR Forum, and through CIMVHR we offer a $30,000 RCL master's scholarship to a master's student who meets the necessary academic criteria and is continuing to study in the area of military and veteran health research.
Last year we donated $1 million to the Royal Ottawa Hospital for mental health research. This gift will specifically be used to support the creation of a brain imaging centre at the Royal featuring a state-of-the-art PET-MRI machine. I am pleased to inform you that the machine will soon be operational and will allow the experts at the Royal to conduct research, including clinical trials that will advance knowledge of brain circuitries and create new practices that will help to improve treatment for anyone suffering from mental illness.
The 2017 Invictus Games will be a historic opportunity for Canada and its citizens to pay tribute to and support our ill and injured soldiers along with their families. The Royal Canadian Legion supports the Invictus Games wholeheartedly, and on behalf of our president, Tom Eagles, we are very proud to announce that the Legion will become a signature sponsor for the 2017 Invictus Games.
These games will not only benefit those who are competing but will also send a powerful message to those across the country who are struggling with severe physical challenges and mental health issues because of their military service that they can overcome whatever obstacles are before them.
Families are the strength behind the uniform and must be engaged in the transition process from the very start, especially when it is not a physical injury. Families can request assistance from military family resource centres. There is a family liaison officer, who is a social worker, located in all the integrated personnel support centres across the country who can provide assistance to the family.
The first step in helping members leave the military is the very important transition interview. All releasing Canadian Forces members in the regular and reserve force are entitled to a transition interview.
For ill and injured members, we very strongly recommend that it be mandatory for family members to be in attendance. We recommend that transition interviews be conducted early in the release process to help members and their families identify any needs they may have ahead of time.
Our benevolent assistance program provides financial grants to meet the essential needs of veterans and their families who have limited financial means. The program is available at every level of the Legion and is accessible to veterans, including still-serving members, and their families.
In 2014 alone, we provided $17 million in benevolent assistance grants to veterans and their families. We also assist allied veterans living in North America with obtaining benevolent assistance from a variety of resources. Our network of service officers at all levels of the Legion from coast to coast coordinates grants with other agencies, including the Canadian Forces Support Our Troops fund, to ensure that veterans' needs are met.
The Legion continues to be concerned with the lack of a formal capability or program that proactively reaches out to reserve units and their members to ensure that these veterans are being looked after regarding access to disability benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada. Most reservists don't believe that they are veterans. With this in mind, the Legion sent a letter to every reserve unit in Canada offering a briefing on our service bureau network and the assistance available from the Royal Canadian Legion. To date we have briefed over 500 reservists on our services, but more importantly, these reserve units have been informed of our service.
The Legion also maintains an extensive outreach program to inform all veterans and their families about health promotion, independent living, community resources, and healthy lifestyles. We present at Second Career Assistance Network seminars on all bases and wings to inform members of our services.
The Legion has a presence at most of the Canadian Forces integrated personnel support centres on each base to assist veterans and their families as part of the transition process.
The Legion has been engaged in assisting homeless veterans for many years through our national Leave the Streets Behind program. Through poppy funds, we can provide emergency assistance, housing, food, clothing, bus tickets, etc. Just in Ontario, over 560 homeless veterans have been helped by Ontario Command alone, and across Canada, Legion provincial commands are working closely with Veterans Affairs, shelters, and community organizations to get veterans off the street and into transition programs.
I'd like to address the issue of communication and accessibility.
The new Veterans Charter was developed to meet the needs of the modern veteran. It is based on modern disability management principles. It focuses on rehabilitation and successful transition to living with the new normal.
The Legion has never completely endorsed the new Veterans Charter as it was presented in 2006. We have been steadfast in our advocacy for its change to better meet the long-term needs of our veterans and their families. We understood that the new Veterans Charter was a living charter. We all have an obligation to understand the complexities and the interrelationships and to inform others and explain what the new Veterans Charter is all about. Our veterans and their families deserve nothing less.
The new Veterans Charter and the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act are comprehensive and complex. Our veterans and their families need to know what programs are available to assist them and how to access them. They include financial programs, rehabilitation, health services, and family care. The government needs to ensure the resources and programs are in place to meet their needs. The government needs to review the accessibility to these programs and ensure front-line staff are available and knowledgeable to assist veterans and their families. This should not be a self-serve system. You should not have to pull the information out. The information should be pushed to you as you move in transition from the military into your new life.
Most veterans and their families do not have a good understanding of what the new Veterans Charter is all about. I would suggest that highlights the ineffectiveness of the communication of the programs and services available through the new Veterans Charter for our injured veterans and their families.
It is time for the government to start communicating and proactively reaching out to all veterans across the country to ensure they are aware of the financial compensations, rehabilitation programs, health care services, and family care programs that are available, and how to access them.
Lastly, it is also time for us to understand the new Veterans Charter and the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act, and the recent amendments made by this government. This should be a priority. Our veterans need to know not only the weaknesses but also the strengths behind the program's services and benefits. We can help our veterans and their families.
This is but a brief snapshot of some of the programs the Legion provides to support the transition to life after a military career.
The Legion has been delivering these programs to veterans and their families since 1926. This is our 90th year. The Legion is proud of the work it has accomplished and all that has been done to assist our veterans and their families. Our programs will continue to evolve to meet changing demographics while still supporting our traditional veteran family and community.
Notwithstanding the capacity of the Royal Canadian Legion, we certainly believe the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada have a responsibility to ensure that policies, practices, and programs supported through a sustainable research program are accessible and will meet the unique needs of all veterans, with the goal of enabling the healthy transition of all veterans and their families through a challenging and changing difficult life course.
Thank you for your time.
My name is Jim Scott, and I'm the president of the Equitas society, a forum to underwrite the disbursement costs to have six disabled soldiers represent their issues through the courts on the new Veterans Charter's compensation packages for injuries.
Next to me is Brian McKenna. He is a veteran injured in the Afghan war and a member of our advisory committee.
My involvement came from my son, who was injured in Afghanistan, and from looking at his settlements and also the settlements of other reservists who went to the Afghan war. They appeared disproportionately low, and therefore the services of Miller Thomson, a law firm with offices across Canada, was obtained on a pro bono basis to do a judicial review of those benefit packages.
Over 200 soldiers submitted their medical records and their compensation package, and six were selected to represent all soldiers. Those six have agreed to have their cases made public in the public domain. We'll discuss them because there's a theme throughout the delivery model.
First, we are very happy and we see great encouragement from the government providing new benefits in the process going forward. I am very pleased that the committee is looking at the discrepancy between programs and what often goes into the individual soldier's compensation package, and the reasons for that. I don't think it's anything sinister; it's just what occurs when you have a major organization like the federal government running a program.
The first area we'll talk about is the conflict between the different government departments. Each department will apply a different standard to the same conditions, resulting in various opinions. For example, the Department of National Defence may discharge a soldier from their duties for not meeting their universality of service because of certain injuries they have incurred, but Veterans Affairs Canada will not accept those injuries and will not compensate for them, and the Canada Revenue Agency may not consider the soldier is in a disabled category for the credits.
We'll use my son as a representative case. He had a number of internal organs removed as a result of an explosion in Afghanistan, one of them being his spleen. The medical records he got from the Canadian government—understand that he was in American care for much of his recovery overseas—showed that his spleen was operated on. His claim was rejected because they said he had not proved that his spleen was removed, but had only been operated on. This went on for years. I don't know if it has been settled now. It's just an illustration that the Department of National Defence has records that are not accepted by VAC, and then the duty is placed on the soldier to show evidence of that disability. It's evidence-based, but the soldiers can't go into the United States government's system and extract medical records. They just don't have that ability.
One solution is that the lead counsel for Miller Thomson has written what has been used in other Commonwealth countries, a sort of veterans' bill of rights. I've given the clerk a version of this in English, and he will have it translated into French. It ensures continuity among the various government departments that deal with a veteran's files, and not simply Veterans Affairs Canada.
I realize that Veterans Affairs put into some of their amendments a preamble and legislation that address this issue, but as we can see, there is more than one act that affects soldiers.
There's going to be resistance in the Department of Justice and the civil service regarding what we call the “slippery slope argument”, which is that if we enshrine this for soldiers, others will follow, and this will mean a higher duty of care for the government in the long run. Therefore, we're asking that parliamentary leadership be provided by this committee and others to look at the Commonwealth countries that have put this bill in place and to look at the reasons for it and to advocate for it, because it certainly will not be advocated outwards by the system.
The second issue that we see is the issue of lifelong pensions. Currently we have the earnings loss benefits. They have increased, and that is a very good development. However, the earnings loss benefits require the person to remain sick. In other words, they have to show that they are entitled to those earnings loss benefits, and, as we've seen in recent national coverage, they have to indicate that they are still sick in order to receive those benefits. There's little allowance for personal betterment. Therefore, it's our position that people stay in a cycle of sickness because every 18 or 24 months they have to prove they are sick, and they can't move on.
A pension recognizes that people are disadvantaged in their ability to earn an income. It supplements them in an attempt to equalize what an able-bodied person's earning capacity would be against a disabled person's earning capacity, and there's no penalty for being better. In other words, it's a platform on which they can go further up. Our submission is that a lifelong pension, even if it's the same amount of money as the earnings loss benefit, for the mental health of the soldiers allows them to move on, whereas the earnings loss benefit traps them into a process of constantly having to justify why they're receiving those funds.
With regard to caregivers, the theme we have seen throughout the files we have been processing is that when a soldier is at a certain level of disability, their spouse is required to remove herself or himself from the workforce in order to be a full-time giver of care to the disabled member. We have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people who are double amputees and even with one triple amputee. It's very clear that the spouse is the primary caregiver and is required for that person to have a meaningful life going forward. However, the caregiver is not eligible for private sector pensions and CPP, but only for old age security.
Even though we make great fanfare about how we've gone from 50% to 70%, I'd urge the committee to actually do a model of what these caregivers get in real dollars. We have models and we are certainly prepared to give the committee these models. Their actual income upon the death of their spouse will be at or below the poverty line. I don't know if we've really considered the duty of care that these individuals are giving and what the result is. The result is that they are basically going to be in a life of poverty at some point.
The next issue is education. There's been lots of fanfare about education. We're highly supportive of higher education. Trades for disabled soldiers with missing legs and so on are difficult. A lot of them need to go on to be lawyers or to get MBAs in order to be competitive in the workplace. We're seeing government policies showing high amounts for education, but in reality they're not being approved. I'll give an example from our representative plaintiff, Gavin Flett.
He paid for his own undergraduate education. He went into financial services because he can no longer go into a place of employment such as the RCMP, which he thought he would be hired by after he came back from Afghanistan, due to lower-leg injuries. He was advised by his employer that he would need higher education to move forward in the industry. He applied for an MBA that had 2,400 applicants. They took very few. He filled out a very long request. It was rejected. It was rejected on an administrative issue, which was that he would not be able to complete anything meaningful with his first $25,000, and that money couldn't be applied to the full program. Therefore, he was rejected outright.
He continues to have no educational support, even though he would probably be one of Canada's best examples of somebody going forward.
I get phone calls on a regular basis from other veterans across Canada who are in the same situation of seeking higher education and simply not being able to get it because of the process.
I think the solution is to develop a policy to get disabled soldiers into higher education if they can meet the standards.
I'll go to the next issue. We're not here to make enemies with VAC; it's just that there is a culture of what we call “no”. There is very often a rejection of your claim, and then you have to be persistent on it and go before the review committee. If it is sent up to the Federal Court it only comes back, as it must go back to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board if there's no resolution, and it can get stuck in a cycle.
I'll give you another example from a representative plaintiff, this being my son again. He had part of his pancreas removed. He made a claim through that process that it was causing him dietary issues, and it went up and was denied. He got a letter of denial saying that it had no effect on his well-being.
The next issue we'll talk about is service delivery. We have not really seen—and I can speak for the law firm—such complex acts and so many rules and regulations as the new Veterans Charter and the Pension Act. These are very, very difficult acts to administer, and general government workers just don't have the skill to work with these acts, regulations, and benefits.
What we find is that there's no real advocate. I mean, certainly there's the Legion, and we applaud them for what they are doing, but within the system there's no advocate. Some of the help that they need is actually more on a legal side than it is on a processing side. For example, we've had one representative plaintiff who had gone through a matrimonial issue, and the first question that the plaintiff asked was, “Is the lump sum settlement subject to a 50-50 split? When she leaves, does she take half of my lump sum settlement?” This is actually legal advice; it's very specific legal advice that even matrimonial lawyers may not know.
One of the solutions here that I offer to the committee is that Ms. Kelsey Sherriff, one of the counsel for Miller Thomson, submitted to the Veterans Affairs minister within the last two weeks a pro bono private industry proposal whereby lawyers across Canada who have a military background are prepared to act for free for individual soldier cases, such as on the matrimonial issue.
They will need some seed money to start from the federal government, but it will be a self-sustaining program that will have very little cost to the government but a high amount of benefit to the individual soldiers who find themselves in sometimes difficult situations that are hard for the Veterans Affairs Canada staff and even generous lawyers to deal with.
The last issue we want to talk about is mental health. One item that we found is that nearly all the claims have involved some sort of mental health issues. The administrators of the programs are really not trained to deal with people with mental health issues, some of which are severe. Therefore, there becomes a standoff.
I got a call, probably a month ago, from somebody who was in jail. He called me and told me he needed a lawyer. The issue was that he'd gone to a Veterans Affairs Canada office for help, had become unruly, was arrested, and then was in jail. He calls on fairly regular basis, so obviously there's an underlying issue there other than his claim, and it's beyond the capability of front-line workers to deal with it, so they simply defer it into the criminal justice system.
The other issue is that the processing of these files is leading to real mental health issues for the applicants. For instance, the soldier who worked so long to be accepted into an MBA program is absolutely devastated that the Canadian government has found a bureaucratic reason to prevent him from going forward with his career.
Personally, my son will not open any of his mail anymore from Veterans Affairs Canada, because by far 95% of it is bad news. I don't think we're helping any by having a very complex administrative system.
Those in general are the issues we have discovered from the files we've been exposed to, as far as service delivery is concerned.
Certainly we're prepared to take questions.
I will call Legion branches the cornerstones of their communities, particularly in the smaller outside rural communities, if you want to use those terms.
Legion branches were also the initial PTSD treatment centres, where individuals went and looked after each other. They took their buddies. My grandfather took his regimental adjutant into the Legion. The regimental adjutant drank two 40-pounders a day to get rid of his PTSD. It wasn't fun, but that's how they protected themselves. They took their comrades into the branches. They looked after them until they were ready to come back out into the real world, and that's what they did. They looked after each other.
Branches across the country are all different. There's no cookie cutter that says you have the same thing all across the country, nor should there be, because every community is different.
With branches in rural communities, we're having a real issue. A lot of them are closing down because, frankly, a lot of people are moving out of the rural communities into the urban centres. Where are the population bases? This is a natural phenomenon as we move on.
We see it in Saskatchewan. We see it in all areas of the Prairies. This is happening even in larger centres. You say you have 14 branches within your area; we're suggesting to these branches that maybe they should all come together and amalgamate a few of them and make them bigger and stronger.
Most of those branches are in 40- to 50- or maybe 60-year-old buildings. The infrastructure is a killer. It's costing them a lot of money to keep old buildings running. Why not come together, amalgamate a few of the branches, put all the members together, so you have.... In their heyday, the branches used to have 1,000-plus members in a branch. You might have 200 people now who are trying to support what 1,000 used to do. It's a very difficult thing to do.
What we're recommending is that they start thinking about this idea of amalgamation, coming together with bigger branches to provide more service to the community.