Good morning, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee.
My name is Maryse Savoie and I am the acting director general of field operations at Veterans Affairs Canada. I am responsible for nearly 1,200 employees across Canada in 38 sector offices and 31 Integrated Personal Support Centres and satellite offices. Field operations employees work directly with veterans and their family; they are at the heart of the mandate of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).
I would like to thank you for the invitation to appear before the committee. I am accompanied today by my colleagues Faith McIntyre, director general, policy and research division, and by Hélène Robichaud, director general for the commemoration division, who will also be speaking to you in a few minutes as part of our opening statement.
Our department recognizes and welcomes the participation, achievements, and sacrifices of all Canadian veterans, including indigenous veterans. We are committed to increasing awareness of the contribution of indigenous veterans through commemoration activities and our commemorative program as a whole.
My colleague Hélène Robichaud will be able to tell you more about the department's work in this area.
We are also committed to increasing indigenous veterans' awareness of our programs and services. To that end, we have not only established relationships with national partners, but we also now maintain a strong presence at the local level through a variety of awareness activities and information sessions with partners and directly with veterans, across Canada.
Since August 2016, we have also expanded our presence with veterans living in northern Canada. Front-line employees regularly travel to Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit to meet veterans and their family, as well as partners and local service providers. These meetings enable us to establish and build solid relationships with these partners and to provide veterans living in those communities with information on our programs and services.
We do not know how many indigenous veterans live in the territories, but we know that these outreach and information efforts are crucial for overcoming barriers to access to information in remote communities.
Although the same standard applies to all veterans, we nevertheless ensure that our service delivery is adapted to the cultural realities of the veterans we serve.
Still, as part of our awareness initiative in northern Canada, we prepare our schedule, visits, and activities with the local communities and partners to ensure that they are culturally appropriate. We are also currently exploring options that would enable us to provide our front-line employees with training on indigenous culture.
Since all federal public service employees have an important role to play in terms of reconciliation, Veterans Affairs Canada recently invited all its employees, including front-line employees, to participate in the Indigenous Learning Series offered by the Canada School of Public Service. These workshops enable our employees to better understand reconciliation and the importance of renewing relationships with indigenous peoples.
Although we are determined to provide veterans and their family with the support they need, when they need it, where they are, access to services in remote regions can sometimes be a challenge, not due to a lack of willingness on the department's part. The fact remains that the community and provincial resources to which VAC can direct its clients are sometimes limited.
All veterans can nevertheless count on the extensive network of VAC service locations and the extended network of Service Canada service centres, which provide information on VAC programs and services in over 558 locations in virtually every community in Canada.
Regardless of where they live, veterans who need them can count on home visits by nurses, occupational therapists and their case manager.
Veterans and their families can always contact VAC employees through our national contact centre network as well as our 24-hour assistance service. Information on programs and services can be easily obtained by visiting the VAC website, which includes the benefits navigator, an extremely useful tool.
Veterans who prefer interacting online can use My VAC Account for access day or night, seven days a week, to send us secure messages or to apply for benefits and to access them.
At this point, I'm going to stop and let my colleague Faith McIntyre continue.
Good morning, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee.
Veterans Affairs Canada is committed to serving all veterans in accordance with the same standards of excellence, regardless of time, place, or circumstance.
VAC offers a wide range of services to help veterans, including indigenous veterans, and their families. These services includes support for veterans following an injury or as they transition to civilian life. All veterans can contact us to find out more about the programs and services for which they may qualify.
However, as my colleague indicated, we are aware that barriers may exist for veterans living in remote regions in terms of access to resources. However, we are determined to make improvements and steps have already been taken to address this.
Stakeholder engagement with indigenous groups is essential to ensure that the department is aware of and addressing gaps in support of indigenous veterans. Currently, there are six ministerial advisory groups that provide advice and guidance on a variety of topics to the minister and the department. Each of the groups includes an indigenous member, which ensures that the groups consider the unique needs of Canada's indigenous veterans when addressing issues such as outreach to veterans, the complexity of application processes, access to services, and cultural differences, to name a few.
Additionally, the contributions of the indigenous members enrich the group's deliberations by offering indigenous perspectives or options on issues such as treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder.
I'd now like to turn to my colleague, Hélène Robichaud.
Good morning, Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen.
I'll be speaking specifically on commemorating the military service and sacrifice of our indigenous peoples.
Canada's indigenous peoples have a proud tradition of military service. While exact numbers are difficult to determine, the rate of indigenous participation in Canada's military has been significant. It is estimated that more than 12,000 indigenous people from Canada served in the two world wars, the Korean War and in more recent international peace support efforts, with at least 500 of them losing their lives.
These determined volunteers often had to overcome challenges in their quest to serve, from learning a new language and adapting to cultural differences to travelling long distances from remote communities just to enlist, and to share in the cause of peace.
From the commemoration perspective, our department has traditionally marked the military service of indigenous peoples within activities and programming aimed at remembering the service of Canadian veterans more broadly.
The spirit of this approach was perhaps most eloquently captured by Mr. James Brady, when he was asked about his service in the context of his identity as a member of the Métis community. Reflecting on the service of indigenous veterans during the Second World War, Mr. Brady said:
...true destiny is not bound by the success or failure attendant upon Métis deliberation.... It is bound up with our continued existence as Canadians who fight [for] those liberties to which we are all devoted....
In modern times, our government takes its sacred obligation to recognize and honour the contributions of our veterans very seriously. While the conflicts of the 20th century have proven that peace is very costly to individuals, families, and communities, we have also learned that peace is a journey rather than a destination; peace is fragile and sacred; and peace is essential for Canada.
In honouring and respecting this fundamental and universal Canadian value, our program is committed to finding inclusive and culturally relevant ways to engage youth and raise awareness of those who have contributed so much to what we, as Canadians, hold so dear.
In 2005, the Year of the Veteran, the Government of Canada, through VAC's commemoration program, supported an aboriginal spiritual journey to the battlefields and cemeteries of Europe. While previous commemorative journeys had included indigenous veterans and other representatives, the aboriginal spiritual journey focused exclusively on the traditions that Canada's indigenous peoples have used throughout the ages to pay tribute to fallen warriors.
The journey would serve as a source of healing for all indigenous veterans and their families. It offered spiritual elders from communities across Canada, as identified and selected by an Aboriginal Veterans Working Group, the honour of leading ceremonies at key Canadian commemorative sites in Europe based on indigenous custom. This included the opportunity for indigenous spiritual leaders to conduct a “Calling Home” ceremony, during which the spirits of fallen warriors were called home to the ancestral lands they left when they embarked for Europe.
The journey was inspired by the efforts of several leaders from Canada's indigenous community, including Mr. Ed Borchert, past president of the National Metis Veterans Association, and Mr. Ray Rogers, former chairman of the First Nations Veterans of Canada.
Who were the driving forces behind this initiative? The Aboriginal Veterans Working Group included senior representatives from Canada's various indigenous peoples who jointly developed the journey program. Delegates included indigenous veterans of the Second World War and senior indigenous leaders of the day, as well as indigenous elders and youth. In addition to veteran representatives the program incorporated significant indigenous cultural elements.
From the commemoration program perspective, the journey—called the “aboriginal spiritual journey” back in 2005—helped increase awareness within Veterans Affairs Canada and the Government of Canada of the importance of remembering the service and sacrifice of indigenous people over the years. Significant efforts have since been made to ensure that Canada's indigenous veterans are honoured throughout program activities led by Veterans Affairs.
Commemorating indigenous veterans is highlighted now through the commemoration program's different areas of responsibility, which are: our overseas and domestic activities; the books of remembrance and the Canadian virtual war memorial; our commemorative partnership program; memorials that are national and international symbols; our Heroes Remember programs and interviews; the commendations; our European operations, such as, for example, our new Vimy visitor education centre located in Vimy, France; and, finally, our learning program.
VAC's commemorative learning program, for example, includes material related to indigenous veterans' service. The program and topical learning materials distributed annually reach hundreds of thousands of Canadian youth in hundreds of schools from coast to coast to coast. The program shines a spotlight on the experiences of individuals as a way to illustrate the overall service of the larger indigenous community, including the indigenous soldiers, foreign battlefields, historical booklets, and an indigenous veterans historical sheet and other print and online resources that tell stories of the individual service personnel as part of the larger narrative of indigenous military service.
In conclusion, the commemoration of Indigenous people who have proudly served in Canada's military is a clearly demonstrated element within VAC's broader Canada Remembers Program.
As the Canada Remembers Program seeks to build on its Road to Peace theme over the coming years, elevating and enriching the national dialogue on remembrance in our country, VAC will seek out appropriate opportunities to promote remembrance of indigenous veterans' achievements and sacrifices. These efforts will naturally include increasing awareness on the service of indigenous peoples.
VAC-led commemorative activities will increasingly focus on engaging younger veterans and youth in commemorating our military history and heritage, including the proud role of Canada's indigenous peoples, in communities across the country and overseas.
I thank you for having granted me some of your time today. My colleague Maryse Savoie will now conclude our presentation.
Good afternoon. It's an honour to appear before the Veterans Affairs Committee today.
As mentioned, I am Whitney Lackenbauer. I'm a professor of history at St. Jerome's University and the University of Waterloo. I'm also the honorary lieutenant colonel of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group based in Yellowknife, with 60 patrols spanning Canada's three northern territories and northern British Columbia.
I want to emphasize that I'm appearing before the committee as an individual, not as an official representative of the Canadian army, so please consider my views accordingly.
In terms of background, I've been interested in indigenous veterans' issues since the mid-1990s. At that time, the topic was gaining significant political attention in Ottawa, building on the strong advocacy efforts of indigenous organizations and veterans' organizations.
I would like to echo Dr. Sheffield, who appeared before you last month, in applauding the positive steps that have been taken over the last two decades by the Government of Canada to recognize, acknowledge, and honour the proud history of indigenous service in the Canadian Armed Forces, as well as to offer compensation to first nations' veterans for inequitable treatment after the Second World War and Korean War.
Scott and I wrote an article together about a decade ago suggesting that indigenous veterans were no longer forgotten warriors. They have become a part of the canon of Canadian military history, with soldiers such as Francis Pegahmagabow and Tommy Prince, widely recognized as Canadians of national historical significance. The national aboriginal veterans monument here in downtown Ottawa is a tangible example of this recognition, as is the highly visible and prominent place of first nations, Métis, and Inuit serving personnel and veterans in national Remembrance Day parades, commemorative ceremonies, and pilgrimages abroad.
Nevertheless, I think there could be and should be more attention given to first nations, Métis, and Inuit veterans who served during the Cold War and in the post-Cold War era, as well as in the role of Canadian Armed Forces personnel who have defended our country at home. In this respect, I am thinking of the Canadian rangers and their unique forms in terms of service.
My apologies if I'm covering a bit of familiar ground for some of you, but I want to provide you with a bit of background information on the rangers, because I think their status, terms of service, and role are often misunderstood. I provided the committee with a two-page overview of some basic facts about the rangers. My apologies if the French isn't great. My translation might be a little off.
My comments today are intended to touch on a few things the committee might wish to consider when thinking about the rangers in the context of Veterans Affairs.
First of all, the rangers are a subcomponent of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve Force, so they are serving members of the military. They are not a program like Bold Eagle or the junior Canadian rangers. They are reservists in military units that conduct national security and public safety missions in sparsely settled northern, coastal, and isolated areas of Canada that cannot conveniently or economically be covered by other parts of the military.
They are not soldiers, but they are reservists who act as the Canadian military's eyes, ears, and voice in remote regions, and they share their expertise and guidance during operations and exercises with our soldiers. This is important to keep in mind as I always worry that references that creep into the ranger program perpetuate misconceptions that they are a program akin to the cadets or the junior Canadian rangers, and not full members of the Canadian Armed Forces, which they are—full members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The ranger funding model is based upon 12 days' annual pay for each ranger, in support of their training and conducting of patrols. They are also compensated for other official taskings as well as for wear and tear on their personal vehicles and equipment, which they use during ranger activities. In addition to annual community-based training, rangers conduct surveillance and presence or sovereignty patrols, collect local information that's relevant to the military, and report unusual activities or sightings during the course of their everyday lives.
Furthermore, they support or lead humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and search and rescue operations in their homelands. These activities often put them in harm's way, and the danger to life and limb is often very real during northern exercises and operations. There's nothing routine about many of these training activities or operations.
Second, while indigenous peoples comprise the majority of ranger membership, particularly in Inuit Nunangat and parts of the territorial and provincial north, the rangers are not an indigenous program and are not an indigenous unit. Participation in the rangers is open to Canadians of all backgrounds, but given where the patrols are located and the encouragement that these patrols be reflective of local demographics, the majority of rangers are indeed indigenous Canadians.
I would caution you that the official statistics that I have received from the army, which are based upon incomplete self-identification surveys and which indicate that somewhere around 30% of rangers are of indigenous descent, are based upon a very incomplete survey and dramatically under-report indigenous participation rates in some of the patrol groups—I think, particularly, in 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group and 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group in northern Ontario.
Having access to more reliable data on indigenous participation rates is important for several reasons, including what might be the unique needs of indigenous veterans.
It is also ironic to me that ranger statistics are often excluded from official statistics about indigenous participation in the Canadian military, which has the dual effect of treating the rangers as if they're not real reservists, which is unfair and untrue, and of devaluing the rangers as performing a unique form of military service that has proven highly attractive to many indigenous peoples in northern and isolated coastal communities. I'd also like to highlight that at least 21% of Canadian rangers across Canada are women, so this is much closer to the CAF's one-quarter goal than the regular force or primary reserves. It's quite a success story.
In terms of specific issues concerning veterans who served with the Canadian rangers, their unique terms of service may be relevant to how the committee assesses the needs of indigenous veterans who've served in the rangers and the challenges associated with addressing these needs.
First, because rangers are not subject to minimal operational standards related to universality of service, including the operational standard for physical fitness, and rangers do not undergo a medical examination prior to enlisting, this may complicate efforts to discern what are service-related injuries or illnesses rather than pre-existing ones. This could affect career impact allowances, critical injury benefits, or disability benefits and pensions.
Second, because there's no compulsory retirement age for rangers, a strong culture of people identifying as ranger veterans simply does not exist in the north. In fact, I've never heard anyone refer to her- or himself as such. Perhaps they refer to themselves as a “former ranger”, but never as a ranger veteran. Rangers can serve as long as they are physically and mentally capable of doing so, as identified by their patrol and local culture, and elders are valued for the traditional and local knowledge and land skills that they bring to the ranger organization.
As some of you may know, there have been rangers who have served in uniform well into their 80s and 90s. I'll be at the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group change-of-command parade tomorrow in Yellowknife, where two rangers will be getting their CD4s: Ranger Ookookoo Quaraq of the Pond Inlet Patrol, for 52 years of continuous service, and Ranger Ilkoo Angutikjuak, a member of the Clyde River Patrol, who has been serving continuously for the last 53 years. Continuing to serve rather than voluntarily releasing obviously impacts their access to some Veterans Affairs benefits and services.
The CF ombudsman recently completed a report that documented factors which could impact Canadian rangers' access to health care entitlements and related benefits. I'm not going to attempt to provide you with an overview of everything that was covered in that report. I've included their main recommendations in the two-pager that I circulated.
Some of the issues they identified that could be of direct interest to this committee include a lack of awareness on the part of rangers about the health care benefits to which they're entitled as reservists, as well as a lack of awareness about Veterans Affairs benefits, such as compensation for service-related illnesses and injuries, support during the transition to civilian life, financial assistance, and support for health and well-being.
The report indicated that 89% of ranger respondents who sustained an injury on ranger duty did not submit a claim, and most rangers fail to report or consistently track their illnesses or injuries. This may complicate their access to veterans health care entitlements and related benefits.
Furthermore, many rangers, as residents of remote communities, have limited access to specialized medical care, including mental health services, compared to Canadians in other parts of the country and have to travel outside of their communities to receive CAF health care, with many rangers emphasizing that they are reluctant to leave their communities and their support networks to seek that kind of care.
The ombudsman's report also highlighted the need to eliminate ambiguity and inconsistencies in some policies, orders, and instructions related to health care entitlements and eligibilities to rangers, and this may carry over to veterans' benefits more generally.
Finally, and most directly, the report found that most rangers are not aware that they may be entitled to Veterans Affairs benefits and services as a serving member or as a veteran.
In terms of other specific topics the committee may wish to explore, I'm not sure if the CAF income support applies to rangers or if former rangers have access to the veterans emergency fund, which is designed to deal with veterans' homelessness. Furthermore, I have no idea if veterans education and training benefits are available to ranger veterans. I don't have answers to these questions. I would certainly want to see the results of a deliberate needs assessment before suggesting that these are areas in need of attention or warrant the investment of resources at this time.
Nevertheless, the simple message that rangers should be more aware of veterans benefits that are available to them as reservists to me is an obvious one. If this information is not being communicated to them, it should be explained to them at some point in their ranger training or at the very least consolidated into a short booklet or web page that can be translated into various indigenous languages and circulated to rangers.
I hope this short introduction has been useful. I certainly welcome your questions and comments.
Thank you very much, Mr. Ellis. Good morning to you and your committee.
First of all, I would like to highlight a few of the comments I made last week, and then I'll continue with today's presentation.
First of all, the vision statement of our First Nations Veterans Association is to bring equality to all our SFNVA members and to close the gap in the quality of life between first nations and non-first nation veterans and families.
There have been considerable historical promises made to first nation veterans, and a lot of these have fallen through the cracks. One of the things we submitted last week that you had requested was a proposal for support back in September of 2017. Again, we haven't received any response from the crown.
Because we are veterans and have lived through armed conflict, we see the wave of mental health needs facing our communities and the supportive response required. Mental health issues, specifically PTSD, remain a growing crisis facing not only veterans but also first nations communities.
Those are some of the issues that I highlighted in our first presentation. Now, I'll present my presentation for this part of the exercise.
Thank you for inviting me to return to speak on the critical issues facing Saskatchewan first nation veterans. The issues I am speaking to have long been of great concern and are reaching a critical point in terms of their severity. These issues need immediate resolution, a redress for veterans.
When first nation veterans answered the call to serve, we fought, and in some cases perished alongside our non-indigenous brothers in arms. This is something we were prepared to do; however, we were not prepared for the treatment we received afterwards. There was a great injustice perpetrated against the families the veterans left behind. Although families were entitled to survivor and widow benefits, what actually occurred was that the Indian agents on reserve deemed the widows and families of veterans who perished as wards beholden to the benevolence of the Indian agent.
This meant that, in many cases, the benefits for widows and their families were never disbursed beyond the Indian agents themselves, and we have documented proof of this. Widows and families were left without aid and were forced to navigate the loss of their family members and left with the sole responsibility of caring for their families. This injustice has never been addressed. We have no idea how many families this has affected.
What we know is that many of the families of veterans who perished in conflict were further disrupted as part of the sixties scoop because the crown left them no means to continue caring for their families. There has never been redress for these widows or their families.
The other issue I would like to raise is the wait times in receiving services from Veterans Affairs. It is well-known that services on reserve are at best minimal, and at worst non-existent. Many veterans must wait years for their claims to be processed. When claims are processed, there is no consideration of how veterans are supposed to access services, or no services exists.
Veterans Affairs assumes that access to services on reserve is the same as off-reserve urban centres. This is absolutely not the case. Where no services exist on reserve, veterans have two choices. They either go without or they absorb the personal costs to access services off reserve. First nations' veterans need a specific claim process that considers the proximity and access to services needed. Furthermore, they need an advocate who can assist them within the claim and appeals process.
There can be no surprise when I speak to the next issue. The pervasive occurrence of veteran suicide is of national concern. For first nation veterans, the issue of mental health and suicide is of utmost urgency and has not been adequately addressed. There is no comprehensive national database that can differentiate the rates of suicide occurrence between first nation veterans and non-first nation veterans, and certainly no mechanism that can differentiate between off- and on-reserve rates of veteran suicide.
Given the lack of infrastructure and services on reserve, consideration must be immediately forthcoming to look at providing comprehensive mental health services wherever veterans reside. Suicide and mental health are not issues that affect recently released veterans, but an issue that affects all veterans throughout their lifetime, regardless of the years in which their service occurred.
Another item I would like to address to the committee is regarding veterans' monuments. Several first nation communities applied for funding to erect veteran monuments, but were never considered, or were denied. Also, our dream is to have similar facilities much like those of the legions with similar services accessible for first nation veterans and their families.
I would like to make a comment on the veterans' monuments. I come from a first nation, the Mistawasis First Nation in north-central Saskatchewan. Since the Boer War up until present, we've had approximately 80 men and women who have enlisted in the armed services, and to date there is no monument there to honour these people.
I would like to thank the standing committee for allowing me to speak about these critical issues, and I look forward to seeing positive change for not only first nations' veterans, but all veterans.
At this time I would like to invite questions from the committee.
There's been some fantastic work done in other countries, like Australia, New Zealand, United States, other British settler societies, as Dr. Sheffield referred to them a few weeks ago to you. Again, there is a lot of commonality across the board.
It depends on what era we're looking at, as well. Certainly with a lot of the treatment from the World Wars, Korean War era, there are a lot of commonalities across the board. Dr. Sheffield is working on a book with Noah Riseman of Australia that I think highlights a lot of those issues, and certainly Dr. Riseman has done a lot of work on what's going on in Australia and New Zealand.
In terms of looking at some practices that are specific to indigenous veterans, I think there's some very interesting literature that's been produced in the United States looking at Vietnam War veterans, so native Americans who served in the Vietnam War, and some of the practices of devising culturally appropriate mechanisms to help those individuals transition back to civilian life in a culturally appropriate way. That might be helpful in informing some of the background material for this.
It's hard to draw a general estimate about how Canada ranks compared to others. There are a lot of commonalities in challenges, and certainly the difficulties experienced by indigenous veterans across the board, as Mr. Ledoux has articulated for us here.
However, some of the efforts over the last decade, decade and a half, in Canada to acknowledge these problems and try to seek some sort of reconciliation on them, I think have been positively received, not only in Canada, but in other countries as well.