I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 13 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on October 27, 2020, the committee is beginning its study on supports and services to veterans' caregivers and families.
Welcome to all of the witnesses who have taken time to join us today.
From the Department of Veterans Affairs, we have Mr. Steven Harris, assistant deputy minister, service delivery; Mitch Freeman, director general, services delivery and program management; and Crystal Garrett-Baird, director general, policy and research.
Also, from the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, we have Colonel Jardine, veterans ombudsman. Joining the colonel is Duane Schippers, strategic review and analysis, director and legal advisory.
Welcome to all of you, and thank you so much for your patience, and thank you for accommodating our sometimes very crazy schedule.
Without further ado, I will turn it over to Mr. Harris, who will start off with his five-minute opening remarks.
Again I will just remind people that once Mr. Harris has finished, we will go into the first rounds of questions, and at about the halfway mark, we will switch over to Colonel Jardine.
Mr. Harris, the first five minutes are all yours.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair—or good evening, almost, now—and members of the committee. Thank you for the invitation to be with you today.
Mr. Chair and committee members, I'm happy to be here today.
It's been almost a year since the COVID pandemic started in the Canadian context, and it has greatly affected all of our daily lives. The effect has been felt by those we serve, our veterans and their families, members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP, and by those in the department in how we are organized to deliver much-needed programs and services.
As I reflect back over the last year, I'm proud of the innovation, flexibility and resilience of veterans and the organizations that are dedicated to supporting them.
With the pandemic still a priority concern for all of us, Veterans Affairs Canada has adapted, and will continue to adapt, to support the needs of our veterans and their families.
Before I speak to you about some of these changes, I want to take this opportunity to provide the committee with a brief update on the wait-times initiative plan that was submitted to ACVA in June 2020, and to thank the committee for its report “Clearing the Jam”. Since the minister's last appearance in November, we have hired more than 350 additional staff from across the country to strengthen our capacity to make more, and more timely, decisions for veterans on their disability benefit applications. These staff are now trained and are making decisions, and this will be one way that we will reduce wait times for veterans.
In addition, I want to note that, since March 23, 2020, the start of the pandemic, Veterans Affairs Canada has issued nearly $1 billion in new disability benefits to veterans.
Over the last few years, we have expanded the programs and services that contribute to the well-being of veterans and their families. We are making sure that these programs are available to the veterans who want and need them.
Newer programs like the education and training benefit provide veterans with funding for post-secondary education, training, or shorter courses like workshops or seminars, while career transitions services assist veterans by providing individualized support for job search skills and career counselling. Finally, the veterans emergency fund is there to help when veterans are facing a financial crisis or emergency, and is available to veterans whether they have a service-related disability or not.
Faced with a prolonged pandemic environment, we know, our most vulnerable veterans are at risk, and so we have made more than 18,000 calls to check on them. We have reached out to connect with our case-managed veterans, those with health-related issues, those who live in remote areas and those at risk of homelessness. We are currently reaching out to all of our women veterans. In all cases, we can use these opportunities to make adjustments to programs and services based on the needs of these veterans.
Of course, COVID has had a significant impact on long-term care facilities. As VAC supports about 4,000 veterans in long-term care facilities across the country, we are working with long-term care homes and family members to make sure our veterans are safe. In some cases, we are ensuring that veterans have the supports they need if they want to bring their family member home. We've also been paying for personal protective equipment for veterans who receive face-to-face treatment, and we've waived the need for prescription renewals during the pandemic and extended our telehealth coverage.
Given that COVID-19 has had a negative financial impact on some veterans, we've changed the veterans emergency fund to cover costs related to COVID-19 and allowed for a maximum funding of $10,000. All these measures are in place to ensure that veterans can continue to receive the help and support that they need.
These examples of programs and services are important, but we also recognize the need to highlight the impact that mental health can have on our ability to take care of ourselves. That is why Veterans Affairs Canada offers a range of supports to mental health services for our veterans and their families.
With access to over 12,000 mental health professionals across the country, the VAC assistance service, which is available 24-7 to veterans and their families, and with 11 operational stress injury clinics and satellite service sites, there are multiple ways to access support and treatment. In the COVID environment, many of these services can be provided virtually, allowing all veterans, even those who live in remote areas, to be able to continue to access safe support and treatment.
Recognizing the critical role of families in supporting our veterans, Veterans Affairs provides a benefit to caregivers of veterans with serious disabilities and expanded the veteran family program to the 32 military family resource centres across Canada. This program is there to help veterans and their families transition to post-military life and connect them with community resources.
There's still much research to be done on mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The centre of excellence on PTSD and related mental health conditions is funded by Veterans Affairs Canada and is doing some excellent research on the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of veterans, the mental health of veterans' families, peer support and types of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few.
More and more, veterans and their families are coming to us and finding services and supports they need. We continue to adjust as new information becomes available.
We've given our employees the necessary tools and support to work from home so that they can support our veterans and their families. We'll work together to have a positive impact on the well-being of veterans and their families.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I do thank you, Mr. Harris, for your comments, and as well, Mr. Freeman and Ms. Garrett-Baird, for being here today.
This is a really important issue to me in my communications with our veterans and their families. What I hear over and over again is: “We were told when we signed up that we had no need to worry, that our families—our spouses and our children—would be a high priority within the armed forces and as veterans.”
However, I have to say today that I have some deep concerns that I'm relaying to you, especially on behalf of spouses I've communicated with, having had a town hall with the Caregivers' Brigade recently and discussing this very issue around the caregiver benefit.
One of the first comments was that it was changed it to “caregiver recognition benefit”, but many of them feel that the recognition is still not there. One of the main reasons is that the focus is entirely on physical, visible injuries. Those who suffer with mental injuries may have physical injuries as well, but they don't impact their ability to function in the way that their PTSD or operational stress injuries do. They do not qualify as caregivers for this benefit.
Do you not see that as a huge incongruency when we talk about taking care of veterans' families, Mr. Harris?
Excuse me, sir. I'm not arguing with how it's provided. That's all very clear, but things on paper don't necessarily translate into the true needs of the spouses or of the caregivers.
In this case, the focus is on physical injuries. I don't know who you spoke with, but there's this thinking that they can go out and do their yard work and that's good for them if they have mental health injuries. However, these are people with serious issues that trigger them and that can be involved in things like that, like the smell of gas or oil, or backfires, or noise levels and this type of thing. The expectation is that they can function in ways that those who have physical disabilities can't, yet it's not true.
The ombudsman, since 2016, has indicated that this should be a change, and that these caregivers should receive the same recognition that those who are supplying that care—the armed forces and Veterans Affairs—say they will give to our veterans' families. However, they don't qualify.
What is your perspective on whether or not that should be re-addressed? The impression I get is definitely that this is a huge incongruency within the program.
The creation of the veterans family and well-being fund was announced as part of budget 2017. It provides $3 million annually in grants and contributions for organizations to conduct research and implement initiatives and projects that support the well-being of veterans and their families.
This fund has enabled us to have strong collaboration and support innovation. It's a strategic approach that gives us capacity to find innovative ways to enhance our support to veterans' health and well-being while preventing duplication in service and program delivery.
When we look right now, this fund is available to non-profit charities, research and educational institutions, indigenous organizations and in some cases for-profit organizations, if they meet the criteria. The program is working, and we have some really good success stories both specifically for veterans, but also for family members and caregivers.
I'll just touch quickly on one organization that has been a recipient. It is supporting women veterans, soon-to-be veterans and our spouses of veterans where they gather to prepare for the next chapter of their lives, which is leaving the military. The funding that has been provided to this organization has supported multiple workshops that have allowed these participants to map their future and how they access services and to develop a network of mentors. So it's very much a collaborative approach.
Another wonderful success story is related to veterans where they are being impacted positively in the community and supporting survivors of disasters. This organization has exceeded every target set and has gone well beyond expectations, reaching a greater number of veterans because of their ability to provide meaningful opportunities to continue to serve communities and provide high-quality training initiatives that upskill the abilities and skills of the veteran population.
Through this, this group has been able to have deployment-ready capacity to support disasters, increase the volunteer capacity, increase the number of veterans engaged, and give veterans a sense of community and purpose to give back.
I'll just touch on one final one as well. It is related to an organization that works with grief experts, veterans and their families to develop a series of online psychoeducational learning modules that are tailored to the unique grief experience of Canadian veterans, former RCMP members and their families. These modules supported through the fund assist veterans to understand and work through grief, stress, occupational stress and the support for their families with that.
We've had 43 projects that are part of the fund to date, many of them being very successful in supporting key populations such as our homeless veterans and our families and caregivers. We've recently completed a call as well for applications and we're in the process of evaluating them to support even more organizations.
What a wonderful question about the boots on the ground with respect to the veterans emergency fund. This fund is set up to deal with those unforeseen crisis situations that a veteran, a spouse or their family may find themselves in.
As a really clear example, in the dead of winter, a furnace was in distress and needed to be repaired. The veteran was not capable of fixing it because of their own financial situation. The veterans emergency fund was able to deal with that situation, both repair that furnace and make sure that the family was looked after.
Another example would be going to veterans who find themselves needing shelter. We are able to put them up in a hotel while we then work with them to find other services, be it provided by Veterans Affairs, other provincial services or other community services in their particular region.
Thank you for your question. I'm happy to see you again as well.
In the department, the priorities for supporting veterans and their families constitute a significant investment. This investment may involve the workforce or the creation of new programs and services to assist the veteran community and the organizations that provide support to veterans.
I'll give you two examples. First, we're experiencing delays when it comes to providing decisions to veterans. Clearly, we want to reduce their wait times. We could use additional workers or human resources to help us do that. I can tell you that, since the summer, we've hired an additional 350 people for this purpose.
Second, we spoke about the veterans emergency fund. We realized that we lacked a program that could help veterans in crisis who needed immediate financial assistance. We created the veterans emergency fund, which enables us to provide immediate assistance to veterans in need.
Thank you, Chair, and thank you to all the witnesses who are here today. It's always good to see you.
I just wanted to follow up on something Ms. Wagantall talked about as well, which is the really important aspect of definitions. I think a lot of veterans and family members are confused about VAC services and benefits because of a lack of clarity around definitions.
For example, take caregiver and family. In some places, this topic is titled “caregivers and family” implying that there are potentially two separate topic areas, but in other parts of the document, there is a reference specifically to family caregivers, implying that all caregivers are family members. I hope VAC understands that's not the case.
There are also other places that talk about spouses and then family as if they are meant to be interchangeable items.
I'm just wondering, first of all, could your office please send to the committee the definition, the official VAC definition, of “family” and of “caregiver”?
Thank you for your question.
I'll start responding, and then I'll ask Mr. Freeman to provide additional information.
The purpose of the family resource centres is to meet the specific needs of medically released Canadian Forces members and their families. We've established 32 military family resource centres, where coordinators support not only veterans, but also their families during the transition period. They can visit these centres in person or contact the centres by phone, an increasingly crucial option in the pandemic period.
They can also access online resources for help with their transition to civilian life. The information line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The coordinators can help veterans because they're aware of the veterans' specific needs. The coordinators refer family members to information and resources in the community to help make the veterans' transition easier.
With that I might ask Mitch if he would add a little bit more about the veteran family program if that's okay.
I would simply add a little bit more detail around the military family resource centres, noting that they are managed by a group of volunteers at a board-of-director level who look at the community resources and assess the local needs. Therefore, all of these 32 locations offer what is needed in their community, things such as specialized transition programs around financial education assistance, employment and relocation services, a program called “Couples Overcoming PTSD Every Day”, a program for the caregiver, enhanced information and referral services, and, as Mr. Harris noted, the family information line, and also training around mental health first aid.
I would also highlight that in the fiscal year of 2019–20 nearly 3,000 individuals accessed the veteran family program, which provided nearly 9,000 interactions with veterans, as Mr. Harris noted, medically released and their families. As noted, there are 32 locations across the country. Veterans Affairs provides funding for this program as managed by our colleagues at the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services.
I would also add that I would like to hear if there are any alternative services VAC provides to those spouses for this unique military form of trauma. It is concerning to me that we don't have that really clearly, so I'm looking forward to hearing about that.
I think when we look at the reality, we are struggling to get women into the military. We're seeing women on the other side, when they become veterans, really struggling. We know that women after 10 years.... We're seeing women veterans becoming more and more challenged, especially around homelessness. We know that veterans who are single are more often than not women.
I'm very concerned that they're not getting the supports they need, so could you get that information? I think that if we want to attract women into the military, we'd better treat them well when they are veterans.
Good evening, Mr. Chair and committee members.
Thank you for this invitation to speak with you. As you know, I was appointed to the veterans ombudsman position this past November. I'm appearing before you today for the first time. I'm joined by my colleague, Duane Schippers.
I'm honoured to share our latest study and our report on mental health treatment benefits for family members of veterans.
The foundational principle for our study is the understanding that, when a military member serves, their family also serves. As a result, we believe that family members of veterans deserve access to funded mental health treatment when their own need is connected to military service. This is something that does not currently exist for those family members not participating in a veteran’s treatment plan.
This issue isn't new to us. We first recommended in 2016 that Veterans Affairs Canada fund mental health treatment for the family members of veterans in their own right and independent of the veterans' needs.
In the fall and winter of 2019-20, our office received a number of complaints regarding this issue. In February 2020, we launched an in-depth study to bolster our earlier recommendation.
We published our findings on January 19, 2021. We found a growing body of Canadian research regarding the impact of service on families. Military families are known to be incredibly resilient, but the evidence speaks to the reality that military service carries with it unique stressors that can impact a spouse's or child’s mental health. Frequent postings, long and multiple absences of the military member and the inherent risk of their illness, injury or death are key factors in the mental health and well-being of military families.
The , in his response to our report, acknowledged the impact that military service has on the well-being of both veterans and their family members. Currently, the department provides limited individual mental health treatment to spouses and children, but only when the family member’s treatment is directly connected to achieving a positive outcome for the veteran.
This policy ultimately has the effect of creating both inequity and a disservice to those veterans' spouses and children who are essentially barred from accessing funded treatment in their own right simply because their veteran doesn’t need or isn’t in treatment.
From our perspective as an advocate for fairness, family members—meaning spouses, former spouses and children—who are experiencing mental health issues as a direct result of being part of a military family should have independent access to their own mental health treatment benefits.
Let me share some of the stories that we were given permission to relate.
One spouse told us she was not asking for charity. She was asking to get the help she needs to support a man who's already given up too much in the service of his country.
A disabled veteran shared with us that her young children essentially had to take care of her when she came home broken and as a result they had mental health issues of their own. She related how her youngest daughter, who is under the age of 12, has become afraid of being alone. Her daughter needs treatment but she simply cannot afford to pay for it.
Another spouse shared how her veteran spouse suffers from PTSD, which is made so much worse when his episodes cause severe distress to his children. They desperately need professional and age-appropriate treatment to help them make sense of their father's condition, and this is simply beyond her scope as a mother.
The bottom line is that there is a gap in the way the department is meeting its obligation to veterans' families. We have made three recommendations.
First and foremost, that family members including spouses, former spouses, survivors and dependent children have access to federal government-funded mental health treatment when the mental health illness is related to the conditions of military service experienced by the family member. This should be independent of the veteran's treatment plan and regardless of whether the veteran is engaging in treatment.
Second, that the department conduct and publish the gender-based analysis of its policies and regulations for mental health support to veterans' families.
Finally, that the department continue to demonstrate flexibility in meeting the individual mental health needs of family members.
In summary, we believe that this is an important fairness matter in need of both attention and action. We're hopeful that, by publishing our findings, we'll see progress on this issue that recognizes the cost of service that some family members are paying. Your interest in keeping the conversation going is very important to me, as the veterans ombudsman, and to my office.
Thank you again for your invitation to share our report with you.
Colonel Jardine, thank you for your presentation.
Before I even talk about your presentation, I want to congratulate you on your new role. As I listened to your presentation, I sensed your passion. When a person is passionate about their role, great things happen. I want to congratulate you on this appointment and wish you continued success in this role, which is so important to our veterans and their families.
As I read your report, Colonel Jardine, on mental health supports for families, I found certain things quite interesting. For example, I was impressed with the scope of your study, specifically around the impact of service to family well-being.
We often talk, of course, of the effect of a veteran's illness and injury on a family, but in your report you included the impact of frequent relocation and absence from family and the effect this has on military families and children.
Maybe you could help us and share some of the unique challenges and conditions that military service has on families, which should be considered as we're working through looking at service delivery for caregivers. Keeping that in mind, maybe there is something you could bring to light here that would help us as we move forward.
Thank you, Mr. Samson, for your kind words and your question.
Certainly as military families, the movement, the postings we undergo every two to three years over a long career, mean uprooting our families to go all across the country, sometimes overseas, which breaks the bonds that children and families create in their societies and their communities. It's fairly abrupt.
There are long absences of the military member. We go on training. We go on courses. Pre-deployment training is particularly of long duration. Then when we deploy—and deployment itself is obviously for a long period of time—the risk of illness, injury or death while we're deployed has a significant impact on the well-being of the family who has been left behind.
Excuse me. I've only been retired for two years and all of this is still very fresh for me, and I apologize for my emotion here. It does mean a lot to me.
Perhaps I could ask my colleague, Mr. Schippers, who oversaw the completion of the report, to add a little bit more.
Thank you, Colonel Jardine.
We looked at studies done by other organizations, but the Canadian Paediatric Society, in particular, noted the impact on children. In terms of increased behavioural disorders, significantly in the three- to eight-year range, they increase by 19%, and stress disorders increased by 18%.
Although military families, as Colonel Jardine said, are resilient, approximately 10% of them struggle with the challenges directly related to military service—so their frequent moves, the deployments and the postings. The risk of injury and death increases when we're in an active combat type of environment. They're seeing stuff on the news and they're concerned about their family member.
Of particular concern, I think, are the adolescent military dependants who are far more likely to have admissions for injury, suicide attempts and mental health diagnoses than non-military teens.
Mr. Desilets, thank you for the question.
The heart of what we are saying in our report is with respect to the family members who don't have any access at all.
With regard to the sessions that you're referring to and the exact number, I would ask the department. That is all related to treatment that is part of the veterans treatment plan.
What we as the ombudsman are seeing and the gap that we are trying to shine a light on is these family members who don't have access in their own right when their treatment isn't connected to the veteran at all, but it is connected to their service because they are part of a military family. They experience all of those stressors that we spoke about just a few minutes ago.
That has an impact on them, and if their veteran isn't in treatment, then they have no access. How that access is done is up to the department to determine, but what we are saying is that this gap needs to be filled.
Ms. Blaney, thank you for your kind words.
It is so important because military service affects the families as well. If we accept that when a military member serves, their family also serves, if we accept that and we accept that therefore the family should also receive care for their part and what they've contributed to their country alongside their military member, then that is the reason why.
If they've suffered some mental health issues or illness as a result of that service, how would that look? That would be them receiving the same level and the same kind of funding from Veterans Affairs, in recognition that their mental health issues are related to their service as well, and that it is not necessary to be connected as part of their veteran's treatment plan.
It's a very simple gap to fill from our perspective. If the military member has served, the family has served, and if there are mental health issues, then let's meet that obligation to the family.
Thank you, Colonel, for being here with us today. It's nice to meet you.
I'm going to make a statement more so than ask a question. Then I'm going to be passing some of my time off to Ms. Wagantall.
I've been watching your testimony and listening to you very closely, and I can't imagine a more difficult situation to walk into than the study that you did. I will say this. It's my opinion that the government made absolutely the right decision in hiring you, and I'll tell you why. It's not because you're from Alliston originally, which is just 20 minutes down the road, but you're showing a level of empathy and compassion that is precisely needed in order to deal with the magnitude of the situations you're going to be dealing with, with veterans and their families.
You said earlier on that you apologize for getting emotional. Never apologize for getting emotional. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've sat in this office crying with veterans, veterans who have thought about committing suicide because they're not getting access to the types of services they need. We've all shed tears. Never apologize for that.
I just want you to know that I give you the same advice I give my colleague, Todd Doherty. Make sure you take care of yourself first. Know that we are here as a committee to help you. I am here as a member of Parliament to help you because at the end of the day it's all about helping veterans and their families.
I just wanted to echo that. Thank you, Colonel Jardine, for your service and for your personal transparency. You're going to do a wonderful job here. As for the life stories you shared today in regard to caregivers, as John said, it is overwhelming at times.
I want to just ask you a question in regard to what I'm hearing, which is that there are gaps, inconsistencies, backlogs and subjectivity in decisions that are made. I really think that a lot of times everything is too complicated, and definitions aren't clear. We hear often about the dynamics around sanctuary trauma. When I met with the Caregivers' Brigade, they used the term “the war at home”. I would like you to comment on that. That just describes to me the very issues that somehow are being missed in dealing with the needs of caregivers, spouses and children.
Mr. Brassard and Ms. Wagantall, thank you for your kind words.
You're absolutely right. This is the point we're trying to make, that the people who are the first responders to veterans are their families. Military service takes a toll on the veteran and their family.
We believe with this report and this study we have done that; we have demonstrated very clearly that this gap exists. There is work to be done to fill that gap. It requires some commitment to do that.
If we agree—and I can't state this more plainly—that the family serves while the veteran or a military member serves, and if we say we're going to take care of the veteran when they become ill or injured, then how can we not extend that to their families and do it in a way that recognizes who they are? They are not just part of the furniture and effects. They are individuals, children who need to grow up and who sometimes need help to make that transition into adulthood successfully to become citizens of our country. This is the heartbreaking part to those of us who understand this.
It's heartbreaking to hear these stories, as you could tell, and we would urge the government to please take the necessary steps to fill this gap.
Thank you, Colonel Jardine.
I would just say that some of the work we've done in terms of the impact of transition on our [Technical difficulty—Editor] we did a qualitative study about two years ago on transition that showed that the family, and particularly the spouses, are the most important factor in a successful transition of a military member from military life to the civilian life.
We're going to be looking at the caregiver recognition benefit. We've started to look at it and we'll be looking at things such as access and qualifications for access. It seems, and it shouldn't be any shock given the percentage of male Canadian Forces members versus female, that the largest proportion of caregivers tend to be female. We'll be looking at this through a GBA+ lens as well, looking at how it impacts single female veterans, looking at who the caregivers are, who the family members are and whether that is different in different forms. For example, is the indigenous definition of family a bit broader? How are indigenous veterans and their caregivers impacted? We'll be looking at the impact. We'll be looking at the needs of the veterans and we'll also be looking at the quantity of the benefit. Is the caregiver recognition benefit really sufficient? Is it really compensation or is it token recognition while the care is foisted onto the partners? Is it the caregiver's responsibility as opposed to the government's? We'll be looking at those things and we look forward to talking to the committee about that once we've completed that work.
I think MP Blaney had asked about military sexual trauma, MST, earlier, and we're also looking at access to individual counselling for survivors of military sexual trauma and what resources are being provided to veterans.
I want to thank all the witnesses.
That brings us to a close today.
Thank you very much, Colonel Jardine and Mr. Schippers, for kicking us off in the right direction with this study. We very much appreciate your time and patience as we got going a little bit late today, and also your flexibility for being able to meet at a later time.
Thank you to all my colleagues. Thank you to everyone in Ottawa who makes this possible, all the technical folks, translation and, of course, the clerks and analysts.
I adjourn today's meeting.