I call the meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number two of the Standing Committee on Veteran Affairs.
Pursuant to the order adopted on Tuesday, December 14, 2021, the committee is meeting for a briefing with the Minister of Veterans Affairs, the Hon. Lawrence MacAulay. The Minister will be accompanied by Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs Paul Ledwell for the first hour. The deputy minister and departmental officials will stay on for the second hour.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of November 25, 2021. Members are attending in person in the room and remotely by using the Zoom application.
The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Just so that you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
Today's meeting is also taking place in a webinar format. Webinars are for public committee meetings and are available only to members, their staff and witnesses. Members enter immediately as active participants. All functionalities for active participants remain the same. Staff will be non-active participants and can therefore view the meeting only in gallery view.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind all participants at this meeting that screenshots or taking photos of your screen is not permitted.
Given the current pandemic situation and in light of recommendations from health authorities, along with the October 19, 2021, directive from the Board of Internal Economy to keep safe and stay in good health, all those attending the meeting in person should maintain a physical distance of 2 metres from others and wear a non-medical mask when circulating in the room. In addition, it is strongly recommended that masks be worn at all times, including when participants are seated in their spot. They must practice good hand hygiene and use the hand sanitizer at the entrance to the room.
As Chair, I will enforce these measures throughout the meeting.
I'd like to thank members and our guests in advance for their cooperation.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
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With respect to the speaking list, the Clerk and I will do our best to maintain the established speaking order for all members, whether they are attending in person or virtually.
I would now like to welcome the witnesses. We are honoured to have with us the Hon. Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Paul Ledwell, Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs.
Given that we had a vote, we will begin this two-hour meeting at 7:25 p.m. and the meeting will therefore adjourn at 9:25 p.m.
I'd like to tell the speakers that I will monitor their time. When they have one minute left, I will alert them, and when their time is up, I will let them know so that they can end their speech as quickly as possible.
With that, Minister MacAulay, you have the floor for the next five minutes.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Members of the committee, it's a pleasure to be back here at your committee to talk about what our government is doing for veterans and their families.
Since I became minister back in 2019, this committee has done important work in helping us reduce wait times, finding ways to support veterans' organizations and making sure my department is running as smoothly as it can.
I want to congratulate you on your election, Mr. Chair. I know you care deeply about the folks who serve our country in uniform.
It's also important to note, Mr. Chair, that today is the first day of Black History Month. From the western front to operations here at home and around the world, for more than a century, Black Canadians have always been there, and we thank them today.
Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to comment on some of the unfortunate things we have seen in the past few days in Ottawa.
Everyone has the right to protest in this country, but the disrespect shown to the National War Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument was completely disgusting. The National War Memorial represents all those who have served, fought and died for our country. A Canadian soldier was murdered on the very spot, and there were people climbing and celebrating on the tomb of another. To see that from the protestors was shocking, disgusting and a slap in the face to every Canadian veteran. I hope we never ever see anything like that again in this country.
Now, before I take questions, I would like to provide a few remarks.
I know, Mr. Chair, that some veterans are frustrated with the amount of time it takes to get a decision on disability benefit applications. I want them and all of you on the committee to know that reducing processing times is our number one priority. Over the past several years we've hired hundreds of staff, made improvements to the application process and simplified decision-making for some medical conditions. We're making more decisions, and the backlog has been getting smaller.
This includes making progress on francophone applications. We've opened an office in Montreal, with 30 people working exclusively on French applications, and we have an additional five bilingual teams.
We've made good progress—
We're making great progress, but there's certainly more to do.
As you may know, the department has already received approval to extend some 168 backlog staff, which should help us continue to make good progress on the backlog. We've committed to making the investment we need to make, and we will continue to focus on this vitally important issue.
I also want to point out, Mr. Chair, that budget 2021 included some items that affected the veterans community as it relates to benefits, including a program that will immediately cover mental health care costs for veterans with PTSD or depressive or anxiety disorders while their disability benefit application is being processed. The changes to these regulations are currently out for consultation in the Canada Gazette, and we expect this to be fully implemented by April 1.
Mr. Chair, I know another area of concern relates to case management. Our case managers make sure that veterans with more complex needs receive the support they need. It's absolutely vital work, and we're lucky to have the folks who work on this at Veterans Affairs. I know they're dealing with backlogs and workloads that are too heavy. Over the last few years, the department has considerably increased the number of case managers in order to meet the increased needs of our veterans. As of last November, there were 476 of them in the department. We promised during the campaign that we would hire more, and we will.
To close, Mr. Chair, since forming government six years ago, we have invested more than $11 billion in new programs and services for veterans. We've hired the much-needed staff to ensure veterans are getting the services they need. We're going to continue to do everything we can to make things better for the folks who serve with our flag on their shoulder. There's certainly still a lot more to do.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Ms. Valdez, I should tell you that we have received your motion, but as you know, the rules dictate that a notice of motion must be provided 48 hours in advance.
So we cannot debate this motion, but as prescribed in the Standing Orders, we will submit the motions to the subcommittee, which will do what is required. Then we will consider the motion at committee.
We will now pick up where we left off.
As I was saying, Mr. Caputo has six minutes for his questions to the Minister.
I very much appreciate your question.
As you know, one of the first things that happened when I became Minister of Veterans Affairs was a conference on women and LGBTQ veterans. This was two or three different meetings that we had in this area. It was well attended from right across the country. It is a vitally important question and it gives the office a chance to focus on the issues that women and LGBTQ veterans face on gender equality, diversity and inclusion for all veterans. It's so vitally important.
We have heard from many women veterans forums and we want to hear from any female veterans. We're wide open to this. I think there's a different way that you have to serve different issues for different veterans. In fact, that's why we had this meeting for the Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans. It was to make sure the department understood basically what different issues women and LGBTQ people were facing and to make sure that they were able to deal with that.
More needs to be done in this area. I was pleased to see that my mandate letter included ensuring that the benefit system and services are responsive to meeting the needs of the under-represented veterans including women, LGBTQ, racialized and indigenous veterans and to making sure that people who are not properly represented have a better chance to have their issues addressed with Veterans Affairs. That is what we have done and that is what we will continue to do.
I have indicated that these conferences will be held on a yearly basis. The last one or two had to be held virtually, but they were well responded to. I think it's fair to say that the department received a lot of very valuable information in order to deal with these clients.
That's basically where we are on this issue.
Again, I appreciate that question.
As you're fully aware, there's much more being done in the northern areas for veterans and with first nations and other groups. We have the Métis organization, for example. We put $30 million into a program just to make sure they were fully able to address the problems within the Métis organizations and to make sure they could properly put together programs to make sure that the veterans and what they did would be fully appreciated. It was to make sure we have ceremonies to show what an important role they played.
As I indicated from the start, so many different groups of people have been involved in freedom and democracy in this country. It's so vitally important that every group is recognized and that we pay tribute to them because of what they have done, so that you and I can sit here and discuss the issues.
That's what we're trying to do at Veterans Affairs Canada and that's what we will continue to do. I appreciate your question.
Mr. Minister, it's a pleasure to see and hear from you again.
As I told you the last time we met, I am going to keep pressing you on the same issue, and it appears that some of my colleagues agree that it's necessary.
We've had the opportunity to talk about the disability benefit claims backlog on several occasions, and in particular, the fact that the francophones do not necessarily receive the same service as anglophones. I heard you say in your speech earlier that this was improving. You also told me things were improving on May 10. At the time, I was waiting for the figures, and I still don't have them. On November 22, I had the chance to speak with Mr. Harris, a very nice person much like yourself, and I asked him for the figures again. We also spoke on December 2. As it turns out, I still have yet to receive anything.
Would it be possible to get some tangible numbers?
I would be so proud to be able to congratulate you and tell you that I really like you and you are doing a great job because the backlog of claims has gone from 21,572 to 9,200.
Why is this information being kept secret? If you've been successful, that's great. I will congratulate you and we can move on to something else.
I will let you respond, Mr. Minister.
Thank you so much, Chair.
I just want to express my appreciation to the chair for the little signs that give us the timeline. I really appreciate that, so I just want to acknowledge that.
Minister, it's always good to have you. I always enjoy this time, probably a little more than I should, but I do want to ask you about the marriage after 60 clause. You know we've had this conversation several times. You know I've put forward a bill, because I think this is something that needs to be dealt with immediately. I'm really curious about the reality that fixing this was in the mandate letters for the minister's position in 2015 and 2017, and then afterwards it disappeared. I'm a little concerned and don't want that to get lost.
You know, the reality is that we worked with a veteran, a veteran who had plans to get married, and when COVID hit, of course, like every other Canadian, he couldn't follow through on that until a later date. The problem is that he was going to get married when he was 59, and because of COVID he couldn't get married until he was 60. That means, of course, that his partner will not be able to access any pension supports after his passing.
I'm also very concerned because DND now has on their website a notice that tells members, by the way, remember that if you get married after 60 you cannot get a pension for your loved one, and here's the form to fill out so that you can get a smaller pension during this time—which means a lot of veterans are in poverty—so that your loved one can have some money when you pass on.
This is an archaic system. It's shocking that it's still in place. I just wonder if you could explain to me and to the veterans of this country who marry after 60 why their spouse does not deserve the supports that other members receive.
Rachel, it's good to see you, and thank you for all your pushing and making sure that issues are brought to the forefront. You certainly do that.
As you're fully aware, we're always committed to those who serve and to their spouses having the support they need. I know you know that. We have been working, and we still are, with Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research to gather information about those survivors. We are working on it. We will use the results of this research to inform how best to support these survivors. As you know, and I know, the well-being of veterans and their families is so vitally important.
They've been doing a lot of work and they've been doing a lot of interviewing. Veterans Affairs has interviewed a large number of people, quite a number of people, mostly female—
Thank you so much, Minister.
I want to talk about Roy Puthiampadavil. He is a veteran. Today is actually the 10th anniversary of his fight with VAC about his OSI report.
Mr. Chair, through you, I want to let the minister know that the OSI report was incorrect and that VAC agreed it was incorrect, but were not willing to take the next step and say to the doctor that it is incorrect and needs to be fixed or deleted from his file so that he can move forward.
This person who served our country has suffered traumatically over the last 10 years because he didn't feel recognized by the people who were supposed to protect him after he fought so hard for our country. We also know that for a year he lost his income because VAC was trying to push him into a vocational rehab program that he simply was not ready for. He had to go through a whole year without that income.
The other thing I'm hearing from veterans like Roy is that they feel it's an insurance agency instead of a support service for them. His file clearly illustrates there are systemic issues that need to be addressed when veterans are accessing support.
Through you, Mr. Chair, Minister, will you commit to meeting with me and Roy to discuss this? This is a perfect example of the trauma that some of our veterans are feeling with the service systems in place right now.
I appreciate your question, and it's a very important question. I can assure you that on military bases across the country, there are Veterans Affairs staff dealing with people.
What we are trying to do is make sure that people.... I believe that when they enter the Canadian Armed Forces, they should be told that there's a day coming when they will leave the Canadian Armed Forces and to be ready for that. I think it would help an awful lot in terms of the difficulties we have in some areas with homelessness and other difficulties...with jobs.
In fact, settling in to a regular lifestyle and not being in the Canadian Armed Forces, as you are fully aware.... We both know that if you're in the Canadian Armed Forces, you have a doctor, for example, and when you come out, you likely do not have a doctor. In this country, sometimes it's very difficult. But that's only one of the things. They need to find a job. That's why there are so many things. We have these job fairs.
I think, first of all, your question is so important. Canadian Armed Forces personnel need to know that, number one, some day they will be leaving and they will become veterans and to make sure they make use of, let's say, the education fund—
Respectfully, I don't have a lot of time. I have a couple of questions that I want to get in and that leads me to my next question.
Health care services provided by each province vary. A standard national program would ensure that our veterans received the assistance they require, such as access to mental health programs regardless of which province they choose to live in. How will this government ensure a streamlined transition?
My research has led me to believe, from speaking to veterans like Mr. Paul Breeze and Tom Hobbs, who has addressed this committee on numerous occasions leading back to 2008, that the services provided are not sufficient to support our veterans.
How can we as a nation ask our veterans to go to war, yet when they leave the service, we expect the provinces to take care of them, when we know that each province, and especially...? My research has led me to believe that one of the worst provinces.... I'm embarrassed to say that, because I'm from Ontario. It is lagging behind all services for the vets. Could you help me understand that?
Again, that's an important question, and of course, you're fully aware that health care is under the provinces.
We want to make sure that when Canadian Armed Forces members leave the armed forces and become civilian citizens, they are aware of every asset they have there.
For example, in Veterans Affairs Canada, we just announced $140 million in mental health benefits in order to make sure that we're able to help people with PTSD and many other things. This money is available when you apply to Veterans Affairs Canada as of April 1. We expect it will be approved and in play on April 1. If you have any of these problems, you qualify for benefits, even if your application has not been reviewed, in order to make sure that you're able to have the mental health support you need.
That's one thing the Government of Canada is doing, and I think it's a very important move in the mental health area to help our veterans.
That takes me to my next question. I'm glad you brought that up.
Research has shown that service dogs are essential to mental health and the well-being of our veterans and their families. Does this government recognize the value that service dogs provide to our veterans? When will this government implement a standard national program that will allow our veterans access to service dogs?
There is a reason for why that touches me very dearly. I spoke to a police officer who was a veteran, and he had to fight to get his service dog, so that he could go to work. He is now limited to desk service due to his injuries from the war, but it took him years and years for a law to be implemented, because every province has different laws.
Do you agree that if we have asked our service members to go to war for us, give us our rights and freedom, that this government owes them a program no matter where they decide to live, whether it's in Newfoundland or out in Victoria? Should we not as Canadians be responsible for them?
Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's good to see you, Minister.
I'm new to the veterans affairs committee, and I'm really pleased to have been appointed to this great committee to work on behalf of the veterans who served our country, and to represent some of the veterans who live in my riding of Bonavista—Burin—Trinity.
Minister, in last year's budget we invested an additional $15 million in a veteran and family well-being fund. This is a crucial program that our government introduced in 2018 to help fund grassroots veterans organizations across Canada. We recently made some announcements on funding with this money from the last budget.
Could you tell us about some of these organizations that are getting help through this latest round of funding, and what work they're doing with or in support of veterans across the country?
Thank you very much, Churence. It's good to see you too.
I would have to say the veteran and family well-being fund is something that I'm very proud of. It's a great program. It's something our government introduced, and it's having an impact on the lives of veterans and their families. It's helping a lot of great organizations that wish to help veterans.
I'm certainly very pleased, Churence, that we were able to put an additional $15 million into this program in last year's budget, and the rollout has been well accepted in many organizations. We know some veterans feel more comfortable when they can turn to their peers in grassroots organizations. That's why it's so important that we work with these organizations and they do great work.
Just as an example, Helmets to Hardhats will receive $700,000 to assist women and LGBTQ2 veterans in skilled trade careers. That, as you know, Churence, can tie into our education program that has been put in place. There's $80,000 a year just to upgrade your education so you are more valuable to industry.
Ottawa Innercity Ministries will receive $175,000 to address the rise in social isolation. With all the difficulties, Churence, that people have gone through during this pandemic, that gives this inner-city ministry a chance to work very hard with that.
Homes for Heroes Foundation in Calgary will receive $250,000 to support the Calgary veterans village. I was at that village, and it was so wonderful for people who had just left the armed services and were having some difficulty. For example, one family was just coming out of the tiny homes and they were going to move into their own home. He had a full-time job; she had a job, and they're right back into society. That's what we want to be able to do. It's valuable to the veteran and it's valuable for our economy.
We have many others like VETS Canada, Wounded Warriors, Veterans Transition Network, Sunnybrook—which you have heard of, and it's a great place—and many more.
There are so many great things that this program has done to give veterans a chance to really become what they want to be in civilian life. It's valuable for both sides.
Thank you for the question. I appreciate it.
I understand. The federal government will take care of it through the Veterans Affairs Department. I have no problem with that.
Earlier, one of my colleagues pointed out something that I find very significant, the relationship between Veterans Affairs and National Defence. We will surely have the opportunity to discuss it at another time.
I receive calls regularly about medical files not being forwarded, transfers, people waiting when they need to see a doctor, and so on.
We'll get the chance to talk about it again, but I would like—
Every year we take a day to remember our veterans—Remembrance Day. We might remember them on the anniversary of a conflict or a battle, but we don't do enough to recognize our veterans' sacrifices.
After what we saw this weekend with the disturbing and deeply disrespectful actions at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and at the National War Memorial, it is appropriate that today we talk about how we can recognize the valour and sacrifice of our veterans now.
Other countries have recognized this and have reviewed the citations given to veterans who ought to be appropriately recognized for their valour, but here in Canada we have not done that appropriately. As a result, Canada has not awarded a single Victoria Cross since it took it over in 1993, and in fact, no Canadian has been awarded a VC since 1945. This must change.
There is an unprecedented grassroots movement bringing together the veteran community, including well-respected organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion, members of the military community, municipalities and grassroots Canadians. Together they are calling for Private Jess Larochelle's citation to be reviewed and to award him the Victoria Cross that he deserves.
In September 2021 you, Mr. Minister, indicated that you recognize Jess Larochelle's sacrifice and support initiatives from the military community “to make sure that every veteran receives the service and remuneration they deserve.”
With that, will you bring forward to your government colleagues and the the message of tens of thousands of Canadians, and what I would hope would be the unanimous support of this committee, to recognize the valour of Jess Larochelle by awarding him the Victoria Cross, and in doing so recognizing the valour and sacrifice of our veterans and those who have served our country throughout our history?
Thank you very much, Niki.
I can assure you, Private Larochelle's story is exceptional, and I'm certainly fully aware of it. He demonstrated unbelievable bravery in combat. I know you're fully aware of that too.
Of course I fully support anything that the military does to make sure that folks who serve bravely receive the recognition they deserve. As you know, if the military decides to take the steps they take, you and I, I'm sure, will fully support them in any way we can—and I will make sure I support them in any way I can. As you know, however, I'm not part of the chain of command, and it's important that as a cabinet minister I don't interfere in the responsibility of the military.
Mr. Minister, thank you for participating tonight. I don't have much time, so my questions for you will be quick.
In an answer from your office to an inquiry that was submitted by my colleague Mr. Frank Caputo, the number of applications, according to this answer, is increasing. As a result, the backlog of applicants is increasing.
Would you agree with the numbers that have been provided by your office?
Yes, there were some details provided in the question by Frank Caputo. In actual fact, the number of files that we were handling has gone down. We've reduced the number of files waiting to be addressed down by 10,000, and the actual backlog, as the minister indicated earlier in his comments, has been decreased by 40%.
As of last week, the numbers in the backlog are now down below 14,000. It is declining. We have more work to do.
The answer that you just provided doesn't jive with the answer to the inquiry I have here.
When I look at the numbers here, it says on April 1, the number of pending applications was 26,600 and the backlog was 11,500. When you go to July 1, 2021, the number pending increased by 3,000 to 29,900 and the backlog went up to 12,900. On October 1, 2021, the number pending was 33,200 and the backlog was 14,400. On January 1, the projections are that it's going to be 36,500 pending, with a backlog of 15,800.
Is the answer that you provided to Mr. Caputo incorrect?
Minister, it's so nice to see you, even if you're in P.E.I. and we're here. I appreciate your intervention and the fact that you could join us today.
I also welcome Paul, who is our new deputy. We've had good conversation. Thank you both for being here today.
Minister, I want to talk about the veterans emergency fund. That's a fund that we brought forward in 2018 to help veterans who were in tough situations—probably short-term, hopefully, but if there was no help, then it could be long term.
From what I've been hearing and reading, that fund has had a very big impact on many veterans right across this country. They can get up to $2,500. Can you describe some of the impact you have heard and seen for these veterans?
What was happening was that there was an emergency, but no discretionary funds. This is a program to come forward right away and support these veterans.
Could you talk a little about the veterans emergency fund ?
Thank you very much, Darrell.
The veterans emergency fund is $1 million a year and vitally important to the veterans— anybody who is down and out, down on their luck and that type of thing. It has helped so many people. A veteran can receive $2,500.
So many times you find people who are up against it totally. It could be a family in a home, it could be a mortgage, it could be whatever. These things were put in place just to make sure...to try to help repay them. You can never repay veterans for what they did, but it's to make sure we make life as good as we can for them. That's exactly what the emergency fund is about. After we use the emergency fund, the other programs can kick in in order to make it much better.
Minister, thank you for that answer.
Also, we brought in a new education and training fund. This is for helping veterans who, after they finish in the active armed forces, can go back to school. If they've done six years in the military, they can get up to $40,000. If they've done 12 years, they can get up to $80,000.
I understand the uptake of that program is not as high as we would like, but can you see some type of correlation with the new employment strategy program? Is there a way we could design that program that would complement this education and training benefit that is helping many veterans right across the country?
Thank you very much, Darrell.
You're fully aware that, of course, the national veterans employment strategy program, which we're working to put in place, can certainly work with that. With the education program and everything else, it makes the veteran more employable. In fact, veterans can leave the military and then perhaps end up going to university. If you've been there for 12 years, $80,000 means a lot in helping you to become more qualified for wherever you want to go.
As you're fully aware, we're discussing the national veterans employment strategy with the veterans and veterans groups and having their input on what will be put together. When we get it in place, the end result will be combining all the programs: the national veterans employment strategy, the education fund and all the other programs that are in place. These programs are put in place to make sure the veteran has a better quality of life, and that's what your responsibility and my responsibility is.
I appreciate every person sitting at the veterans affairs table tonight, because everybody here wants to make it better for veterans. I do, and everybody else there does. I thank you so much, and we will continue to work together.
Mr. Minister, on behalf of committee members, I want to thank you for being here this evening with the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. I'd also like to thank you for making yourself available so quickly, as the committee has just resumed its meetings.
I would now like to address committee members.
Based on the notice of meeting sent out, the meeting should be adjourned at 8:30 p.m. As you know, however, votes were taken. I would therefore like to propose something to you and very briefly hear your thoughts on it.
We are receiving other guests who were called to appear, namely the assistant deputy minister and the acting assistant deputy minister. We will take a break to test the audio with our guests. Given that several of you already have other engagements after 8:30 p.m., I propose that we test the audio and take a break, but that we do only one round of questions with the second group of witnesses. That would mean a single round of six minutes per member from each party.
Is that all right with you, or do you wish to take a full hour?
Rather than giving the floor to everyone, I will ask one of the vice-chairs, Mr. Desilets or Mr. Caputo, to tell me what he thinks of the suggestion.
Okay, perfect. I'm going to start.
Just a second, I have to go back.
I must get back to committee business.
I'd also like to inform the technicians and everyone that we are going back online. Let's be ready.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the new witnesses.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize your name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. As a reminder, all comments should be addressed through the chair.
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I would now like to welcome our witnesses: Paul Ledwell, deputy minister; Steven Harris, assistant deputy minister, service delivery branch; and Sara Lantz, acting assistant deputy minister, chief financial officer and corporate services branch.
First, I would like to inform you that I will be using cards to let you know your speaking time is almost up.
I know that you will not be able to use your five minutes' speaking time for your opening remarks, so we will go straight to the first round of six minutes of questions.
So, I invite Frank Caputo to begin.
Go ahead, Mr. Caputo.
Member Caputo, that is a very good question.
I just want to be clear that the backlog is associated with disability adjudications, which are not undertaken by caseworkers, but by adjudicators in that system. We have caseworkers who work with our almost 16,000 veterans who are under case management, and we have workers who do adjudication.
I'll ask my colleague, Assistant Deputy Minister Harris, to speak to the specifics around the backlog and the numbers that are needed to get it down to the desired location.
With respect to case management, Mr. Caputo—and I address this through the chair, of course—the case management elements are such that no veteran waits for a case manager because there is not a backlog. If a veteran needs a case manager, they are assigned a case manager, so that is a case manager-related issue.
With respect to files and disability adjudication, if there is an application for a disability benefit, as you've noted, there are files in a backlog. The minister indicated during the first hour the progress that we've made with respect to this over the course of the last period of time. We do expect to be down to about 11,500 files in a backlog situation. That is beyond our 16-week service standard. That's down from about 23,000 files, where we started about two years ago, with the additional investments and resources that are there.
We do expect that by around April 2022 the backlog would be in a state of about 11,500.
Mr. Chair, thank you very much, member, for the question.
You're correct. We do have 38 Veterans Affairs offices and 31 transition centres located on Canadian air force bases across the country, so 69 unique locations from which our 188,000 clients are served.
Obviously, throughout this last period of time, none of those offices have been open during the pandemic, but the presence in those areas and the service toward veterans and their families in those locations has been essential to ensure that level of service is there virtually, that it is responsive and people are reaching out to veterans that we know may have needs and they are able to get a response very quickly.
We have, in all of those locations, very active frontline staff who are there to respond and to answer the needs of veterans. They are doing that from home locations and remote working, but they are doing that in the communities in which those veterans are living as well, so that presence is very important.
I'm very curious about one thing, and I did put a question to the department on this, and received a response not too long ago. I guess what is concerning to me is this. We know we have a Veterans Bill of Rights in this country, and when you read that Bill of Rights, it's very clear that it applies to every veteran who is a client of VAC.
I was a little surprised when we put our request and found out that although there is an extensive amount of training for VAC employees, they are not being trained in any way about the Bill of Rights, what it means, and what their responsibilities are pertaining to that particular document.
It seems to me that it would make sense that, especially in the positions of case managers, they should understand what that is and how to deliver those services in a particular manner.
I guess I have two questions. First, what is the purpose of the bill of rights, if it's just there as a document that cannot be actually used in a meaningful way? Second, if veterans who are being provided services feel that their bill of rights have not been acknowledged or represented, is there any process within VAC for them to move forward with an official complaint?
Madam Blaney, there's a tremendous amount of training that goes in. My colleague, Mr. Harris, referred to the training that we undertake for new staff who are especially interfacing with veterans. That's something we take very seriously. In addition to public service training, such as in values and ethics, there is a lot of training that is very specific to the importance of the way our staff comport themselves in their interaction with veterans.
Included in that will be all of the fundamental aspects, including the bill of rights, that are important for our staff members to understand. I would be surprised if there's not reference to that in the general training that transpires.
In terms of a mechanism by which a veteran can raise a question, yes, we have several of those. I'll ask Mr. Harris and Ms. Lantz to—
I'm so sorry to interrupt and I apologize for this through the chair.
I just want to clarify that I asked a question and it was very clear in the response that I got. I just got it yesterday. I'm happy to send that back to you. It came from the department itself. It said that at no point is this training put into place.
I completely embrace the idea that, as part of a particular type of training, that would be part of it. It may not be called training on the bill of rights for veterans. I need to push back on that, through you, Mr. Chair, because when we got that response there was a very clear message that it is not an official part of the training.
Again, it's a document. It's something that is a commitment to veterans. I'm just wondering how is it not taught to folks that are doing that work? That's not me criticizing in any way the amazing people who serve our veterans every day—I really appreciate it—but if that's not part of the training, that's not their problem. It's really an upper management problem.
I just want to go back to the other part of it. Is there not a process for veterans who feel that their rights have been trampled on? They have this document that assures them there will be a certain criteria of how the services are provided to them. Is there no process for them to move forward that includes this?
I'm hearing about it a lot. We've talked in this committee about it and about sanctuary trauma. Veterans are coming, asking for help and then they're turning away. I talked about Roy earlier today. There's years of trauma. There were ten years of him saying that this is wrong and please fix it. Because of his particular trauma, he was not able to move forward. It was to the point where if somebody from Veterans Affairs sent him a message, he couldn't even look at it because he's traumatized by what has happened.
I'm just wondering if you could come back to this. Again, I just want to clarify that we asked the question and we were told that it is not part of the training.
Thank you, Mr. Ledwell.
That was the final set of questions.
Is it the pleasure of committee members to adjourn the meeting, as agreed?
Let me thank our witnesses. We have with us Paul Ledwell, deputy minister; Steven Harris, assistant deputy minister, service delivery branch; and Sara Lantz, acting assistant deputy minister, chief financial officer and corporate services branch.
I'd also like to thank committee members, the staff who guided us, and the interpreters.
The meeting is adjourned.