I call the meeting to order.
Welcome to the ninth meeting of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
In accordance with the order adopted on Tuesday, February 8, 2022, the committee is meeting to continue its study on the fairness in the services offered to veterans: francophones and anglophones, men and women, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Welcome to our colleagues Ms. Lisa Marie Barron, who is replacing , and Mr. Wayne Long, who is replacing .
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 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 the 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.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you are on the video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself. For those in the room, your microphone will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer. When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute. I will remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses this evening.
First of all, as an individual, we have Mr. Jean Laurion, Veteran. From the National Association of Federal Retirees, we have Mr. Jean-Guy Soulière, President; Mr. Anthony Pizzino, Chief Executive Officer; and Ms. Sayward Montague, Director, Advocacy. From VETS Canada, we have Ms. Debbie Lowther, Chief Executive Officer and Co‑Founder.
You will have five minutes for your opening remarks. We'll start with Mr. Laurion, then we'll go to Ms. Debbie Lowther, and then we'll come back and split five minutes between Mr. Soulière and Mr. Pizzino.
I have little cards, like they do in soccer, to give you a signal when your time is up. I can already see the smile on Mr. Soulière's face. I think we're going to enjoy hearing him.
My name is Jean Laurion, and I joined the Canadian Armed Forces at the age of 17, on January 7, 1980, and I left on March 31, 2017. I spent 37 years and 3 months in the military.
I started in the infantry. At some point, I went on leadership courses, master corporal and sergeant courses. I was a recruit instructor. I also started working as a driving instructor.
After that, I went to Baden-Soellingen, in Germany, for five and a half months. There I worked with the military police against the infiltration of terrorists. I came back in October 1985, and in January 1986, I was asked to go to the Q Branch, where there was no one, because everyone had left. I was asked to go there and to look after the equipment. I took my courses up to the rank of sergeant, because I was already an infantry sergeant.
After that, I asked for a change of trade. In 1991, it was granted to me. Then, I did a whole series of courses on protection against tritium and all radioactive materials found in the forces. Naturally, we had to take these courses.
After that, I also saw changes in weapons. I also went to schools where courses were taught. I was the storekeeper for these courses. They were finance, administration and procurement courses. In the summer, we also had medical courses. I was in charge of that in a school.
I also went to the combat school in Valcartier for the summer courses where I was, again, a supply technician during the summer.
I was in the 6th Battalion of the Royal 22e Régiment from January 7, 1980 until October 2005. After that, I asked to be transferred to the Service Battalion, because I had no possibility of career advancement. So I joined the Service Battalion. Until the end of my career, I went around from 2007 to 2017. I was working full time. I went around to different units. I worked for the air cadets. After that, I came back to my unit. That's where I finished in 2017.
What I experienced naturally caused things to happen. Maybe we can talk about that later. Sometimes we experience things, but we don't realize that we have problems as a result. It is others who observe us and allow us to see that we have a problem.
It wasn't so long ago that we started to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress in the military. Now they are recognized and that's a good thing, because there are people who come back from postings and are still very ill today. Although there are many veterans' groups, I also founded my own. I am a member of two other groups as well.
I want to remind you that every day an average of 22 veterans commit suicide in Canada.
That's all I have to say.
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen of the committee, good evening. Thank you for the invitation to appear here today.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that I'm speaking to you today from Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people.
Although I've testified before this committee on many occasions in the past, I will begin with a brief introduction of our organization to benefit those of you who are not familiar with us or our work.
VETS Canada, or Veterans Emergency Transition Services, is a federally registered charity with an aim to provide immediate on-the-ground assistance to veterans who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless or otherwise in crisis. We have hundreds of dedicated volunteers across the country. To date we have responded to thousands of requests for assistance from veterans and their families from coast to coast to coast, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, including holidays.
Requests for assistance come to us in various ways. They come through our toll-free phone line, website or social media platforms. Some come through referrals from other organizations or agencies. However, the majority of our referrals, an average of almost 80% over the past year, come from Veterans Affairs Canada. This means, of course, that we interact with Veterans Affairs regularly—daily, actually.
Regarding the fairness in the service provided to veterans, I have three main points to present. The first is the issue of inconsistency. Our experience is that there are inconsistencies in how information about benefits is communicated to the veteran. Often case managers and veteran service agents, VSAs, are very helpful and forthcoming with information on the benefits and services available to veterans. Still, there are times when, if the veteran doesn't ask the right questions, they don't know what they are entitled to. Veterans who are in crisis, perhaps struggling with mental health issues, facing homelessness or maybe even already homeless aren't usually in the right frame of mind to navigate the process of applying for benefits, especially if they don't even know what those benefits are. It would be helpful to have a more standardized process in place when veterans reach out to VAC, especially if it is their first interaction with the department.
For example, maybe there could be a checklist of standard questions to ask the veteran to gain a fulsome picture of their situation and their service history. This would then inform the case manager or VSA in determining which benefits and services the veteran might quality for. Currently, we are seeing some veterans who receive everything they need from VAC, and then others who meet the same criteria but don't even know what is available to them. The case manager or VSA hadn't asked the right questions, or any questions at all.
In 2018 the veterans emergency fund was launched. Because of the urgent nature of requests for the benefit, the eligibility criteria are flexible. It is a benefit for which case managers, VSAs or veteran service team managers have the authority to determine eligibility for up to $2,500. In exceptional circumstances, an area director can approve up to $10,000. The issue is that every case manager, VSA or veteran service team manager interprets the policy differently. Still on the point of inconsistency, we have seen situations where veterans have received what would appear to be preferential treatment simply based on the fact that those veterans were considered high-profile.
The second point I would like to mention is that there aren't enough bilingual staff members at VAC. As a federal government department, it is often assumed that all VAC employees are bilingual, but that is not the case. Because of this, francophone veterans aren't always able to readily receive service in the language of their choice, particularly if they reside outside of the national capital region or the province of Quebec. We've recently learned that benefits applications made in French are taking much longer to be adjudicated. We found that statistic quite disturbing in a country with two official languages.
My final point is on the service provided to veterans who identify as LGBTQ2+. In 2020 we received a grant from the LGBT Purge Fund for a one-year pilot project. In the interest of time, I won't go into the details of the project. However, we found that when veterans who identified as LGBTQ2+ are in crisis, they, like all veterans, want to feel supported with respect and without judgment. During the course of the year, all of the veterans who identified as LGBTQ2+ stated that they felt accepted, respected and welcomed by our staff and volunteers.
To ensure that our staff and volunteers continue to provide support in that manner, we decided to add specific training to our list of mandatory training. Throughout the one-year pilot project and since the end of the project, many veterans who identified as LGBTQ2+ disclosed that they often don't feel accepted or respected when receiving services from VAC.
Many case managers and VSAs lack knowledge of the LGBT purge, so education on that shameful period of time in our history would be beneficial. Case managers and VSAs would also benefit from training that gives them a better understanding of the issues faced by veterans who identify as LGBTQ2+ and in treating all veterans with the fundamental respect they deserve.
In closing, Mr. Chair, I will summarize our three recommendations: one, create a more standardized intake process to be utilized when veterans make initial contact with the department; two, ensure that all newly hired VAC employees are bilingual moving forward, particularly those in service delivery and those responsible for adjudicating claims; and, three, provide more training to staff.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much, committee members, for inviting the National Association of Federal Retirees to speak today.
I would like to begin by recognizing that my colleagues and I are joining you from Ottawa, the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people, who have lived on this land since time immemorial.
The National Association of Federal Retirees is the largest national advocacy organization for active and retired members of the Public Service of Canada, the Canadian Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the federal judiciary, as well as their spouses and survivors.
With 170,000 members, including more than 60,000 veterans and their families, the association has been committed to improving the financial security, health and well-being of our members and all Canadians for over 60 years.
Federal Retirees is also proud to co-chair the Women Veterans Research and Engagement Network, or WREN. WREN's mission is to work collaboratively to ensure equitable lifetime outcomes for all veterans.
I am here with the association's CEO, Mr. Anthony Pizzino, and our staff director of advocacy, Sayward Montague. I will share my time with Mr. Pizzino, and we would all be pleased to respond to the questions the committee members may have at the end of the meeting.
Our remarks today are supplemented by a written brief, and our association stands by to participate in other areas identified for study by this committee.
I will turn to Anthony.
Anthony offers his apologies for the technical difficulties, but he will certainly be attentively watching the proceedings today.
Thank you, Jean-Guy, and thank you committee members for your time today.
One of the key metrics used to assess service delivery performance and to serve as a proxy for fairness is disability and benefit application wait times. However, to our knowledge there is no standard definition of what fair service means.
In the view of the association, fair service means equitable service, and it must also mean equitable outcomes. Having good clear data is essential in this, and it is incredibly difficult to locate disaggregated data to compare results, which committee members have noted during the course of this study.
Transparent, clear, readily available data can help determine whether there is more to the wait time story and whether it's a story that needs to be told in it's entirety. For example, we know that there are differences in wait times for francophone and anglophone veterans, but what we heard for the first time from the veterans ombudsman and the deputy veterans ombudsman when they appeared at this committee on Friday, March 22nd is that differences are compounded. Francophones wait longer, and women wait longer, but francophone women wait the longest.
Uneven service delivery is not just about how long some claims are backlogged, it is about why these claims are delayed or backlogged, identifying the differences and addressing them with equity in mind. Uneven service delivery and lack of fairness are symptoms of institutional and structural biases and are the result of the failure to respond to the complex intersectional nature of the human beings involved.
A veteran's identity is relevant to experiences during service, including service-related illness and injury, the outcomes they're likely to experience as a veteran, and the care and support they may require. It's also relevant when it comes to military and veteran health research.
We've made a number of recommendations in the brief that we've submitted, but it really comes down to data and transparent reporting to define and understand where the lack of fairness is worse; understanding that what we're seeing are symptoms of systemic inequity, both upstream and downstream; research and co-ordination; and ensuring that veterans have a voice in the services and the delivery of those services.
As you and I had discussed, I had put a notice of motion on the floor at the last meeting, and I would ask that we debate that motion at approximately 8:15 today, if that's acceptable to the committee. If it appears that it's going to be unanimous, we can go a little later.
Well, thank you very much to all of our witnesses. I know that you've taken time out today to assist. Some of you have served in the military, and I thank you for that service, but all of you are serving at this very time. It's something that really warms my heart when I see the amount of service in the witnesses we have when it comes to helping out our brave soldiers.
The first question I have here I was going to address to Mr. Pizzino. He talked about fair service, which means equitable service and equitable outcomes, and I was struck by that.
By fair service I assume he means that people are getting timely service regardless of whether they are an English-speaking male or a French-speaking woman. Is that accurate?
He probably can't answer, but perhaps one of his colleagues might.
When I left the Canadian Armed Forces, I had no other choice. I was released on medical grounds under paragraph 3(b).
Those who leave the forces are left to their own devices. When we're in the forces, we're well looked after, but when we leave, we don't know what to do or where to turn. We have problems, but we don't know who to turn to. When I submitted my first applications, after I got out of the forces, I was lucky because my wife knew someone who worked at Veterans Affairs Canada.
This person was able to help me by telling me what forms I had to fill out. Of course, I had to wait two years to get answers to these applications. I had problems with my lower back, middle back, neck, right hip and both knees. It took two years before I got answers to my first applications.
Now I also help people who have left the forces and have problems. When I see that they have problems, I ask them if they have applied to Veterans Affairs Canada, and often they tell me that they haven't.
So I help them fill out the application forms, because now I understand a little bit better how it works. Those who apply now get answers faster than I did. The wait times are shorter now than they were five years ago when I left the forces, but there is certainly room for improvement. Let me explain. When people leave the forces, their medical records are sent to the archives in Ottawa, but they are not sent to Veterans Affairs Canada. So when we go to Veterans Affairs Canada, they don't know us, they don't know who we are. If they had our medical file in hand, they could find out about our problems more quickly.
I suffer from diabetes and sleep apnea, two conditions for which I have to submit applications. The army paid for me to have a CPAP device and was providing me with diabetes medication. Now I have to submit an application to show that it is really the army's responsibility to pay for it and I find that incomprehensible.
These are the problems we experience.
First of all, I had difficulty filling out the forms. I had to explain what had happened and the reason for my request. Many veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress. When they see the paperwork, they get very stressed and anxious and often won't apply because they can't fill it out. It's like standing in front of Mount Everest, without a rope, with only their hands to climb to the top of the mountain; it's impossible. For them, it's impossible to fill out these documents.
Because I left the forces for medical reasons, I was entitled to 90% of my salary. If you only knew what a big stack of paperwork I had to fill out. To me, it was like a mountain. I was lucky that my wife was there to push me and encourage me to fill out the paperwork to access these benefits. I found it extremely difficult, but I finally got a response to my application. Someone called me and said that it showed I had done my homework, because everything was filled out correctly.
Why did it take two years? I have no idea. Before there were veterans' groups in Canada, 22 veterans died every day, then that number dropped to 14 a day. I want to be very clear: 14 veterans die every day.
Veterans' groups try to bring these people out of isolation. Often, people shut down and no longer leave their homes. There is no more light above and they spiral down even lower. The longer that happens, the less light there is. They live in darkness and at some point, it just loops over and over in their head. That's all they think about and then they end it all.
As a veteran, I try to help these people, to get them out of their homes, out of isolation, so that they can talk to someone who will understand them. Not everyone wants to go and see a psychologist. Some of them believe that a psychologist doesn't know anything about combat, even though there are some who specialize in the field. Personally, I got psychological help and I'm quite happy about it. I did a mental health first aid course for veterans. It helped me to see that I had a psychological problem too and I was able to access services. I am very happy about that. Now, my anxiety has decreased. It gave me tools to try and control my anxiety and stress. So...
I just wanted to confirm that I wasn't giving up any of my time.
First of all, I would like to thank Mr. Laurion for his service to our country. I'm impressed by not only the many years of service you've provided, but also how you've come home to provide so much service for other veterans. I want to thank you and recognize that important work.
For my first question, I am going to go to Ms. Lowther. I see that you did a pilot project for LGBTQ2S+ veterans. One of the things we've heard from other witnesses is that there is no data collection around this particular group within the military, and then, of course, it doesn't happen in Veterans Affairs. If you don't sort of quantify information, it's hard to see what's happening with a particular group. I think that when you don't collect data, it is a way of silencing people.
I'm wondering how this project occurred. How were folks identified and what was the main purpose of the project?
The purpose or basis of the project was our experience that veterans are more likely to accept support from somebody who understands them, their military culture and their service. We thought that if we took that one step further, maybe veterans who identified as LGBTQ2S+ would appreciate receiving services from somebody within their own community.
The funding we received allowed us to hire a part-time, qualified staff person from the LGBT community.
We identified veterans with our intake form that every veteran completes. We do ask veterans if they want to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the event they do disclose it, they are offered the opportunity to receive services from that staff person.
During that year, we found that 31 veterans disclosed to us that they were from the LGBTQ community. Of those 31, 29 actually declined the offer to receive support from a staff person. During the initial intake phase, by the time they felt comfortable enough to kind of share their story, they were already engaged with a staff person, or a volunteer, so their preference was to stick with that person rather than have to repeat their story.
We didn't really get into a lot of research when we were doing our pilot project, but we did find it very interesting that when a veteran is in crisis, they just want to receive support from somebody who understands them and is going to treat them with respect and not be judgmental.
I guess the end result of the pilot project was that these veterans were willing to accept support from anybody who was prepared to help in a respectful way.
The other thing—
Thank you. I'm sorry to interrupt, but my time is running out. I really appreciate that response. It was very helpful.
If I could just come back to the National Association of Federal Retirees, I'll leave it them to decide who answers my question.
I really appreciate what was said about an office of equity-seeking groups. That's a new and important way to look at what we need to see moving forward.
I do want to come back to that data component. We heard again and again that data is being not collected. This is a particular group, the LGBT group, where we know that people sometimes have stayed in the closet for a tremendous amount of time and came out at one point in their service. That information isn't really being quantified, and we're not going to see the services they require based on that.
I'm wondering if somebody from the National Association of Federal Retirees could speak to that.
Thank you very much, Chair; and thank you to all of you for your service and your passion for caring for veterans. I'm sure that comes from a place of experience yourselves.
I'd like to reach out first to Deb Lowther.
Deb, it's good to see you again. A lot of what we're hearing today I find frustrating in that over the last seven years we have discussed this whole process over and over, with so many recommendations that still fail to be implemented. You mentioned, first of all, the work you do with those with mental health issues and homelessness. You have a wonderful record of service.
Are you still a registered provider? Your means of receiving funding has changed. Does that mean you're no longer...?
Does that change your relationship with VAC?
I have one more minute, and this is something I'd like to ask you as well.
The Lionel Desmond case is in the news now, and that was a very sad and tragic circumstance. I just want to quote something that comes from the article. It said, “Roughly 400 soldiers are medically released from the Canadian Forces each year due to mental illness, and upwards of 70 per cent of them have partners and children, according to federal figures.”
With all of the work you do with veterans, do you feel that the mental health component is now starting to really get the attention that it's due, and how does it impact the overall health of that veteran and their ability to succeed coming out of the service?
It's a pleasure to welcome our guests this evening. Again, like my colleagues, I thank you for the service you provide and the care you provide to veterans across this country.
The questions I have could apply to many of you, but I'd like to direct some questions to the retirees federation group. For any one of you who wants to respond, that's fine.
Mr. President, on your website, it states that one of the top five priorities for the outcomes of veterans is to “Rebuild trust with veterans by improving outcome and communications, particularly by working with national service providers, not-profit and community-based organizations.”
What are the challenges you see when it comes to communication, and have you seen any differences between genders, including the LGBTQ2+ veterans community?
I'll give a very general idea of where we took all that information to put on our website.
About four or five years ago, we did a number of town hall meetings with veterans and got a whole lot of information about the situations and the difficulties they were facing. A lot was mentioned, and we learned things very similar to what Mr. Laurion was saying. We produced a very good report on these town hall meetings, which is available. The information we put on our website is derived from that.
Also about four years ago, we organized a meeting of veterans groups. There are so many of them that it is impossible to see who is doing what. They all have their specific objectives, specific missions. Many of them don't talk to one another. There is lack of coordination.
We got some 10 or 15 veterans organizations together for a full day, and we produced a report on that, which should be made available, if it is not already available to your committee. That dealt with all of the issues that are being raised here.
I'll let Sayward provide a little bit more detailed information, but generally speaking, the information on our website is derived from these activities and the events we hold.
If I may, I will quickly touch on the previous question. Ms. Lowther mentioned “brown envelope syndrome”. This is definitely something that we've heard about from the veterans we represent. When they get that envelope in the mail, it signifies something very heavy for many of them. That is an indicator, frankly—in terms of how we take it, anyway—of broken trust and some difficulties that veterans have there.
Also, in terms of what the veteran community looks like, women talk to women. When women have problems or concerns in connecting with VAC, there's very much an interconnectedness among the women veterans community in how those experiences get shared.
Finally, there can be difficulty in connecting with the institution—the Government of Canada—that may have been involved in some of the service-related injuries someone might have experienced. Making the leap and breaching the gap to rely on that institution—to become vulnerable again and trust that institution to deliver on the services and support you need as a result of your injury—can be very difficult when you're in a vulnerable situation. That's what we are discussing when we talk about some of the challenges of trust, but that's a very in-depth topic to get into.
On the investment of $140 million, it is—
Mr. Laurion, I would like to ask you a question. I'm going to paraphrase something you said at the beginning of your presentation. You said that we don't know we have problems; other people notice that we have problems. I thought that was a really important and impactful statement.
We heard some testimony from the Veterans Transition Network, who talked about the distinction between service-related injuries, what happens when you're serving, and then injuries caused by the institution, by VAC.
Could you speak to that difference in injuries and the impacts on veterans and the folks you work so hard to support?
The older generation, including myself, was trained in the military. When we needed to go to the doctor because we were injured, we didn't go. We would shut up and keep working, or we would get sent home.
When people did training, they were taught the culture of silence. They were told that these things weren't talked about. During their career, people could suffer from certain problems, but they wouldn't talk about them, because they had been trained that way.
However, in the last years of the war in Afghanistan, when someone came back with a serious injury or when there were casualties, we took the time to talk to the whole group, to debrief them and discuss what had happened in order to ease the stress.
However, the old guard doesn't talk about these things, because they act like there isn't a problem. When the culture of silence is ingrained, it's very difficult to open up to someone and talk afterwards. It's not easy, and that's why some people have lost their bearings and aren't aware of the problems they have.
When you start talking to veterans, trust is established gradually and they open up more and more. This is how I can determine whether they are suffering from post-traumatic symptoms and try to help them. Some will not want to help themselves, and in some cases, it can take years before I can help them.
While I was still in the armed forces, a good friend of mine was retired and living in my basement. He was suffering from severe post-traumatic symptoms and didn't want to talk about it. He was afraid his parents would find out.
Are you giving me two and a half from Mr. Desilets? I'll take them.
The Chair: Yes, good.
Mr. Fraser Tolmie: Thank you so much.
There are a couple of things that I'd like to go over, so I'm grateful that I have the five minutes here.
When I was leaving the military, the pennies dropped [Technical difficulty—Editor] as two components of Veterans Affairs. One is post-career advice. We go through courses and people talk about the opportunities after the military, but the focus that we've mostly been talking about is health care. There is a health care component. The well-being of our veterans is both physically and emotionally, so it's health care in a different form.
This question goes to Ms. Lowther. I really appreciate your presentation. I am grateful for your service, as I am for everybody's service. Mr. Laurion, 37 years is a long time, so thank you very much for your dedication to our nation.
You spoke about having a checklist. In a previous presentation, we had a member from the LGBTQ+ community mention that when they went through the checklist, it didn't really work for them. I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but one of the things we really want to focus on is personalized care. How do we get to that? Yes, there has to be some form of checklist, but it has to ask the right questions.
Could you expand a bit on your comments and what you were sharing, so that I can bridge the gap?
Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Another comment made earlier on by Mr. Laurion was about medical records being archived, as opposed to going to Veterans Affairs. I find that interesting. I'm wondering if there are some challenges, because of the confidentiality of medical records. They are not being entrusted to Veterans Affairs. Is that another area that we can expand on? Could you share your thoughts on that?
I'm sorry, Mr. Laurion. Did you hear my question? I asked if you could expand a bit on your thoughts on medical records being handed over to the veterans. I could see it being done immediately [Technical difficulty—Editor] or an issue when you're leaving, but some vets leave without any known issue and then it comes up.
Could you maybe expand a bit?
Regarding the lack of fairness, one of the metrics that we're looking at and that this committee is certainly looking at is in terms of the [Technical difficulty—Editor
] when veterans make that first application or make an application to Veterans Affairs Canada. What kind of experience do they have following that? Is it comparable between groups when you control for sex and gender, language, and so on?
The simple fact is that it is not fair at that point. Using that metric, it's fair to say there is an objective lack of fairness. Fairness isn't only about the inputs, quantifying case files, the number of cases and claims that are made. Outcomes can also be uneven. What's not being measured in some of these processes is the impact that some of these services, programs, and even some of the delays themselves are having on veterans.
Some of it is disproportionate, based on the fact that some veterans wait longer than others, because of their sex, gender, language, or orientation, or any number of other factors that we've covered in our brief.
For federal retirees, it really boils down to three distinct areas. One of them is improved and more frequent and transparent reporting, including by having sex disaggregated and intersectional data on claims, the number of denied claims and the backlog by Veterans Affairs Canada.
We don't know what we don't measure, and there are some things we're just not measuring or that we we're not getting transparent data on. Again, that is something that committee members have commented on during the course of this study.
We're also noting the need for a systemic review to identify where and for whom the most significant barriers are to equitable treatment. The deputy veterans ombudsman mentioned that francophone women wait the longest. That's certainly an area with which to start.
Defined and accountable goals need to address those areas at Veterans Affairs. Our position is that the means to address those should include an objective of what a fair and equitable service delivery means to veterans, and to the department in the delivery of that service.
For us, it's also tailored support for women veterans. There are a number of things that we have mentioned in there that would support representation and the ability to get some scrutiny of the issues they are reporting and the places they are having difficulty.
Finally, we need to review the need for an office of equity within Veterans Affairs and how the department approaches that. We've mentioned some other pieces on reporting and connecting with stakeholders, and drawing better coordination between the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs in terms of research. Some of the investments that suggested in the mandate letter for the would be helpful here.
Finally, it's making sure that decision-makers at VAC have access to the best available evidence to support those claims where inequities are happening.
My questions are going to be directed to Debbie, but I want to read something before I direct my question.
I had an opportunity to go through your website. I have to tell you, it was very emotional. One of the stories I'll review with you is from a veteran.
This is his story:
This Veteran had been struggling and used his last bit of money to relocate to a new area where he had secured employment with Bombardier but just before he could fully get back on his feet, he was the victim of the Bombardier layoffs. He ended up living in his car.
This Veteran had reached out to “Helmets to Hardhats” who were unable to assist him but thankfully they referred him to VETS Canada. The Veteran was immediately moved from his car into temporary accommodations. We reached out to a company that we had partnered with who was interested in hiring Veterans with experience.... He was successful in getting the job and we assisted him in finding a new apartment close to his new job and paid his first month's rent and security deposit.
—and this is very important—
Twenty-five days from the day this Veteran reached out to us he was employed, housed and enjoyed his new job.
After reading these stories from the veterans, it did become very emotional for me, so I want to ask you something.
Your dedication of your company is absolutely amazing. Your organization has benefited many veterans. How can we build on your experience and the success of your foundation to ensure that we can learn and assist our veterans moving forward?
I didn't think my time was going to come today. I got scared for a second by Mr. Caputo's suggestion for us to shut down in 15 minutes to discuss committee business.
I want to thank you all for your presentations today and for your service, whether you've been directly involved as part of the Canadian Armed Forces, you're retired, or you are supporting veterans on the ground. It's tremendous to hear these stories. It's so important.
Mr. Laurion, you talked about your 37 years and three months of service, emphasizing those three months. It's very impressive. Thank you for your service.
Ms. Lowther, I'd like to ask you a few questions, maybe four or five, so we'll have to hustle, and then I might be able to get some more in. You talked about responding 24-7, 365. In a very short period of time, can you explain what that means, how they can contact you and how you can respond?
I hope it is okay that I respond in English, MP Desilets.
It is definitely a fascinating area. It gets into the fact we don't know what we don't measure.
We're suggesting that Veterans Affairs Canada would be well situated to start to review, investigate and report on that area. There's also data available on that from the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, which might be useful in understanding this, although I don't have it at my fingertips.
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman has reported on the decisions and some issues of equity coming out of that body. I understand that they're also taking steps to address those.
Again, we don't know what we don't measure and what we don't have statistics and information on.
One of the ways that it can become realized is what we mentioned in our brief about cross-departmental coordination and leaning into expertise that exists in other areas of government. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces are beginning to do work on some of the upstream impacts that are occurring in terms—I'll use the example—of the impact of some service aspects on women's health and women's health outcomes.
There could certainly be a coordination role between National Defence, Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada, because what happens with National Defence and the armed forces upstream becomes a downstream issue. Better coordination on that side of things....
There's certainly expertise that can be drawn on from the Health minister. For example, women and gender equity could also play a role in that to ensure that there are tools to support swift adjudication and decisions on claims.
Thank you, and I want thank Mr. Caputo for his motion.
I think Mr. Caputo will be very happy with my suggestion. I leave that to his determination, of course, but I'd like to add something to the motion as an amendment that I believe would add tools to the tool box, if you want.
I'll just go to the piece of the phrase, “Save Juno Beach campaign in Canada, calls on the government to provide financial support”. I'd like to add two words, “or other” support. Financial support could be one, but there could be others added because, as we know, we have the minister going out there in a week or so, and I know there are discussions with the French government and diplomatic discussions. There are all kinds of other tools, so I'm okay if we leave in the word “finance” but simply add, “or other support” because I don't want to limit ourselves to that. I want to enrich it so we can go further.
I believe Mr. Caputo would agree to that. At least I'm risking myself on this one.
My question again is for Debbie.
I'm so impressed with the efficiency of your organization. After listening to Jean it saddens me to hear about the suicide rate even though there has been, I guess, what you could call an “improvement”—but I wouldn't—from 22 suicides to 14 suicides a day. That is still a huge number.
My question is for you, and maybe Jean as well. If we can be more efficient, do you agree that we could stop these suicide rates by improving the quality of life of our veterans, which they so need and deserve?
If Veterans Affairs looked after us at the end of our service, that would be a good preventive measure.
It would be enough to organize meetings with stakeholders. I'll give you an example. At one point, I asked to go to the pain management clinic to understand my pain and demystify it.
The team there didn't know me at all. There was a psychologist, a clinical nurse, a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist. All of them bombarded me with questions for two and a half hours. After that they knew me. They knew what my pains and problems were.
Afterwards, I met with a physiatrist, who developed my intervention plan. Perhaps a team of stakeholders should be set up to meet with these people to determine their needs. It would surely help them to feel better. They would feel valued, understood and supported. That would help them a lot.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time we have tonight.
On behalf of the members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, I would like to thank you most sincerely for taking the time to participate in our study, entitled “Fairness in the Services Offered to Veterans: Francophones and Anglophones, Men and Women, and the LGBTQ+ Community”.
I want to thank each of the witnesses.
Thank you, Mr. Jean Laurion, for appearing as an individual.
My thanks to the National Association of Federal Retirees: Mr. Jean-Guy Soulière, president; Mr. Anthony Pizzino, chief executive officer; and Ms. Sayward Montague, director of advocacy.
Mr. Pizzino, we had technical problems and unfortunately we were unable to hear from you.
I thank Ms. Debbie Lowther, chief executive officer and co-founder of VETS Canada.
Thank you again for participating in our study.
Members of the committee, do you agree to adjourn the meeting?
There are no objections.
On my behalf and on behalf of the committee members, thank you to the clerk, our analyst, the interpreters and the entire technical team for working tirelessly to ensure that the committee's proceedings run smoothly.
Good night, ladies and gentlemen.
The meeting is adjourned.