Thank you, Mr. Chair, and members of the veterans affairs committee.
My name is Jerry Kovacs. I have been engaged in veterans advocacy work for the past five years. Although I have a relatively short military career compared to some, such as Reverend Zimmerman, as an infantry officer, many of the things I learned and saw remain with me decades later.
My civilian career as a lawyer and educator has taken me to Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Palestine. I spent four years in the former Yugoslavia, two of them in Kosovo. My work often involved collaboration with other civilians, police officers from Canada, and individuals involved in helping people in post-war countries under reconstruction.
During the past five years, I have heard numerous times the comments and complaints that you are hearing now for the first time. As the military ombudsman said in Ottawa on June 7, there have been many studies and reports, many proposals, and many recommendations. It's time for decisions.
It is commendable that this committee is travelling to hear from individual veterans who live outside Ottawa or veterans who are not members of any veterans organization. There are approximately 800,000 veterans in Canada. Of that number, only 100,000, or 12.5%, are members of any veterans organization. It's important to hear the views and concerns of the other 700,000 veterans, or 82.5%, who are not members of any veterans organization. They too are defined as stakeholders by the department. Perhaps now, or in the future, they may receive benefits and services from Veterans Affairs Canada.
Twenty years ago, from 1995 to 1997, the veterans subcommittee of the national defence committee undertook an extensive two-year examination of issues related to the quality of life of veterans. The agenda was open. There were no time limits on speaking. Members of Parliament actually visited veterans in their own homes. The final report was issued in 1997. In addition, the MacLellan report, the Stow report, and Joe Sharpe's Croatia Board of Inquiry had wide mandates to examine how military members and veterans were being treated.
Neither Veterans Affairs Canada nor the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, formed since then, have ever had full public hearings into the services and benefits and policies and programs offered to veterans.
On March 8, the veterans ombudsman talked about the importance of outcomes before this committee. Outcomes, in Professor Barber's view, relate to his “deliverology” theory. Are services and benefits being delivered to clients effectively? Are the value and benefits of existing services and resources being fully utilized by veterans, the RCMP, and their families?
Services and benefits must be delivered in a timely, effective, and efficient manner. Veterans Affairs employees should continually ask veterans, through customer satisfaction surveys, whether they are satisfied with the manner in which they are being treated. A comprehensive survey is also warranted. To save taxpayers money, it could be done through SurveyMonkey.
In improving services and benefits to veterans and the RCMP and their families, this committee should divide them into three categories: one, things the Minister of Veterans Affairs can do immediately without parliamentary approval; two, things the departments of Veterans Affairs and National Defence can do immediately without parliamentary approval; and three, things that require parliamentary approval where Treasury Board approval is required, such as the federal budget.
The process for the transition from military to civilian life needs to be simplified. It needs to be made clear well in advance of the release date. Mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that on the release date, the veteran and the veteran's family have everything needed for a smooth move, or a seamless transition, from a career that ended voluntarily by retirement or involuntarily as the result of a medical release.
Too often in the past I have heard veterans say, at this veterans affairs committee, that they were not fully aware or informed of the services and benefits available to them. The department must take primary responsibility to ensure that veterans and their families know what services are available to them.
Medical and personnel records should be easily and quickly transferred, whether by paper or electronically. A copy should be in the possession of the veteran on release day.
Identification cards are long overdue, and the veterans' names should be in a database, cross-referenced with the service number so that their location is known.
Provincial health cards could identify an individual as a veteran. If the word “veteran” can be printed on a provincial licence plate, it can be printed on a driver's licence or health card so that health care professionals would be aware of any military conditions that a veteran in their care may have.
There should be a comprehensive application form for services and benefits. Eligibility for services and benefits should not require proving multiple times that an injury has been sustained. If a veteran is missing one, two, or more limbs today, chances are the same veteran will not have those limbs two years from now.
On service excellence, training in customer service should be delivered to Veterans Affairs staff on a continuous basis. Feedback on service delivery from the veteran and service agents or case managers is essential.
The committee should also provide a timeline for when things are accomplished. Being in the military involves timings. Veterans who are used to timings—what will be done, what day it will be done, what time it will be done—will want to know, as veterans, when services and benefits will be made available to them. Veterans want to know when the mission will be accomplished.
In closing, I wish to comment on a few items.
The first is the new Veterans Charter versus the Pension Act. During the 2015 federal election, the Liberal Party promised to return to the Pension Act. It has yet to occur. This is viewed by many veterans as a crucial benefit and an election promise made but not yet delivered.
Second, the Equitas Society lawsuit should not be viewed as an obstacle to making needed changes regarding services and benefits for veterans. If the changes are made, the reason for the existence of this lawsuit disappears entirely when the plaintiffs' demands are satisfied. The abeyance agreement ended on May 15. A new one could have been written. The existing one could have been extended. At any time, the parties can continue settlement negotiations via a settlement conference pursuant to rule 9-2 of the British Columbia rules of civil procedure. The parties should continue settlement negotiations. The Equitas lawsuit should not be used as an excuse for anyone to hide behind the words “No comment. It is before the courts.”
The work of this committee, Parliament, the department, and the minister can continue to improve the services and benefits for veterans, as Reverend Zimmerman said, while this lawsuit is ongoing.
Third, the expression “sacred obligation” has been publicly used, misused, and thrown about indiscriminately. I suggest “sacred” be replaced by the word “unconditional”. The duty, commitment, or responsibility to our veterans is an obligation based on their unlimited liability to Canada. An unlimited liability from them should be an unconditional obligation to them in return.
In Anne Cole v. Attorney General of Canada, a decision by the Federal Court of Appeal dated February 25, 2015, Mr. Justice Ryer, speaking on behalf of the court, said:
Parliament has mandated that a liberal interpretation of the Pension Act must be given with a view to ensuring that our country’s obligation to members of the armed forces who have been disabled or have died as a result of military service may be fulfilled.
The Federal Court did not feel the need to use a religious adjective to define the word “obligation”. It exists. In plain language, an obligation is an obligation.
This was confirmed in a Federal Court decision on May 31, 2016, two weeks ago, in Ouellette v.Canada (Attorney General), where the Federal Court extended the whole analysis to physical conditions. These two court decisions, last year and two weeks ago, are consistent with section 2 of the Canadian Forces' Members and Veterans Re-establishment Act, also known as the new Veterans Charter, which talks about, “recognize and fulfil the obligation of the people and Government of Canada to show just and due appreciation to members and veterans for their service to Canada.”
In addition, section 3 of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act states:
The provisions of this Act and of any other Act of Parliament...conferring or imposing jurisdiction, powers, duties or functions...shall be liberally construed and interpreted to the end that the recognized obligation of the people and Government of Canada to those who have served their country so well and to their dependants may be fulfilled.
Fourth, the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to always recognize this obligation has resulted in a growing cottage industry during the past few years. This cottage industry consists of individuals and organizations that are generating money from private donations and public funds. They are not all volunteers. Some of them are profiting from helping veterans. The abrogation by, or absence of, the government in meeting its obligation has created the vacuum for this to occur.
Fifth, this committee will perform a great service to veterans, the minister, and his department if it can identify barriers that prevent existing benefits from being improved and effectively delivered, and new ones from being implemented.
The words “one veteran, one standard”, “care”, “compassion”, and “respect” have been repeated all too often. Let's ask Petter Blindheim, a 94-year-old veteran living in Halifax about these words and what they mean to him and his family. He is a veteran; he is a Canadian. Veterans Affairs recently denied him a bed at Camp Hill Veterans' Memorial hospital in Halifax, where there are 13 beds vacant, because he does not need specialized care. I challenge you to name a 94-year-old veteran who does not need some sort of specialized care either today or in the future.
The sections of the statute that I just enumerated plus the two recent court decisions show that there is an obligation, an unlimited obligation, to deliver services and benefits to veterans and not to deny them. Care, compassion, and respect are needed in the decision-making process when granting the services and benefits earned by veterans.
There are three kinds of people in the world: people who make things happen, people who watch things happen, and people who don't know what's happening. It's time for Canadians to make things happen for veterans.