Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon.
Members of the committee, I want to thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for the first time. I certainly appreciate the great work the members have done on behalf of Canada's veterans and their families. I especially want to acknowledge the important work undertaken by the committee recently on issues such as indigenous veterans, ending veterans' homelessness and medical cannabis.
Mr. Chair, I also want to thank you for your motion on ending veterans' homelessness. All of us agree that having one homeless veteran is one too many, and it's important to shine a light on that issue. That's exactly what you have done, and I look forward to working with everybody on the committee to make sure that we can reduce homelessness.
I want to say that I was previously, 25 years ago, the secretary of state for Veterans Affairs, and it's certainly an honour and a privilege to be back here at this committee. I consider it an honour to have the position that I do and to have the privilege of representing the people who have done so much for our country.
Last week, I had the tremendous honour of accompanying the delegation of veterans to the shores of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. I was accompanied by a number of members, and I think everybody involved would be nothing but proud of the ceremonies and our country.
D-Day was of enormous importance for our country and for the world, and also a day of tremendous loss. Three hundred and fifty-nine Canadian soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice that day and more than 700 were wounded. To walk these beaches with the people who fought there 75 years ago and who saw their friends fall there, to visit the memorials and the final resting place of thousands of comrades—there are really no words to describe it. Together, we laid wreaths, we saw old battlefields and we paid tribute to those who made the sacrifice. Quite simply, it was one of the greatest honours I've had in my life.
Also, with many young Canadians as well, the best way to learn about our history is to ensure it lives on and to hear it from the veterans themselves. It is so important. We all gained a deeper understanding of what our troops went through 75 years ago.
I think it's fair to say that we went through some understanding, but it's pretty near impossible to realize what it would be like at Juno Beach. My colleagues here were there too, and just to look at coming up that beach...can you imagine it 75 years ago with the Nazis shooting down at them? It was just something else. Because of what they did, that's why we're at this table: for them, for their families and for all the people who followed in their footsteps, from the hills of Korea to the mountains of Afghanistan, and now in Iraq and Mali and beyond.
Canadians are forever in debt to those who step forward in the service and defence of this country and in support of our friends and allies around the world. It is our job to remember them and to take care of them when they return.
Before I speak to the changes compared to last year's estimates, I'd like to take a step back.
As you know, Veterans Affairs is a different department than it was four years ago. It's driven by vision and with a clear focus on the overall well-being of our Canadian Armed Forces members, our veterans and their families. It's because of that vision that we have invested over $10 billion in new dollars since 2015. It is a vision that saw our government immediately reopen nine Veterans Affairs offices. In fact, we opened an extra one, giving veterans better access to the information and programs and the services that they've earned.
In budget 2016, we increased the maximum value of the disability award for Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans with service-related illnesses and injuries to $360,000, putting more money directly into the pockets of veterans. We also increased the earnings loss benefit, raising it to 90% of an injured Canadian Armed Forces member's military salary at the time of their release from the forces.
We reversed a decade of cuts in service, hiring 700 more staff to deliver services and benefits, answer questions and help veterans through the transition process. We need people at Veterans Affairs to deal with veterans when they come in. We have increased outreach in every part of the country, including a strong effort to reach our veterans in the Canadian north.
Budgets 2017 and 2018 introduced eight new and enhanced programs, including a new veterans education and training benefit, providing veterans with up to $82,000; the caregiver recognition benefit; a veterans and families well-being fund; and a new veterans emergency fund, which is a fund that's so important. It's $4 million—$1 million a year—and last year we had to add $300,000 to that. It's something that's used. Last is expanded access to military family resource centres and a centre of excellence on post-traumatic stress disorder.
More recently, through budget 2019, we continued to build on these important initiatives with investments of $41 million to improve the transition process to civilian life; $20 million for a centre of excellence on chronic pain research; $30 million to recognize the contribution of Métis veterans to this country in Second World War efforts and to commemorate the sacrifice and achievements of all Métis veterans; and $25 million to improve how we care for members of the military, veterans and their families.
There's one underlying purpose for all of these changes and in fact for everything that our government has done over the last four years. It's not just the well-being of veterans but that of their families, because a veteran cannot do well if his or her family does not do well. This is why we are committed to ensuring our veterans and their families are better informed, better served and better supported.
I am pleased to report that this approach is working and, in fact, that applications are on the rise. In fact, with the renewed trust in the department since 2015, we have seen an increase of 60% in disability benefit applications since we formed government. This is a good thing. It means that veterans are coming forward and getting the help they need.
Of course, this kind of increase demands a response, so we're taking concrete steps to improve our service. Our government is providing $42.8 million over two years, which started in 2018-19, to increase service delivery capacity and keep up with the rise in demand. We also refocused our efforts, and service delivery is now centred on the individual veteran: their circumstances, their needs and strengths and those of the family.
To help address these needs, we have hired hundreds of new caseworker managers, who work directly with veterans. We have hired more than 450 new case managers, up from a low of 194. This is a significant improvement from where we were four years ago, and we will continue to recruit to meet the demands of the veterans community, because we know there's always more work to do for veterans.
Of course, the recent implementation of the pension for life was critical and delivered on our promise to bring back a monthly pension. The pension for life combined what veterans and stakeholders asked for with the most up-to-date research and understanding of veterans' well-being, which brings us back to why we're here today.
If we look at the main estimates and the numbers themselves, the net increase of $25.4 million that Veterans Affairs Canada will receive compared to the 2018-19 estimates will directly benefit veterans and their families.
The increase in funding as a result of the pension for life includes $685 million for pain and suffering compensation, $628 million for the income replacement benefit and $102 million for the additional pain and suffering compensation. All of these changes are significant fundamental improvements to the many services, supports and benefit programs required by veterans and their families to make a successful transition from military life.
I want to remind the committee that over 90% of our budget represents payments to veterans and their families, because they are the single guiding focus for everything that we do.
It's our job to help them transition smoothly to life after service and to commemorate and recognize their sacrifice. We have come a long way since 2015—from improving benefits and services to restoring trust with the veteran community and shifting the focus of government from being one of cost savings to one of support for veterans and their families.
In the months that follow, we will continue the important work that veterans have asked us to do, because that is what they deserve and that's exactly what Canadians expect from their government.
Again, I want to say it's an honour to be here, and I again want to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of this committee and my deputy minister, Mr. Natynczyk, whom I neglected to introduce, but most people know him.
Thank you very much. These are my remarks and I'm open to questions.