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Results: 1 - 24 of 24
Bradley K. White
View Bradley K. White Profile
Bradley K. White
2015-05-26 18:32
Honourable Chair and members of the committee, good evening, and thank you.
I do agree with you, Chair, that 632 is the friendliest branch in all of Ottawa.
It's a great pleasure to appear once again in front of the committee. I'm pleased to speak on behalf of our Dominion president, Mr. Tom Eagles, and our 300,000 members and their families.
This evening, we will do our presentation in English. However, we have provided a copy of our brief in both official languages.
The legion has been asked to discuss specifically division 17 of part 3, which amends the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act to add a purpose statement to the act; improve the transition process of Canadian Forces members and veterans to civilian life; establish a retirement income security benefit to provide eligible veterans and their survivors with a continued financial benefit after the age of 65 years; establish the critical injury benefit to provide eligible Canadian Forces members and veterans with lump-sum compensation for severe, sudden, and traumatic injuries or acute diseases that are service related, regardless of whether they result in permanent disability; and finally, to establish the family caregiver relief benefit to provide eligible veterans who require a high level of ongoing care from an informal caregiver with an annual grant to recognize that caregiver's support.
The division also amends portions of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act as a consequence of the establishment of the critical injury benefit.
Please note that our comments are directed specifically to this section of Bill C-59 and not to the entire omnibus bill.
The Royal Canadian Legion is the only veteran service organization that assists veterans and their families with representation to Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
The legion's advocacy program is core to our mission, and we have been assisting veterans since 1926 through our legislated mandate in both the Pension Act and the new Veterans Charter. Please note that veterans do not have to be legion members to receive our assistance; we provide it free of charge.
Our national service bureau network provides representation, starting with their first applications to Veterans Affairs Canada and through all three levels of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Through the legislation, the legion has access to service health records and departmental files to provide comprehensive yet independent representation at no cost.
Last year our service officers prepared and represented disability claims on behalf of over 3,000 veterans to VAC and the VRAB. There is no other veterans group with this kind of direct contact and interaction with, provision of support to, and feedback from veterans, their families and, of course, the caregivers.
When it comes to serving veterans and their families, the legion continues to be the only veterans organization in Canada advocating for and providing assistance to all veterans.
The legion recognizes that progress is being made for veterans and their families in this budget and recommends that the NCVA provisions of Bill C-59 be passed as soon as possible. Is it everything we have been advocating for? Does it answer all of the 14 ACVA recommendations? No, it does not, but it is a very positive step forward.
This bill lays out important enhancements that will improve the care and benefits provided to veterans and their families, especially for our veterans who have turned or will be turning 65 in the very near future. We need to ensure that they have financial benefits beyond age 65 for life, including that provision for their survivors as well.
However, we do have many questions on how the retirement income security benefit, the RISB, is calculated, and until we receive and review the complete policies on the RISB, the critical injury benefit, and the family caregiver relief benefit, we will not see how adequate these benefits will be to our veterans and their families.
Our principal concerns remain that the maximum disability award must be increased to be consistent with what is provided to injured civilian workers who receive general damages in law courts. As well, our concern with the family caregiver relief benefit is that it does not adequately compensate a spouse who has to give up a full-time job to become a caregiver. What is proposed is a respite benefit. Most families today are dual-income families and sometimes that service member works two jobs to support the family, so in essence when he gets injured three full-time wages are lost. We would prefer to see something akin to the Pension Act's attendance allowance reinstated.
As I previously stated, Bill C-59, in division 17 of part 3, does not answer all of the 14 ACVA recommendations. The Royal Canadian Legion will not rest until all these recommendations have been addressed and adopted, and we will not cease in our efforts to push the government to honour its obligations.
We have not shied away from making our stance on these issues known. We have shared our position paper, “Veterans Matter”, with all Canadians to encourage an informed debate on veterans' issues in the future.
I want to address the issues of communications and accessibility.
The new Veterans Charter was developed to meet the needs of modern veterans. It is based on modern disability management principles. It focuses on rehabilitation and successful transition.
It must be stated that the legion, while endorsing the new Veterans Charter as it was adopted in 2006, has also been steadfast in our advocacy for its change to better meet the lifelong needs of our veterans and their families. We all have an obligation to understand the complexities and interrelationships, and to inform about and explain the new Veterans Charter for the people who it concerns. Our veterans and their families deserve absolutely nothing less.
The new Veterans Charter and the enhanced new Veterans Charter Act are comprehensive and very complex. Our veterans and their families need to know what programs are available to assist them and how to access them, whether they are financial, rehabilitation, health services, and/or family care programs. The government needs to ensure that resources and programs are in place to meet their needs and to review the accessibility to these programs, while ensuring that front-line staff are available—and knowledgeable—to assist veterans and their families. This can never become a self-serve system.
Most veterans and their families do not have a good understanding of the new Veterans Charter. I would suggest that this highlights the ineffectiveness of the government's communication of the programs and services available under the new Veterans Charter for our injured veterans and their families. What is required is proactive communication to all veterans across this country to ensure that they are aware of the financial compensation, rehabilitation programs, health care services, and the family care programs that are available and of how to access them.
Lastly, it is also time for all of us to understand the new Veterans Charter and the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act. This should be a priority. Our veterans need to know not only the weaknesses of the programs but the strengths behind the legislation: the programs, the services, and the benefits. We, too, can help our veterans and their families.
Since commencing our advocacy in 1926, the legion's advocacy and programming efforts continue to evolve to meet the changing demographics while supporting our traditional veteran community. However, notwithstanding the capacity of the legion, we certainly believe that the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada have a responsibility to ensure that policies, practices, and programs supported through a sustainable research program are accessible and meet the unique needs of all veterans, with a goal of enabling the healthy transition of all our veterans and their families through this very challenging, changing, and sometimes difficult life course.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention our World War II veterans and post-World War II veterans who are now seeking assistance through the legion for access to the veterans independence program. These veterans are often frail, and they are approaching the end of their life. They are a very proud group of people who have never applied to the government for any type of disability benefit assistance, and now, because they want to remain independent in their own homes rather than going into a long-term care facility, they cannot access the VIP and benefits for frailty because they do not have an established eligibility for a disability or a lower income.
Last October, we sent a high-priority list of resolutions to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, including a resolution that all veterans be deemed eligible for VIP benefits based on need, irrespective of their having established disability entitlement or low-income status. We urge the government to action this resolution without delay. We understand that the response to these resolutions will be forthcoming from the department very soon.
We agree that the passage of Bill C-59, and particularly those provisions that affect the new Veterans Charter, is a step in the right direction. Let me thank the committee for the work it does on behalf of our veterans. The legion appreciates the opportunity to come before the committee to brief you on our perspective on issues of concern to Canada's veterans.
I would also at this time like to extend to the committee the opportunity to visit our national headquarters, which we call Legion House. It would be opportunity for us to provide you with a full brief on how the legion is one of Canada's great institutions, and how we support Canadians, our veterans, and our communities.
Once again, thank you. Merci.
Brian Forbes
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Brian Forbes
2014-04-01 18:41
Yes, exactly, you have a very good question.
The minister has suggested, until very recently, that he has a hands-off attitude with regard to the class action lawsuit in the British Columbia Supreme Court. If the Department of Justice wants to argue that there's no social covenant, it's apparently his position that he will not intervene, he will not issue an instruction to take that off the table. I find that objectionable.
It is the minister's responsibility as the Minister of Veterans Affairs to instruct the Department of Justice as to the position they will take in a legal suit that is being brought by a group of seriously disabled veterans. We find it offensive that the minister has not intervened. It's not the Department of Justice that argues principles for the government, it's the ministers of the various departments that have to instruct.
We've been on the other side of these cases for many years and we have found that ministers have been involved, so we're somewhat dumbfounded as to why this minister has had a hands-off attitude.
I hope that answers your question.
View Peter Stoffer Profile
Yes, sir.
I have a couple of things for you, sir.
Mr. Jenkins mentioned the number of recommendations that your organization and a number of others made with the Gerontological Advisory Council a few years back. He noted the number of recommendations that have been put forward and how very few of them have actually been accepted. I'd just like your view, the Royal Canadian Legion's view, about why there has been a reluctance to accept some of these recommendations...the other ones that have been there. Also, I have another question and it's for both of you. I'll ask the Legion first and then, Mr. Jenkins, you can answer second.
In the Equitas lawsuit, the crown attorneys who were representing the Crown—and I'm paraphrasing them—stated under oath that there was no moral obligation for the crown to care for veterans. I'm paraphrasing more or less what they said. Basically that moral obligation applies only to the aboriginal community.
Obviously many veterans organizations across the country were quite concerned when they heard this. The judge hearing the case indicated that there was an obligation to care for those veterans in that regard. My question, which I've been asking quite repeatedly, is this. Does the government have a moral, legal, social, and financial responsibility to care for those they asked to put themselves in harm's way? I haven't gotten an answer on that question even though this is now the eighth time I've asked it. I'm wondering what the Royal Canadian Legion's view would be on that as well.
I thank you again, you and all the other veterans groups, and especially Mr. Richard Blackwolf, an aboriginal veteran who is here today, for being with all of us. I thank you.
Gordon Moore
View Gordon Moore Profile
Gordon Moore
2014-03-06 16:07
Mr. Stoffer, the Royal Canadian Legion's view on the moral obligation is that the government has a moral obligation to look after our veterans and their families, right to their last moments.
The government of the day has put them into harm's way, whether it happened 20 years ago or whether it just happened recently with them being in Afghanistan. The government has to understand that you're the one who asked them to sign the dotted line; you're the one who paid to have them trained; you're the one who paid to send them overseas; and you're the one who said, yes, you're going to go and fight for democracy, in Afghanistan, or wherever they had to go. Yes, the government has that moral obligation and they will.
As I stated in my report, there are three acts that state that the government has the moral obligation. When the new Veterans Charter was written, the moral obligation was kept out. That's the only place. No one at the time caught that. That's very unfortunate because it was something that came across that it had to be put into place because we had men and women serving in Afghanistan, we had to make sure that we were prepared back here, and this is how they sold the bill. We had to be prepared back here when our soldiers returned. But we had to be ready in how we're going to look after them, on the short term and also in the long term.
Mr. Stoffer, they've been looking after them in the short term, but they haven't been doing a good job on the long term. The moral obligation has to be there all the way through.
View   Profile
2014-03-06 16:09
A good example of moral obligation is the United Kingdom government signed, about two years ago, their social covenant with their military on how it was going to respond to their needs once they had been deployed and moved out and possibly injured and returned home. Perhaps what the Canadian government needs to do is to also have a social covenant with those who serve its country.
Gordon Jenkins
View Gordon Jenkins Profile
Gordon Jenkins
2014-03-06 16:10
I'll be very brief. I couldn't put it any better than these two gentlemen to my right. I would like my response to be exactly the same as Gord's and Brad's.
Percy Price
View Percy Price Profile
Percy Price
2014-03-06 16:10
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'm sure you're well aware of the fact that those veterans who served in Canada only, they're under section 21(2) of the Pension Act. In the act under section 21(1), where there's a special duty area, Afghanistan, there shall be no deduction in injuries or whatever. If it occurs in a special duty area or in the theatre of war, the government is solely responsible and obligated to provide pension for that veteran.
However, under the other section, in Canada—not those war time or special duty areas—that would be a different issue. Certainly in war time or special duty areas, the government is solely responsible.
Thank you.
View Sylvain Chicoine Profile
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I would also like to thank our witnesses for joining us today.
Let me go back to what you were saying about the fact that it is time to take action right away to improve the New Veterans Charter.
Since we are conducting a comprehensive study and we are going to produce a report in several months in the wake of which the minister will prepare a bill, would it not be desirable for the minister to start right away to improve the new charter given that everyone agrees with the ombudsman's recommendations?
Would it be in the minister's interests to start right now to improve the new charter based on the ombudsman's report, granted that it may involve other changes in a year after the comprehensive study?
Gordon Jenkins
View Gordon Jenkins Profile
Gordon Jenkins
2014-03-06 16:31
I think the minister already has a list of recommendations and we cannot help but wonder why another series of recommendations is necessary.
View Sylvain Chicoine Profile
Thank you.
The government is saying that it recognizes that duty and that it is included in the new charter.
Can you comment on that?
Jim Scott
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Mr. Jim Scott
2013-12-10 11:49
Sorry, when you say “duty,” which duty are you referring to?
View Sylvain Chicoine Profile
Yes. I am talking about the government's sacred duty to take care of wounded veterans.
View Ted Opitz Profile
View Ted Opitz Profile
2013-12-10 12:15
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
First of all, thank you all for appearing today. I'm on the defence committee normally, and Mr. Kirkland visited us there not that long ago. In fact, the defence committee is conducting a study on the care of the ill and injured. We were actually in Petawawa last Thursday, touring the JPSU and some of the facilities there. And I was in Shilo a couple of month ago for a different event, but took the opportunity while I was there to look at some of the issues that are going on in Shilo.
That just illustrates that all of us in the House are very interested in making sure that this is right by veterans, and we're working very hard to do that.
To that end, sir, Minister Fantino announced that he would invite the veterans to the committee here for you to be able to air your concerns to Parliament, which you're doing today, which is fantastic. But at that time, did you expect the minister to ask us to bring forward recommendations on new language to be added to the new Veterans Charter capturing the duty, the obligation, and the commitment of the Government of Canada towards Canadian veterans?
Jim Scott
View Jim Scott Profile
Mr. Jim Scott
2013-12-10 12:16
That's a good question. A lot of people have asked what the solution is, and I've always said to every person, “Just acknowledge that there are some gaps, acknowledge that there are some problems, and then seek to close those gaps and those problems”. One of the concerns I have is that, when you go into a review process with predetermined ideas already in mind, it really doesn't make the review process that valid—in other words, if you say, “This is going to be the outcome; now have your review”. We're very open to what this committee does. There is just the fact that we want to raise, that for whatever reason we got down this road, we now have hundreds of people who have contacted us and they have bona fide cases of gaps in their benefits under this program.
What does the solution look like? I would hope you will be able to offer those solutions.
View Jim Karygiannis Profile
Lib. (ON)
Mr. Scott, I want to ask the three servicemen.
Do you think your government is truly representing you? Do you think that truly your government is looking after you today?
Aaron Bedard
View Aaron Bedard Profile
Aaron Bedard
2013-12-10 12:50
I think everyone is here doing their job. It's a complex world, however, and PTSD goes on forever. Every day is a new day. I'm 40 years old. I got in after working construction for 15 years. I argue and fight with anybody who I see doing something that could kill others.
What was the question?
View Jim Karygiannis Profile
Lib. (ON)
Is your government doing the best for you in representing you? Do you feel we're doing the best for you, or are we letting you down?
View Jim Karygiannis Profile
Lib. (ON)
Thank you, Chair.
I'm glad you pointed out, sir, that the old pension was non-taxable and the new one is taxable.
I'm going to pick up on Mr. Rafferty's point about the closing of the VAC centres. There are going to be 27,688 vets who will be affected by the closing of these centres. We are told that there are all kinds.... I mean, for My VAC—this portfolio, I think, is what you or some people referred to—people can actually go online, use phones, go in person, use mail, and whatever else there is.
With the closing of these centres, how would the older vets, vets who are 80 or 90, be able to get assistance? We get from the department that there are 600 points of reference and that they're going to do this.... You even mentioned that you're going to train personnel in service centres. But there is a feeling out there that you can't trust VAC. That was certainly obvious when it was mentioned to them that 27,388 boxes of medical records were destroyed, and they kept saying, “No, no, nobody was affected.” Then vets were coming up and saying, “We've lost our records.” That was proven.
My question is, how can the department be trusted when time and time again it has shown that their methods and their figures, as well as what they do, are incorrect? I mean, breaching personal files of Dennis Manuge, Harold Leduc...I could go on ad infinitum. How can the department be trusted? I know you might not want to answer this, but you are even reporting to the minister that you, your shop, should be reporting directly to the department.
I'm going to put it out there. I don't think that what you get from the department is something that you can take home and say, “this is it”, you know, it's firm, because time and time again they've been caught not saying the truth. They've been caught misleading and even doing stuff to members of their own board, such that in the private sector they'd be fired. I mean, for breaching somebody's medical records, you would be totally fired. I'm just wondering if you have a comment or any thoughts on that.
Guy Parent
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Guy Parent
2013-11-28 12:27
Well, it's very hard, of course, for me to comment. As I've mentioned many times before, we're obviously an evidence-based organization. For any personal situation and anything that is factual, if people want to contact us, we will work to try to resolve it. If there are negative things that have to be said to the department, that's fine. We'll get some corrections. There have been a few instances in the past where we've produced reports or changed the way that programs were administered because of actually challenging the department on some issues.
Obviously, we have a capacity for systemic investigation and systemic reviews. Again, I urge people, if there are any veterans and families who have specific issues they want us to look into, that's what we're there for.
Guy Parent
View Guy Parent Profile
Guy Parent
2012-10-29 15:30
Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members.
I will first introduce the people who are with me today: Gary Walbourne, director general of operations, as well as deputy ombudsman in my absence; and Diane Guilmet-Harris, our legal counsel at the office.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to share my thoughts on the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
Your review is very important given the critical role that the board plays in ensuring that veterans and other clients of Veterans Affairs Canada receive the benefits and services to which they are entitled.
In any given year Veterans Affairs Canada makes close to 40,000 decisions with appeal rights to the board. Given the number of decisions, and despite efforts to the contrary, errors can be made. Therefore, it's important to have an independent, specialized body that veterans and other clients of Veterans Affairs Canada can turn to when they are dissatisfied with the department's decisions. An efficient redress process is key to accessibility.
Parliament was of that view as well when it created the board in 1995, entrusting it with the power to change or overturn decisions made by Veterans Affairs Canada if it finds that the laws governing disability pensions and awards were not properly applied.
To fulfill, and I quote, “the recognized obligation of the people and Government of Canada to those who have served their country so well and to their dependants”, Parliament asked the board to adopt a liberal and generous interpretative approach when making decisions, and specifically directed the board to section 39 of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act to draw every reasonable inference in favour of applicants, to give them the benefit of the doubt when weighing the evidence, and to accept any credible, uncontradicted evidence.
More than 20,000 veterans and other applicants are better off as a result of decisions made by the board since its creation.
Yet, as impressive as the statistic is, there is mistrust of the board within the veterans' community and much concern as to whether or not the board is making decisions in compliance with its enabling legislation. I wanted to know if those concerns were founded, and that is why we carried out the analysis of Federal Court judgments pertaining to the board.
As you know, 140 board decisions were challenged in the Federal Court and 11 of those were appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal. In those cases the courts had to determine if the board made its decision in compliance with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act and in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Since the Federal Court provides an independent judicial assessment on the matter in which questions of law, fact and procedural fairness are handled in cases before them, it made sense to me to take a look at the court's judgment pertaining to the board.
Before I address the findings and recommendations of my report, let me take a moment to discuss the issue of statistics.
Since its creation in 1995, the board has made more than 119,000 decisions, of which 34,000 could have been subject to judicial review. To suggest that there is nothing to worry about because only 140 of those decisions have been challenged in the federal courts does a great disservice to veterans and serving members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP.
There are many reasons that ill or injured veterans and serving members do not take their cases to the Federal Court including “appeal fatigue” and above all legal costs, which can vary from $15,000 to $50,000. So contrasting the number of Federal Court challenges with the overall number of decisions made by the board over the years is meaningless and misleading. What's important is what the Federal Court says about the cases it reviews.
In fact, I would argue that it is the misguided opinion that it is "only 140 decisions" and that "all else is fine" that explains why board decisions have been returned by the Federal Court for the same reasons over a long period of time. This means to me that neither the board nor the department takes the Federal Court judgments seriously enough.
Up until 2009-2010, the board used a percentage of Federal Court judgments that uphold VRAB decisions as a performance indicator of fairness in the redress process for disability benefits and was satisfied that fairness was assured if the court upheld 50% of its decisions. That is not acceptable. Furthermore, in its 2010-11 performance report, the board did not report against this indicator at all. Instead, it reported on how fast decisions were made.
I'm sure that you have heard the old adage that what gets measured, gets managed. While I encourage both the department and the board to find quicker ways to address the needs of ill and injured veterans and serving members, it should not be done to the detriment of the quality of decisions made.
To get back to my report findings and recommendations, the independent analysis performed by the law firm of Borden Ladner Gervais found that in 60% of the 140 board decisions reviewed by the Federal Court, the court ruled that the board erred in law or fact, or failed to observe principles of procedural fairness.
The five most common errors for which the Federal Court returned decisions to the board for review were: the failure to liberally construe the provisions of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act and the Pension Act; the failure to accept the credible uncontradicted evidence; the failure to accept credible new evidence; the failure to give the benefit of the doubt; and the failure to ensure procedural fairness by not providing sufficient reasons for decisions or not disclosing medical evidence considered by the board.
Based on those findings, I concluded that veterans' concerns are founded and that the status quo is not acceptable. Changes are needed. As you know, I made seven recommendations.
Three recommendations address the need for greater transparency and accountability, namely, improved reporting to Parliament, posting all Federal Court decisions on the board's website, and the provision of reasons for decisions that clearly demonstrate the board has met its obligations under its enabling legislation.
Two recommendations called for the establishment of a formal process to review each Federal Court judgment rendered in favour of the applicant for the purpose of remedial action to the way decisions are made, and for the priority treatment of cases sent back to the board for rehearing.
The last two recommendations call for the Bureau of Pensions Advocates to represent veterans before the Federal Court and for legislative changes to allow for benefit retroactivity to the date of initial application in cases where the board makes a favourable decision as the result of a successful challenge in the Federal Court.
The Veterans Review and Appeal Board has put in place a plan to address the first five recommendations, and thank Mr. Larlee for acting as quickly as he has. You may be interested to know that my office has just started a follow-up review to determine if the changes made by the board fully address the shortcomings that we have identified. The report will be released in the next year.
As for the last two recommendations, I am engaged with the minister. He has recently outlined his action plan to further reduce red tape, increase efficiency and provide clarity around decisions. If properly implemented, these actions could reduce timelines in process and reduce the need for veterans to seek relief in the Federal Court. A plan is only that until it is put into action, and I will be monitoring the situation to ensure that the actions taken are indeed addressing the intent of the recommendations.
For me, the matter is quite simple. As long as the Federal Court continues to return a majority of board decisions for errors of fact, law, or procedural fairness issues, I will continue to say that fairness in the redress process is not assured. My report looked at the end result: the board's decisions themselves. Your review of the board's processes and activities is timely and it should address the why questions. Why is the process not functioning as it was meant to? How should the board and the overall VRAB-VAC process be improved going forward?
I humbly suggest to you that there are six key areas that should be looked into: the board's structure; the selection process of board members; workload issues; process by which the board's and the department's decisions are made in accordance with Federal Court judgments on a go-forward basis; quality assurance and efficiency versus effectiveness equation; and very important, the board's operating culture.
In the end, however, it all comes down to culture, and I would like to explain why.
In 1967 the Committee to Survey the Organization and Work of the Canadian Pension Commission, better known as the Woods committee, in addition to providing recommendations for reform, documented the evolution of the administration of veterans' benefits. It showed that from the enactment of the Pension Act in 1919, the intention had always been to have some form of an appeal body for veterans.
Despite major reforms through the years, that goal had not been achieved. Despite that, in 1967, the Woods committee was still adamant that an independent appellate body was essential for maintaining the integrity of the disability process and ensuring that veterans have trust in the system.
The Woods committee went into much detail examining a number of issues that were major concerns not only for veterans, but also for the government. Concerns included staffing levels, the low percentage of appeals granted in favour of the applicant, the need for reasoned decisions, the unfair practice of not disclosing information to the applicant, and the failure of adjudicators to liberally construe the legislation in favour of the veteran.
In 1995 the Woods committee goal of an independent appellate body was finally achieved.
Here we are in 2012 once again discussing the effectiveness of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board in relation to the same issues of processing times, board composition, reasons for decisions, disclosure of information, and liberally construing legislation that has been debated since 1919.
History has shown that although structural change can alter the process to create efficiencies and increase effectiveness, cultural change is what is needed if we want to address the why questions and eliminate the root causes of many of our veterans' concerns.
The first step to cultural change is transparency. On the one hand, veterans need to have full disclosure of information that decision-makers are using to make their decisions, and they need clearly reasoned decisions that are understandable and make sense to them. On the other hand, decision-makers need to have all the information necessary to make decisions at the earliest point in the process.
The second step is quality control of the adjudication process. Measures need to be put in place so that the board and the department work together to improve the quality of the overall process rather than, as is too often the case now, having the effects of expedited processing at the beginning of the application process leading to an increase in the board's workload at the end of the process.
Yes, it's important to move things quickly, but it is much more important to get things right from the beginning. This goes to the issue of why so many decisions are varied at the department's review level and at the board's level. That's the question the department asked McInnes Cooper to address in 2007.
In reviewing the adjudication process, McInnes Cooper found that decisions were varied at the department's review level on the basis of additional evidence that was often in existence at the time of initial application, but was not included with the application. In the view of McInnes Cooper, “The adequacy of claims preparation at the initial application and first-level decision stage is driven by the fact that, whether by accident or design, there is greater focus on turnaround times and/or productivity.”
As for the variance of departmental decisions at the board level, McInnes Cooper identified three contributing factors: personal testimony, spirited advocacy by a pension advocate, and new evidence.
The fact that decisions are varied in favour of applicants at each redress level is often given as evidence that the system is working, but it can also be a sign that there is a problem at the beginning of the process. I am convinced that if more time and assistance were provided to applicants to ensure that all needed information was available before moving forward to adjudication, the board's workload would be greatly reduced and it would be able to concentrate on complex cases.
Moving on to the third step, I would submit that future discussions on matters pertaining to the disability benefits process should look at the entire process, encompassing processes of both the department and the board.
With respect to the fourth step, the effect of not liberally construing the legislation is affecting not only the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire system, but it is adversely affecting the lives of too many of our veterans and their families.
If legislation pertaining to veterans was liberally construed at the front end of the decision-making process, as was the initial intent of legislators such as you, I believe we would not be seeing the problems that we see today at the back end of the process. Educating departmental adjudicators and board members on the meaning and application of the phrase “liberally construing” is critical, even more so given that military service and the documentation of such service often creates difficulties.
In the end, we should be aiming for a more streamlined and effective system that will meet the needs of ill and injured veterans and serving members.
As I stated earlier in my remarks, I firmly believe that the Veterans Review and Appeal Board has a critical role to play. Closing the board would do a great disservice to veterans and serving members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP, but changes to the board are needed to restore the trust in the organization and ensure fairness in the redress process.
John D. Larlee
View John D. Larlee Profile
John D. Larlee
2012-10-29 16:38
Yes, I have some opening comments.
I appreciate the opportunity to be here.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair.
Accompanying me today are members of the senior management team. Karen Rowell is the director of Corporate Operations, and Kathleen Vent is the acting director of Legal Services.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to return before the committee to address the comments and concerns expressed by committee members and by witnesses over the past few weeks.
I think you will find that we are all working towards the same objectives. The board is honoured to serve a constituency of people who are unique and impressive in their selfless service to Canada. These veterans, members of the Canadian Forces and RCMP, and their families, deserve to be, and must always be, treated with dignity and respect when they come to the board. They have the right to fairness in the appeal process, to openness in decision-making, and to be heard by qualified and impartial adjudicators.
We all agree that our veterans' appeals must be considered with the compassion expressed in the board's legislation. I'm referring, notably, to sections 3 and 39.
Since our last appearance, you have heard from advocates and other interested parties. I followed the testimony and heard inaccuracies presented to this committee. I would like to correct the record by giving you additional context and clarification on the board's commitments to veterans.
My remarks will deal with three important topics: number one, procedural fairness; number two, transparency and impartiality; and, number three, the culture at the board.
Let me start with procedural fairness.
The board's process exists to ensure fairness in the disability benefits system for our veterans, members of the Canadian Forces and RCMP, and their families. Our objective is to give applicants who are dissatisfied with their departmental decisions further opportunities for new and increased benefits for service-related injuries.
Our adjudicators are independent. They look at veterans' applications with fresh eyes and listen to their stories at non-adversarial hearings.
Our members usually ask questions at hearings to make sure they fully understand the veteran's circumstances. They consider, but are not bound by, the department's policies, and make decisions based on the evidence brought forward by the veteran. As our success rates clearly indicate, the board does change decisions to benefit veterans.
Fairness is our mission and we strive for it in everything we do.
Some serious questions have been raised at this committee about how we do our work, in particular with respect to the role of board staff, and the information used by members in decision-making. Let me put these to rest.
Board management and staff respect the independence of members as decision-makers. Their role is to support members in making clear and well-reasoned decisions for veterans. They do this by giving advice to members on the clarity and completeness of reasons and on issues of consistency in the interpretation of the legislation. It is nothing more than feedback intended to improve the quality of the decisions going to veterans.
I know you will agree that veterans deserve decisions that present information logically and accurately, that address evidence and arguments, and that express the reasons for the conclusion clearly and plainly.
Many of our members are lay people with different backgrounds who are based in locations across Canada. They deal with a high volume of cases involving complex matters. For these reasons, they welcome support from experienced staff in our legal and quality assurance roles. Members are free to consider their feedback and accept it, or not. In administrative law, it is quite simple: he or she who hears must decide.
Questions have also been raised about the role of favourability rates at the board. These are not individual rates, as board decisions are made by panels of two or three members. Rather, they are decision outcomes associated with panel members that were provided at the member's request. They are not used for performance feedback. They have never been used to influence board members to be more favourable or less favourable. They were used only as a tool to initiate a conversation about consistency in decision-making.
I hope you will agree that veterans deserve predictability in our decision-making, that similar cases should have similar outcomes. The board has established ongoing training and support structures, adjudicative guidelines, a professional code of conduct, and performance standards, all to fulfill our veterans' expectations that they will be treated fairly and respectfully throughout the appeal process. Together, these tools cultivate consistency while respecting the independence of decision-makers. This philosophy is helping us to attract new members with military, policing, and medical backgrounds, who want to serve veterans by contributing their expertise.
Transparency is the second area that I would like to touch on. You heard from Mr. James Ogilvy of the Council of Canadian Administrative Tribunals that transparency is ensured by a variety of things, including the publication of the results of all hearings. We agree.
It would cost approximately $3.5 million for the board to translate and de-personalize upwards of 5,000 decisions each year for web posting in a timely fashion. This represents one-third of our budget, the bulk of which is spent on conducting hearings and issuing decisions for veterans and other applicants in locations across the country. The reality is that the board would not absorb this cost without compromising service to veterans.
While a third party like CanLII would publish our decisions for free, the obligation to comply with the Official Languages Act and the cost of translation would remain ours.
As you know, we now publish our noteworthy decisions on our website in an effort to enhance transparency. These decisions are informative in that they demonstrate how the board applies the act in individual cases. The full text of the board decision is posted, with certain pieces of personal information removed in order to respect the applicant's privacy. The decision is not otherwise altered or monitored, as has been implied during the committee's study.
I encourage you to visit our website and read some of these decisions. You will also find medical and legal resources used by members, which are posted in the interest of transparency.
We will continue to add information and look for more opportunities to talk about the appeal process with our stakeholders. Another way for tribunals to be open and transparent is to hold hearings in public. The board's hearings are public and we are happy to accommodate observers. We ask interested parties to contact us in advance, out of respect for veterans and the personal matters being discussed, as well as to make the logistical arrangements.
Once again, I would extend an invitation to committee members to observe a hearing. As you heard from Mr. Cal Small from the RCMP Veterans' Association, it would give you an appreciation of the informality of the process, the efforts of board members to understand the veterans' circumstances, and the complexities of the cases that come before us.
The third and final topic I'd like to address is the culture at the board. We are here to serve veterans, members of the Canadian Forces and RCMP, and their families. As in the past, board members are looking for the evidence that will allow them to award new or increased benefits for disabilities related to service. Our evidence requirements have not changed, but the nature of our cases certainly has.
As you heard from the Bureau of Pensions Advocates, applicants are counselled to request an internal or departmental review if they have relevant new evidence after receiving a first decision from the department. The success rates for first applications and departmental reviews are higher now than in the past. This means that veterans are getting good outcomes earlier in the process. As a result, fewer cases are coming to the board, and those that do are less straightforward and more complex than in the past.
Veterans in Canada have access to many levels of redress for their disability benefits decisions. Some see it as a struggle, but many others welcome these opportunities to bring forward new information at any time, and they benefit from these opportunities. Our decision outcomes reflect this, with favourable rulings for veterans in half of review decisions and a further one-third of appeal decisions.
While we understand the perception that the burden of proof is too high, the legislation requires veterans to establish a link between their disability and service. Ultimately, some applicants are unable to make this link. We've heard the message loud and clear that veterans want to know they are getting the benefit of the doubt as required by the board's legislation. We have an initiative under way to train members to more clearly explain how they have applied the benefit of the doubt in every case. As chairman, I will continue to emphasize to members and staff that they must always bear in mind the debt owed to veterans who have served our country so well.
In closing, I would like to recognize the work the Veterans Ombudsman is doing to help us achieve our goal of better serving veterans, members of the Canadian Forces, RCMP, and their families. The board embraced Mr. Parent's recent recommendations and will continue to make improvements to maintain trust and confidence in the appeal process.
I hope that your questions today will give us an opportunity to further clarify our commitment and the nature of the work we do at the board to serve veterans and their families.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2012-10-25 11:37
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Chair, I am pleased to present my report, which was tabled in the House of Commons last Tuesday.
I am accompanied by Assistant Auditors General Jerome Berthelette and Wendy Loschiuk, as well as by Glenn Wheeler, the principal responsible for the audit of transfer payments to the aerospace sector.
The report contains the results of that audit. In the first chapter, we looked at how Public Works and Government Services Canada, Health Canada, and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada plan their use of professional service contractors. We found that the departments plan their needs for employees and contractors separately. This hampers their ability to assess whether they have the best mix of employees and contractors to meet their objectives.
Departments need to consider the full range of options that will enable them to most effectively deliver programs and services to Canadians.
I'll move now to our report about grant and contribution program reforms. In May 2008 the government announced an action plan to reform the administration of grant and contribution programs and to streamline the administrative and reporting burden on recipients. Our audit looked at whether the government has adequately implemented this action plan. We found that the government has in fact focused its actions where they're most important. Treasury Board Secretariat has provided leadership and guidance to federal organizations to make the necessary changes, and these organizations have acted on most of their obligations. The government has made good progress in implementing the 2008 action plan. Now it needs to determine if the actions taken have made a difference for recipients.
Let's turn now to our audit about what government is doing to help protect Canadian infrastructure against cyber threats. Critical infrastructure includes the power grid, banking and telephone systems, and the government's own information systems. The government has a leadership role to play in ensuring that information about threats is shared, and it has to improve the way it does this. This is important because officials are concerned that cyber threats are evolving faster than the government can keep pace.
In 2001 the government committed to building partnerships with the owners and operators of critical infrastructure systems to share information and provide technical support. We found that 11 years later, those arrangements are not fully operational. Similarly, the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre has only been operating eight hours a day, five days a week. It's not the 24/7 information hub it was designed to be in 2005. Furthermore, it's not being kept abreast of cyber security incidents in a timely manner.
Since 2010, the government has made some progress in protecting its own systems and building partnerships to secure Canada's infrastructure. The government must now ensure that the sector networks are in place and working with the Cyber Incident Response Centre.
We are also reporting on how National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada manage selected programs, benefits, and services to support eligible ill and injured Canadian Forces members and veterans in the transition to civilian life.
There are many support programs, benefits, and services in place to help ill and injured members of the military make the transition to civilian life. However, we found that understanding and accessing these supports is often complex, lengthy, and challenging. The lack of clear information about programs and services, the complexity of eligibility criteria, and the dependence on paper-based systems are some of the difficulties for both clients and departmental staff.
We also found inconsistencies in how individual cases are managed and problem-sharing information between the two departments. As a result, forces members and veterans did not always receive services and benefits in a timely manner or at all.
National Defence and Veterans Affairs recognize they need to work together on solutions. I'm pleased they've accepted our recommendations, including to streamline their processes to make programs more accessible for ill and injured forces members and veterans.
The next report also concerns National Defence—specifically, how the department is managing its real property at 21 main bases across Canada. The Canadian Forces rely on real property such as buildings, airfields and training facilities to carry out missions. These assets are valued at $22 billion. I am concerned that the department is not yet adequately maintaining and renewing its assets.
We found several weaknesses in the department’s management practices. For example, the approval process for construction projects is cumbersome and slow. It takes an average of 6 years to approve projects over $5 million.
We also found that National Defence is behind in its spending targets for maintenance and repair, and recapitalization. As such, weaknesses in National Defence’s management of real property could jeopardize the Canadian Forces’ ability to carry out its missions. National Defence recognizes it needs to improve and change its approach to managing real property.
We also looked at two programs that provide repayable assistance to support industrial research and development in Canada’s aerospace sector. Since 2007, Industry Canada has authorized almost $1.2 billion in assistance to 23 Canadian aerospace companies through the Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative and the Bombardier CSeries Program. Industry Canada has done a good job of managing most of the administrative aspects of the two transfer payment programs. However, we found that the department has been slow to measure progress against program objectives and report results publicly. Repayable support to the aerospace sector represents a significant investment on behalf of Canadians. Industry Canada has a responsibility to ensure that funding contributes to meeting the government’s objectives in this area.
Finally, in our audit focusing on long-term fiscal sustainability, we found that Finance Canada analyzes and considers the long-term fiscal impact of the policy measures it recommends. However, at the time of the audit, the government had yet to make public its reports on long-term fiscal sustainability. Analysis that provides a long-term budgetary perspective would help parliamentarians and Canadians better understand the fiscal challenges facing the federal government.
The department has accepted our recommendations. Following the tabling of my report in Parliament, the department issued its first long-term analysis for the federal government. We also recommended that the department publish, from time to time, an analysis for all governments combined—federal, provincial, and territorial—to give a total Canadian perspective.
Mr. Chair, that concludes my opening statement.
We will be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Jerry Kovacs
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Jerry Kovacs
2012-10-15 16:51
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, veterans, good afternoon. My name is Jerry Kovacs.
Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you for inviting the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans association to this meeting this afternoon to discuss the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Our position, shared by others, is that systemic and decision-making problems at this administrative tribunal are having negative emotional, physical, and financial impacts on veterans and their families.
I represent Mr. George Beaulieu, our president, and I speak on behalf of the executive and members of ANAVETS. I am substituting for Mr. Lorne McCartney, our Dominion Command secretary-treasurer.
ANAVETS was formed in 1840, 172 years ago. Our organization is older than Canada. A royal proclamation signed by Queen Victoria created our first unit in Montreal. The original members of ANAVETS served in the War of 1812, in Wellington’s army, and in the royal navy of the Napoleonic Wars. ANAVETS was incorporated by a special act of Parliament in 1917.
Our 20th century members served in South Africa, World Wars I and II, Korea, and in NATO campaigns, such as that in the former Yugoslavia. In the 21st century, our members have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and peacekeeping missions worldwide.
Presently, although we're smaller than the Royal Canadian Legion, at 15,000 members we are located across the country in seven provinces under seven commands in 68 units.
ANAVETS is a non-partisan organization. Our motto is “Shoulder to Shoulder”. Our members stand shoulder to shoulder in serving their communities, promoting camaraderie, and advancing advocacy issues on behalf of veterans across Canada. Safeguarding and promoting the rights and benefits that veterans have earned and deserve working for Canadians at home and overseas is an important part of our job.
That’s the big picture.
Now permit me to address today’s subject. Why are we here? Our focus today is on the role, responsibilities, and performance of VRAB with respect to serving veterans.
One of our major concerns is the treatment of military personnel who, while on duty, have suffered physical, psychological, and emotional injuries. We believe that the Canadian government has a duty and an obligation to provide the best possible care and support for those injured in the line of duty. VRAB plays an important role in ensuring that injured veterans are treated fairly with regard to their appeals for benefits that have been reduced or denied by Veterans Affairs Canada.
What are the issues? They are numerous.
One is the performance of VRAB. Another concerns appeals of VRAB decisions where not enough information is provided to appellants, where appellants need to know but do not know why their applications have failed, and where appellants should know where adjudicators erred in decision-making.
Third is a review of Federal Court decisions.
Number four is the length and cost of the process to veterans. Anybody who appeals a decision in court has to go through a lengthy process that costs them money and that is sometimes very emotional. It takes up to a year for VRAB decisions and up to three years for appeals to the Federal Court. Veterans can pay as much as $40,000 out of their pocket to appeal their case, because they have to hire a lawyer.
Number five deals with the reasons for the process. Adjudicators should adhere to the legislation, as has already been mentioned by our comrades from the Royal Canadian Legion here. The process should involve a liberal interpretation of the legislation that favours veterans and ensures that the benefit of the doubt is always in favour of veterans.
Number six is the publication of VRAB decisions, which encourages transparency.
Number seven is a review of processes and service standards. That has been discussed.
Number eight involves retroactively compensating veterans at the end of a lengthy appeal process.
Number nine has already been mentioned: veterans representation on VRAB.
Where have these issues been discussed? It is right here, in the Veterans Ombudsman's report dated March 2012: “Veterans' Right to Fair Adjudication”. The work has been done for you, ladies and gentlemen.
What are the recommendations? Quite simply, they're found on page 20. There are seven of them. I'm sure that our good friend Mr. Guy Parent has sent your offices a copy of them. It's a comprehensive report. He even hired lawyers from Ottawa to conduct an objective review of VRAB decisions that have been appealed to the Federal Court.
I'm going to take 10 minutes to say something very simple here. I feel embarrassed.
ANAVETS agrees entirely with these recommendations, which you undoubtedly have had a chance to read during the past six months. We wish to make a number of additional recommendations that reiterate and support those contained in the Veterans Ombudsman's report.
With all due respect to our colleague Mr. Stoffer, we do not believe that VRAB should be abolished. It is a higher quasi-judicial authority that, if it functions properly and effectively, ensures that veterans receive a fair shake.
The same as in the courts, the same as in a civil or criminal court, when judges make good decisions at the lower level, there is less chance of an appeal to a higher level. The same thing applies at the departmental level: good decisions in the Department of Veterans Affairs should result in fewer appeals to VRAB.
VRAB must focus on its purpose and objectives and adhere to its legislative mandate. You've heard numerous references made to the sections of the act that apply; VRAB needs to meet its mandate and meet the same legal requirements as other quasi-judicial administrative tribunals that serve Canadians.
We also believe that a veteran should be on every VRAB panel. I conducted my assessment from the VRAB website, and I looked at the 24 members. Oh, my gosh, what a surprise; quelle surprise. There are seven lawyers, two nurses, two teachers, and no psychologists or psychiatrists, no social workers, no court case workers, no paralegals, no law professors, and no families of veterans. There are lawyers, civil servants, former Conservative politicians, tribunal members, a couple of teachers, and some political advisers and assistants, although it doesn't say for whom they were advisers.
VRAB decisions should be available online to the general public for increased transparency. We do this in our court system. Anybody can walk into a courtroom on Elgin Street or into the Supreme Court of Canada or the Federal Court and observe. Increasing transparency and accessibility should result in better decisions, as was already mentioned.
Appellants must know the reasons for the decisions. They must know how to prepare their cases, what documents are required, and how others are treated in similar situations.
We've heard a little bit about this next point already. We've been pushing VRAB to publish its decisions on its website, and there are some very good reasons that it doesn't want to. VRAB has published 19 decisions on its website this year, because they say that the cost of publishing decisions would be $2 million to $3 million.
Okay. There is an alternative called the Canadian Legal Information Institute, which is funded by the law societies across Canada. They publish legal decisions on their website for free, or my favourite word en français, gratuit. To date, CanLII, for free, has published 189 VRAB decisions on their website.
Therefore any concerns that VRAB has about the cost of publishing decisions are mitigated by the fact that there are some law societies across Canada, CanLII, who are willing to publish all of them—all of them—for free. What a sweet deal. For any of you who are in business, if somebody came to you and offered to do something for you for free to enhance the nature or quality of your business, would you say no?
Our opinion is this: your job is very easy here. Monsieur Guy Parent, the Veterans Ombudsman, has done the work. He's made seven recommendations and conducted an in-depth study of appeals to the Federal Court. All you have to do is say, “Monsieur Parent, thank you very much for all the work you've done on behalf of veterans” and accept his recommendations.
In closing, I'd like to ask a few rhetorical questions.
In 1998, almost 15 years ago, the Auditor General of Canada brought to the attention of the Government of Canada systemic problems at Veterans Affairs. Since then there have been ombudsmans' reports, stakeholder meetings, Veterans Affairs committee meetings, a veterans bill of rights, a new Veterans Charter, and numerous lawsuits, and appeals started by veterans who were denied rights and benefits entitled to them by law.
Why do you need to invite representatives from veterans organizations to your committee meetings to tell you what you already know? Why do you need to invite bureaucrats from the department to fly here from Charlottetown, at taxpayers' expense, to tell you there are problems that you already know about? Why do you need to invite VRAB management to come to Ottawa, when they know what needs to be done but cannot provide you with the information or statistics to prove they are solving problems when you asked them two weeks ago today? Why do individuals such as the Veterans Ombudsman and veterans groups such as ours, who are continually sending email messages and letters and making phone calls to VRAB, need to bring to their attention, and now to yours, systemic problems that everyone is aware of? Why do veterans need to engage in long—years' long—expensive, protracted lawsuits against the Government of Canada to obtain financial awards and benefits to which they are entitled by law? Why, why, why do we need to push and pressure civil servants, who are supposedly working for Canadians and who know their job descriptions and what is going on in their department or tribunal, who are paid to do the right thing—why do we need to tell them? Why is it so hard to do the right thing for veterans and their families?
We are all here, I hope, to serve the best interests of veterans, people who have made significant contributions to Canada and Canadians. Our response should not be to engage in administrative appeals and litigation that involves winning or losing. This is not about winning or losing. Our response should be supporting veterans—all of them, all of the time.
Sometimes I tell people that for many veterans the real war starts when they return to Canada and have to fight their government for disability benefits they are legally entitled to receive. Serving Canada by fighting enemy forces and insurgents overseas in the defence of the freedoms and values we cherish is honourable; coming home and being forced by your government to fight Canadian government lawyers is disgraceful.
In conclusion, we want to know why. You should be asking the same questions: Why has VRAB not been implementing all of the Veterans Ombudsman's recommendations? What does it take for Canadians working at Veterans Affairs Canada and VRAB to get things done and do things for veterans every day?
During an era of federal budget cuts that negatively affect veterans, why is it necessary to force veterans into a position in which they must hire expensive lawyers at the appellate level to fight their government for services and benefits that they are legally entitled to receive?
We are all sitting here around this table, shoulder to shoulder, as Canadians who care about our country and about how veterans are treated. Let’s all work together to ensure that the legal obligations to deliver services and benefits to veterans become a reality.
Thank you.
Guy Parent
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Guy Parent
2012-03-08 17:00
That's a good question, Mr. Chair.
On that particular issue, in every meeting with the minister it's certainly a subject that we talk about. We have been told they were working on it. Again, this is easily understandable, at this point in time, for the financial aspect of this program.
However, as I said before, some recommendations of the report have nothing to do with finance. They have to do with the administration of the benefit. For instance, people have to go to a coupon-cutting exercise. There are only so many dollars for flowers, so many dollars for caskets, so many dollars for the minister or the priest. People who are mourning at that point in time shouldn't be subjected to that aspect of it.
The approach from DND is that all of that is submitted as one, and then they pay for a certain amount and that's it. That was one of the things.
One of the recommendations had to do with recognizing the impact of cumulative or numerous injuries on the body over a period of 40 to 50 years. It would be certainly fair to recognize that as the cause of death, rather than to be specific on what actual injury caused death.
We're more disappointed with the inaction on those recommendations than the ones that have to do with the financial aspect. But we'll keep working with the minister to try to get some movement on that, and hopefully this committee will as well.
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