May 11, 2005-Senate Standing Committee on National Finance-Veterans Legislation (Bill C-45 aka The New Veterans Charter)

For complete testimony, questions and answers, please click here.

Captain (retired) Sean Bruyea, as an individual:

Thank you, Mr. Chair. Louise Richard and I are both Gulf War veterans. I would like to introduce my wife. She will not be speaking but is here to support me. Those with operational stress injuries often need support. My wife is from Mexico, and we often spend time there because that helps my symptoms.

In their haste to be seen as pro-veteran in this Year of the Veteran, all political parties are falling over themselves to passBill C-45 at all stages. What strikes many veterans as odd, and even unbelievable, is that in the rush to honour veterans, our political parties have forgotten that the core issue for which a veteran in all wars fought was responsible democracy.

In our system, responsible democracy requires consideration of government bills by committees, and input by witnesses and stakeholders, as well as the often-mentioned sober second thought of the Senate.

We all know that the government wants to be seen as honouring veterans, but that does not necessarily mean that their veterans charter is free of errors. In fact, given that the veterans’ contribution to society is defined in many ways as timeless, one must ask, why is there such a rush to force something through in only two days after Veterans Affairs Canada has been dragging its heels for more than 15 years? We believe disabled veterans and the CF would rather have it right than have a flawed and unjust charter right now.

With the understanding that a new veterans charter truly serves those that society says it so highly honours, disabled veterans deserve a well thought-out program. For this reason, consultation and feedback are truly important. In the minister’s press release she states:

   “…there is a strong consensus among political parties and veterans’ organizations for progressive legislation to give practical meaning to long overdue service and program reforms for those who served in Canada’s Armed Forces.”

We could not agree more. There is indeed a strong consensus for the need to act. Nonetheless, as we understand, a select group of six veterans’ organizations were provided with advance copies of the charter on a confidential basis and forbidden from sharing the information with anyone, including their membership. Thus the so-called consensus of veterans’ organizations could be based on the view of as few as six people who actually saw the draft of the charter. In fact, veterans’ organizations and opposition political parties based their support on a four-page press release. However, Bill C-45, as the chairman correctly point out, is a 50-page piece of legislation.

There is broad support for the principle of a veterans charter. However, most MPs, senators and their staff have not had time to read Bill C-45 in its entirety. For that reason, to say that there is a strong consensus among political parties and veterans’ organizations for Bill C-45 would be more than a slight exaggeration. The truth is that there has been remarkably little consultation and actual feedback on the legislation, and the government appears to be more interested in public perceptions than in lasting results.

Of concern is the nature of those consultations that were conducted. Many of these consultations were with groups that represent principally veterans of World War II. While it is fitting and proper to include them, as this is the sixtieth anniversary of their greatest victories and greatest sacrifices, the needs of the World War II veteran, as many have pointed out, and the needs of soldiers who have served in more recent conflicts can be very different.

Indeed, the veterans charter will not apply to World War II veterans. They are covered by a host of other regulations and act. Some are still effective and others have been suspended, such as the War Veterans Allowance Act, the Veterans’ Land Actand the Pensioners Training Regulations. Since the new CF charter applies to future veterans, it would have made sense to focus on consultations with disabled veterans and serving members in the most recent conflicts, such as Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Gulf War, to meet the emerging needs of veterans serving in today’s, not yesterday’s, military. Most witnesses in favour of Bill C-45 represent yesterday’s military.

Unbelievably, no real consultation and feedback actually happened. That is right; in designing her charter, the Minister of Veterans Affairs did not engage in meaningful consultation and feedback with disabled veterans of the recent conflicts, or serving members who are also disabled. This is a fatal flaw in the design of her charter. However, perhaps the biggest flaw is the actual legislation. Bill C-45 is different in spirit from the publicly released document to Parliament and the public. Consider the supportive language of the veterans charter:

“If CF members are injured or become ill in service to Canada, they deserve the best health care possible….Canadians expect that CF veterans and their families will be appropriately compensated for the economic and non-economic impacts of disability arising out of their service.”

These are examples of comforting, reassuring language; in fact, the kind of language upon which the so-called strong consensus among political parties and veterans’ organizations is based. However, the language of Bill C-45 is not quite as comforting. You might consider it as the fine print of an insurance contract, and like fine print, it is full of limitations and restrictions. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Clause 9(2) for example, lets the minister refuse to consider an application that is made more than 120 days after the veteran’s release. For many veterans, this could completely block coverage. For operational stress injuries such as PTSD and depression, symptoms often do not show up for five or even 10 years, and it takes six months or more to garner a firm diagnosis. A 120-day limit on filing a claim puts the disabled veteran in a difficult bind. First, he has to justify an exception to the 120-day filing limit, and then he has to prove that his injury is related to service. Many disabled veterans will give up. Instead of making things easier, Bill C-45 makes them harder.

Worthy of careful scrutiny is that access to all benefits, including those for the family, are tied to following aVAC- prescribed vocational rehab program, even though the veteran could be so disabled as to be otherwise unemployable. A veteran must be assessed as “totally and permanently disabled” to opt out of vocational rehab.

When we presented this portion of the legislation to numerous medical doctors and practitioners, their unanimous response was that even unemployable disabled veterans would be unlikely to receive such a restrictive prognosis. Disabled and otherwise unemployable veterans will likely be forced to work or risk losing even the most basic income supplements under the legislation. We believe that Canadians will come to view the new legislation with the term, CF workfare.

Bill C-45 creates different and distinct classes of veterans: one for those who served in the Canadian military on or before April 1, 1947; a second for those who served in Korea; a third for those who served from World War II to present; and a fourth for those who are covered by new legislation.

Canadians are always told that veterans fought for democracy and there can be nothing more fundamental to democracy than equality. Creating multiple classes of people who were proud to serve in the Canadian Forces is not the type of equality that Canadians treasure and that Canadians have died for.

The legislation calls for a one-time lump-sum payment of $250,000. Most disabled veterans will likely receive only a fraction of that amount. Nevertheless, one must question the wisdom of giving lump-sum payments to sufferers of operational stress injuries, while many are in the depths of depression and crisis. Presently, veterans enjoy a lifelong yet modest disability pension. The lump-sum payment is equivalent to no more than seven to 10 years of disability pension. Most disabled veterans live for 20, 30 or even 40 years after release.

Such appropriate compensation, as the minister terms it, appears to dodge responsibility for caring for the disabled veteran rather than accepting responsibility for what are lifelong disabilities. If people are not convinced about the lump sum, then I suggest the Senate recommend that they make an amendment so that veterans can make a choice between lump sum and pension.

Finally, I would like to comment on what is not in the charter or in Bill C-45. For many years now, veterans have been calling for dedicated hospital beds for incapacitated veterans. Various groups and parties have called for the creation of an ombudsman for disabled veterans, similar to what CF members now enjoy. The outgoing ombudsman for the Department of National Defence, André Marin, agrees with this philosophy, arguing that it is curious that the healthy, employable, serving member has an ombudsman while injured, retired and disabled soldiers do not.

Curiously, a confidential Senate analysis, written by one of the few Canadians who actually read Bill C-45 in its entirety, states:

“While the legislation will provide veterans with much-needed job assistance, it does not provide them with an ombudsman.”

One often forgotten factor in all this political wrestling is the Department of Veterans Affairs employee who is already at the breaking point, managing a number of different programs and three different classes of veterans. One must wonder about employees’ ability to deliver quality and timely service with the addition of again, another class of veteran, six more programs and legislation which allows the department to intrude upon the veteran and his or her family in the most private matters at all stages of rehabilitation, medical treatment, job placement and financial security.

How is this treating the disabled veteran with dignity and independence? The year 2005 is the Year of the Veteran, and we have correctly spent this last week honouring the sacrifice and victories of World War II veterans. For us and for Canadians, they are all heroes. I would also like to show that beside me and in the audience are disabled veterans and heroes of modern combat, from Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the Gulf War. These veterans and their families are heroes for more than their service and sacrifice.

Our mere action of defending the interests of modern veterans in the past has resulted in threatening letters and phone calls from the Department of Veterans Affairs. This compounds a general unwillingness of disabled veterans to speak openly about their own problems as well as preventing whistle-blowing on systemic problems within the complex and difficult-to-reach department. The bullying atmosphere has silenced many, if not the majority of, disabled veterans. In fact, we understand that the entire publicity campaign around the forcing through of the veterans charter has seen bullying at all levels. Members of veterans’ organizations and government who have not read the legislation, or have not had time to, bullied the opposition with threats of turning veterans against anyone who opposes the bill. We thought we left bullying behind in the school playgrounds of the past. We thought we had the right to free speech in Canada. That is why we were willing to sacrifice our lives.

In this, the year of the veteran, if Canadians are truly interested in promoting veterans’ welfare, we must look beyond the publicity around the veterans charter. We have to read the underlying legislation while demanding the kind of changes that will recognize the dignity of all Canada’s veterans regardless of when they served or whether they choose to belong to a veterans’ organization or not. What is the rush to pass this bill so quickly? If there truly is widespread support from all Canadians and sympathy for the plight of the veteran, especially the disabled one, a bill would pass any time of year and under any government.
Thank you